How governmental childcare policies are undermining our children’s capacity to love

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Its a strong title:  ‘How childcare policies are undermining our children’s capacity to love’.  Its likely to put fear into the heart of every parent who reads it.  That’s the last thing I want to do.

Yet how do I communicate what the science is telling us?  What words are most effective for me to use?  How do I get the attention of the government and policymakers, so that they understand that the implementation of recent policies are doing that scary thing:  undermining the ability of many of our children to trust love?

Loving takes resilience. That’s one way to describe the key message of attachment theory. To love fully as an adult, you not only have to be open and vulnerable – you have to do that in the knowledge that you could lose the person you love. They might die; they might get mad at you and storm out; they might break up with you; they might disappear and you would never see them again. Our mind hates even the idea of that loss. It makes us feel sick and panicky and hopeless. In fact, some people hate the idea of loss so much that they give up on loving fully. It’s just too scary to risk that sick, apprehensive feeling. That’s why the blogger Ann calls pain the “underbelly of love”.

0271ATTENTIONAttachment theory helps us to see that what we are aiming to do in the earliest years of life is build up children’s resilience. We are trying to pack their brains chock full of the neural pathways of hope and reassurance and trust. We are trying to grow physiological triggers that will allow feel-good hormones to flood in when the going gets tricky. And it will get tricky. That’s inevitable. To be an adult human being is to know loss.

Resilience is a kind of emotional muscle. It is the capacity to get back up when loss has knocked hope out of you. It is the capacity to crawl out from underneath the duvet, when you’d rather stay where it is warm and dark and safe. When you’d rather stay there forever.

Its true, loss and disappointment and hurt won’t kill you. You can survive from underneath the emotional duvet. But you cannot THRIVE from underneath the emotional duvet.

E4DCF234-546D-4B47-9C10-E9847B37CA95If we help children to have experiences of safety early on, then we build the strongest emotional muscles possible. Conversely, when we give them experiences of deep loss early on, we weaken those budding emotional muscles. That’s another way of describing ‘insecure attachment’: people who have had their resilience compromised early on. Loving openly and trustingly is harder for insecurely attached people. Loving requires more energy from them, carries more risk. They stay under the emotional duvet for longer when knocks come along. Some never really manage to come out from underneath it at all; its too scary. The best they can manage is dreaming of being loved.

The stories I am hearing lead me to fear that our latest governmental childcare policies are undermining young children’s resilience in ways that are totally unnecessary – and unintended. The financial streams that have been set up are causing parents to move their children to new childcare providers, and thus to break the existing relationships in children’s lives. All we would need is some different governmental financial streaming, and those heartbreaks would not be necessary.

Let me share one story that illustrates my concern:

Last week, I had a conversation with a childminder whom I hadn’t seen in a bit. When I asked her how things were going, she replied, “I’m about to be out of business.” “What?” I replied, in total surprise. She explained: “I’ve lost all my children. It’s the increased government funding here in my local authority in Scotland. Its only being applied to nurseries. The funding doesn’t cover childminders. All my parents got places in nurseries, so the children are leaving. Even the youngest ones, who are only two years old. And there’s no new ones coming in to replace them, for the same reason.”

0094aSTEPSWhat a wrench for the kids. I recalled the stories I had heard this childminder tell, of outings to dance classes in the local gym, of looking for bugs in the back garden, of making sandwiches together. Her eyes always danced with delight. The children would be losing that joy. That would be replaced by a sense of loss, for some time to come. That permanent parting would leave a scar in their budding emotional muscles. In fact, if those children, who had experienced such shared joy as bugs and sandwiches on a daily basis, never see her again, then effectively the funding policy will have created for them a bereavement.

That’s a strong term: bereavement. We don’t usually apply it to professional childcare arrangements. Yet it is accurate, from a child’s point of view. If a childcare provider has been working in a way that promotes secure attachment, as practice guidance encourages, then the child will naturally have come to love that provider. That’s what’s supposed to happen for children, when they spend all day long with someone they feel safe with and have fun with. They are supposed to come to love them.

That’s another word we don’t typically use in relation to childcare: love. We don’t use it because it makes many adults feel uncertain, threatened, confused. Love is something that happens in personal relationships, and childcare in Western societies is usually a professional one. What is the place of love there? Parents easily end up worried: ‘If my child loves the childcare provider, and she spends more hours in the day at childcare than with me, then might my child love that person more than me?”

If that last question sounds a bit extreme to you, start talking to parents. Tons of them carry that secret fear. I know; some of them whisper that fear to me, asking for reassurance that their child will still love them even if it is someone else giving them cuddles during the day, someone else’s perfume on their child’s jumper, someone else sharing their child’s first steps. It is understandable that parents would feel anxious. That is why, when researcher Jools Page has tried to tackle this difficult topic, she devised the term professional love’, in order to explicitly separate this from ‘parental love’.

We need some strategy that enables us to look at this stuff. When we adults are scared, it blocks us from being able to see our children’s fears. The worries about terms like ‘love’ and ‘bereavement’, which I’ve been using here, come from an adult perspective. From a child’s perspective, loving, and thus loss, and thus bereavement, make perfect sense in relation to childcare.

Young children don’t think of the people with whom they spend their day as ‘professionals’. Children’s brains are wired for relationships. Their brains assume that the adults are in that setting because they want to be, that they are there for the fun of it, that they are there out of love for the children. Children intuitively think of staff as ‘Auntie Emma’ or ‘Uncle Mark’. Even if that terminology isn’t allowed in a setting, and the custom is stick to more informal names like ‘Janet’ or formal labels like ‘Mrs Cousins’, young children’s brains still function at the personal level. That is inevitable. That is how young human brains are wired: for relationships, for love.

So when children have to be parted from people with whom they have bonded, it hurts. Its painful. It’s supposed to be painful when you have to say goodbye forever to someone you love. Even if you can’t conceive of ‘forever’, your brain quickly realizes you are missing the sound of their voice, and how they smell, and the feel of their cuddle, and the way they smile as they hand over a plate of cheese and biscuits. As an adult, we’d call that heartbreak. The same parts of our brains are engaged when we are in emotional pain, like heartbreak, as when we are in physical pain.

When we ask a 3-year-old to cope with heartbreak, we ask more than their budding emotional muscles are really able to cope with. We create a rip, a tear, a wound that will leave a scar. That’s what studies like the ACE study are trying to tell us: that relationship traumas early in life leave lasting scars.

ACE Study Pyramid

I am guessing that, by this point, some readers will be thinking: ‘Are you serious? The ACE study doesn’t talk about nursery provision. It deals with serious stuff, like abuse and drugs use and divorce. You want me to think of changing childcare provision as a possible trauma?? But that’s ordinary. Kids do it all the time.’

Precisely. That’s my point. We adults often move children across daycare providers fairly casually. We do that for a host of reasons that are legitimate and important: because we changed jobs, because a new setting opened up closer to our home, because the government made funding available that would help our family budget.

It is easy to make that move without giving deep thought to the emotional impact on the child. We may sense there will be a bit of short-term confusion, but it may never occur there could possibly be any long-term impact. The common use of adult-centred language only strengthens our culturally blinkered perspective: ‘childcare arrangements’, ‘professional’, ‘transition’.

What happens when we try out the child-centred language of ‘love’, ‘heartbreak’, and ‘bereavement’? How does that simple shift impact on our awareness – and on our decisions about how to help our kids THRIVE?

I do not want to make any parents or childcare staff anxious. What I want is to compel us all to be more curious, more reflective, more aware. The trouble is that the depth of children’s emotions is often uncomfortable for us to fathom. It causes us all sorts of conflict:

I think of the young mum who wrote to me because she was thinking of foregoing the free childcare hours funded by the government. She wanted to leave her child with his existing provider, because she thought he was happy and settled there, but that provider couldn’t offer government subsidised places. This was causing arguments with her husband, who thought she was wasting money by being over-protective.

What I would like most of all is for local and national governments to ensure that, as parents are offered financial advice about childcare options, they are also offered emotional advice about attachment.  

Then more young marriages and young emotional muscles might be protected from this source of distress.

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I’d love to hear your own thoughts on childcare arrangements and emotional connection – whether you live in the UK or beyond.

9 thoughts on “How governmental childcare policies are undermining our children’s capacity to love

  1. Mary Maulsby

    Great point. Same over here in America. The system is not child friendly at all. It is business running the show, not needs of children. Policy makers have no clue about attachment or emotional muscles or heart. Hopefully some policy makers will read your post and hopefully be affected by it. Then they can make changes. Maybe even America will learn something! Thanks for bringing attention to this.
    Mary

    Reply
    1. Pauline Scott

      WOW, Suzanne. Gov must listen and make Attachment Theory/Brain Development training mandatory for key members of Gov, including Treasury, policymakers, all working within EY sector. When you discuss Attachment many people agree and nod as if they understand the theory and science but have never undertaken any training. People think its obvious,why do you need training in the obvious? Yet its far from obvious or so many wouldn’t ignore the impact secure attachments in the EY will have on attainment levels/successful relationships/resilience in later years. If those responsible for EY funding understood Attachment they would understand the investment could save millions down the road in costs for prisons, police, benefits and other services. Can we imagine financial decisions based on love and attachment? Yes, we do it every day!!!

      Reply
  2. Karen Flynn

    Great points!

    I am the Area Manager of a group of nine Early Learning and Childcare Centres and work in partnership with six Local Authorities. I witness first hand the decisions being made for children where funding is put before the child.
    I was recently advised about an authority wanting to move three children from their childcare centre where they were settled and happy and move them to another centre out with their community, all because their parents were late submitting their application for funding!! How wrong is this??

    Scottish Government need to get representatives down to grassroots level and talk to the people dealing with the issues on a day to day basis!!

    Reply
  3. Kim Reilly

    Great article. I also had the pleasure of attending a presentation you gave on attachment recently. The idea and importance of attachment and bonding seems to be something that most parents understand…..shame same cant be said for the local authorities who are trying to force parents to uproot their children and move them to a new setting because they have decided that’s where they should be. Apparently its “not about parental choice”. Well I think it is all about parental choice. After all who better than the parents to decide what setting suits their child best, be it private nursery, child-minder, playgroup! Hopefully the government and local authority will begin to understand this and not just pay lip service to it!

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  4. Fair Funding for Our Kids

    We couldn’t agree more. It is so sad to see well-intentioned policies so badly articulated and in ways that can be detrimental to children.

    The ‘free hours’ element of the Scottish early learning and childcare policy and the way it is being delivered in a number of local authorities actually works against government intentions to support children in their early years. On the one hand, the Scottish Government publishes national Early Years practice guidance (http://www.gov.scot/Resource/0045/00458455.pdf ) that stresses the importance of continuity of care and attachment, while on the other local authorities are telling parents they have to move their children away from the childcare provider they are settled and happy with in order to access their funded entitlement elsewhere.

    The argument used by some local authorities to justify capping places is that they need to ensure quality. Financially penalising families is not the way to do this.

    Scotland is not yet the #bestplacetogrowup as these stories from parents who have contacted us show:

    http://fairfundingforourkids.org/portfolio/your-stories/

    Reply
  5. Debbie Potter

    Interesting article by Suzanne Zeedyk. Having been a stay at home mum for 15 years i feel fortunate that I’ve been able to provide most of the childcare myself.
    I’m not anti-childcare and my children have been to nursery settings however I have always been of the opinion that the one thing a child misses out on in childcare is ‘love’.
    Some parents don’t have a choice and I’m not one to stand in judgement of others. It could also be argued that some children are possibly better cared for in childcare than they would be by their parents, so I’m certainly not saying that childcare is a bad thing.
    However the article mentions researcher Jools Page has tried to differentiate between ‘professional love’ and ‘parental love’. In my opinion there is no such thing as professional love. Yes the childcare staff ‘care for’ the children they are responsible for (in a functional manner), that is what they are paid to do. Most childcare staff probably also ‘care about’ the children they responsible for, as most people in a working environment develop working relationships with colleagues, co-workers, customers etc to the extent that they care about each other’s welfare. In my opinion ‘professional love’ doesn’t exist. Staff are being paid to look after / care for the needs of young children, not to love them. How could this be measured, whether or not they were ‘loving’ the children sufficiently? I believe that no-one can offer the same unconditional love for a child like the parents can.
    As far as the article goes, it would be really interesting to see a correlation study between divorce rates and the type/quality of care the participants received as children. This would substantiate the claim that lack of love in a child’s early years leads to lack of emotional resilience in adulthood. Perhaps such studies have already been done..

    Reply
  6. Donna Dawson

    It’s such a shame that all councils in Scotland aren’t following morays example and allowing childminders the chance to offer the 2 year old funded places . Although it’s taken a long time to put in place in moray it is available . My only gripe being the lack of advertising of the service . Do parents of 2 year olds actually know we can offer this service . What better place to put your 2 year old than in a small family orientated setting where they can grow and learn through lots of play and experiences

    Reply
  7. Loreen Pardoe

    I agree. We have to be curious and reflective – and vocal. In helping parents access childcare, we (govt. parents, providers) have to ensure it is child-centred as much as possible. This does not happen when children are separated again from those they have built great attachment to, being moved to new settings. I am acutely aware of how deep these situations can go, from my own practice in childcare & education, hospitals and long-term residential care in Special Needs sector – and with my own children (5 of them). Where families are using child care they need to be able to make choices that fit the needs of their child – not administrative tickboxes, or we risk young children suffering from loss and before they have the necessary tools in their toolkit to cope. Ty for your work Suzanne & team.

    Reply
  8. Andy Fraser

    Dear Suzanne. Thanks very much for another article which is getting me upset. My 3 grandkids are all nursery age now. I totally agree that the seeds of misery and dysfunction are being sown under our noses by the childcare policies you describe – and it makes me mad. Now I know that politicians have a tough job of balancing the various competing pressures they face. But surely what we need is some people of conviction who are properly obsessed with the needs of young children and who will be a voice both to governments (UK and Scottish) and to parents on these issues. I would like to put time, energy and money towards that cause. You mention a couple of groups who are working to see change. Are these the best voices we have currently on these issues ? Is ANY political party listening to you and similarly enlightened academics ? Please let me know. Thank you for all your work to bring these issues to light.

    Reply

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