Sonja Hood is right: it is a real struggle for many mothers to return to work. But if we’re to get serious about what we want from childcare, we need to ask for more than just places. We need to consider why we don’t get the quality of developmental support we want for our children, and to demand a more holistic response to the issues of work, family and balance.
In restricting the childcare debate to simplistic terms by arguing that more women could return to work if there were more childcare places, we do a great injustice to parents, children, and society as a whole. There will always be a need for good quality childcare. But in most cases we’re a long way off the quality we want for our children. And until we appreciate childcare as an integral part of early childhood development, we certainly won’t get it.
This is what Professor Peter MacDonald says in his contribution to the Inquiry into Balancing Work and Family, being held by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Human Services. His submission calls for Federal and State governments to “co-operate in the development of a new universal and free early childhood education system for all three and four-year-olds”. But, we need more than this.
Given our current understanding of early childhood development, the continued separation of childcare and kindergarten seems ridiculous. Both should combine to become early child development centres for all children under six. These centres would have a real connection to their communities, engage well paid, tertiary-qualified staff, and foster the responsibility of the whole community in raising children.
As long as the current childcare debate remains adult-centred, we are unlikely to reach this point. As it is, we regularly fail to engage with discussions about the structure of systems supporting the development of our children. Our society must foster greater respect for children, and in doing so, place greater responsibility for their development on us all. This is about creating debates which are child-centred, not just services.
In discussions about balance, we fail to prioritise the family. Instead we plough on, believing current structures just need some tinkering around the edges. This became evident early in the year, when a group of female Liberal MPs’ requests for childcare reform fell on deaf ears. And come Federal budget time, we’ll be expected to applaud funding allocated to increase the number of childcare places.
The current debate argues that more, better-quality childcare places would enable women to return to work, and contribute to economic growth. But is this really all parents want? Many parents tell me they hate leaving their child at childcare. They reluctantly use a service they are not completely satisfied with, and fear publicly articulating their feelings. It contradicts the dominant paradigm: parents want to be at work, and childcare places are what we need.
So why do we convince ourselves that on a Monday morning we’d rather be at work than playing in the park with our pre-schoolers? Many women want to return to work, because the fight for equality is still in full swing. And men continue to shy away from their fair share of parenting because they know there is little respect for parents in our modern world.
Here is the paradox: why is parenting given such low status in a society that insists the early years of our children’s lives are so important?
Many women feel returning to work is an issue of self-esteem - and they are right. Parenting holds little prestige or value in our society. When stay-at-home parents respond to questions of what they do, it is most often met with a short reply and little inquiry. Compared to high-status, high-income earning adults, parents who stay at home to raise children are left feeling unimportant and unvalued.
We need an overhaul of our perceptions of parenthood. If we valued parenting, both socially and economically, women would not have to fight so hard to return to work because men would be pushing to stay home too. Valuing parents is one of the greatest commitments we can make to children. Changing our ideas of parenting and childhood would deliver greater shared parenting arrangements where mum and dad share income generation and child-raising equally. It would help create early childhood services that were more about supporting children’s development, than looking after them while their parents worked.
The possibilities are endless for a society that values parenting more, takes a child-centred approach to work-family balance and stops its narrow thinking about childcare.
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