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Why nursery schools are bad for little boys PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Sue Palmer   

Nurseries are rearing ‘sadder, more stressed and aggressive children’. Sue Palmer says boys need more personal attention

It is one of life’s little ironies that, just as neuroscience has confirmed the huge importance of attachment in early learning, the people who once selflessly took on the role of faithful assistants to each generation are no longer available to do the job. Women, released from their traditional roles as helpmates and home-makers, have now left home in their millions to join men in the workplace.

It’s not been easy for them. Many have found themselves dreadfully torn between the competing demands of work and childcare — even Madonna once got quite tearful about it in a television interview. On the one hand, there’s the huge cultural pull of economic freedom and self-realisation, the ultimate prize of success and status in a man’s world after millennia of unsung martyrdom. On the other, there’s the deep biological urge to nurture one’s offspring.

Now that, after several decades of equal opportunities, some of the shine has gone off the world of work, a majority of women surveyed on the subject say they’d prefer the childcare option. But work, as often as not, still wins the day. The British economy has now adjusted to women’s independence and the cost of living has gone up to take account of their earnings. Taking several years off the career ladder and/or losing several years’ pay is a luxury many mothers no longer feel they can afford. In the space of a couple of decades, a huge daycare industry has grown up to fill the childcare gap. And much of that industry consists of institutional care.

There is a world of difference between personal loving attention in a familiar domestic environment and the sort of care that can be provided by a day nursery for children under 3. Unless staff ratios are extremely high, there’s little chance of much one-on-one attention and no one is likely to be as attuned to a particular infant’s wavelength as his or her own dedicated carer.

What’s more, in the UK where many private nurseries are run on a shoestring, staff are often low-paid and poorly qualified, and there may be a worryingly high turnover. To ensure a baseline of “good practice”, the Government has introduced a legal framework of accountability procedures, which means that nursery workers are kept busy with bureaucracy and box-ticking. This eats into the time available for personal interaction with the children and lowers morale, leading to more staff absences and problems with turnover.

Official reports have repeatedly assured parents that nursery care doesn’t damage children’s chances of success at school — in the case of children from poorer backgrounds, it may even improve school performance, at least in the short term. But scores on school tests are not the only measure of wellbeing in early childhood. Indeed, focusing on the academic at this stage seems rather to miss the point: long-term academic success, like long-term emotional resilience and social competence, is rooted in a young child’s sense that he is loved and secure. There has so far been little research into the emotional effects of institutionalised early care, but what there is gives cause for concern.

Government researchers have noticed a “small but significant difference in a large group of children” for whom daycare led to “withdrawn, compliant or sad” behaviour or to higher levels of aggression. This suggests that the children concerned are under stress and recent projects measuring levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) in their brains during and after the nursery day confirm this. Even in some children who are quietly well behaved and causing no concern to staff, hormone levels indicate more stress than a small human brain should have to cope with, and these levels remain high even after the child has gone home. Children whose brains have been marinated in cortisol at an impressionable age are at a higher risk of emotional and social problems as the years go by.

More and more authorities on early childcare are now speaking out on the subject. The internationally respected psychologist Steve Biddulph, whose book Raising Boys has been a vade mecum for parents and teachers for more than a decade, recently published Raising Babies: Should Under 3s go to Nursery? In it he warns parents and politicians that we’re in danger of rearing “a colder, sadder, more stressed and aggressive generation of children” and that “quality nursery care for young children doesn’t exist. It is a fantasy of the glossy magazines.”

To provide the best start in life for a boy, his parents have to provide the personal care he needs in a way that fits with a 21st-century lifestyle. They may be able to juggle their lives to look after him themselves, by job-sharing or working from home, or by one taking time away from work for domestic duties. Or they might find someone else to become an extra “attachment figure— perhaps another family member, a trusted childminder, or a work colleague who’d like to share both job and child-rearing responsibilities. Once it’s established that the best sort of care is personal, there are a wide range of possible solutions.

But adults need person-to-person contact too, and everyone caring for a small child needs a support system, to avoid mental meltdown. We take great pains in our systemised society to prepare women for the physical aspects of pregnancy and childbirth, but very few to help with their social and emotional needs after the birth.

In a 21st-century world, this social face of child-rearing has practically disappeared. For both men and women, social life has gravitated over the past 30 years away from the domestic sphere to the workplace, reflecting women’s move into men’s traditional domain. It’s also become increasingly competitive, with everyone very aware of how others might judge them (is my house spotless enough? Am I a sufficiently yummy mummy?).

It’s becoming clear that in order to reinstate traditional feminine strengths (whether demonstrated by men or women), we have to develop a more collaborative, less judgmental social life around the raising of children. In 2007, the National Childbirth Trust, which had previously concentrated mainly on preparing mothers and fathers for childbirth, extended its scope to include supporting parents, and helping them to support each other, in the months and years after the birth. It would be relatively easy for locally based organisations — children’s centres, maternity units, local health centres and so on — to put prospective and new parents in touch with each other to create social support groups.

This would have advantages not only for adults but also for their offspring. Although boys don’t usually show an interest in playing with other children until into their third year, they benefit from social mixing right from the start. It builds up immunity to childhood illnesses, gives a stimulus for new activities, and provides their scientific inquiring minds with more data on the human condition, including the very difficult concept of “sharing”, which takes most boys a long time to acquire. In the days of large families and close communities, this happened naturally. And in the long run the male of the species may learn as much about empathy from each other as from their adult caring community.

In a world in which new parents often live some distance from their own family, it should also be possible to put them in touch with experienced older mothers and fathers, who could offer informal advice, reassurance and — perhaps — occasional babysitting.

Child-rearing wisdom has traditionally been handed down through the female line, and cross-generational contacts between both genders are desperately needed in the 21st century. In a fragmented modern world, it’s difficult for young parents to make informal, non-professional contacts with other mothers and surrogate grandparents — but it shouldn’t be beyond the combined power of the web and local children’s services to match people of similar profiles who’d have a good chance of hitting it off and forging long-term relationships.

One thousand days. That’s roughly how long it takes for a newborn baby, muling and puking in his mother’s arms, to be miraculously transformed into a walking, talking little boy, bursting to break out of domesticity and into the wider world. If all’s gone well in those thousand days, he’ll have moved far beyond his native Stone Age heritage.

He’ll have a growing understanding not only of the natural world and the fundamentals of human nature but also of his own technological age, and he’ll have more than 500 words to help him to learn more and tell excitedly about his findings. But it depends — particularly in the first 18 months — on personal care. In a society obsessed with systemised solutions, we’ve forgotten the significance of love in raising happy, balanced children. It’s led us to accept practices which — in a healthy, wealthy society, after more than 50 years of peace and prosperity — are frankly shameful.

I spotted an example recently when, walking my dog in the local park, I overtook three young nursery workers who were chatting animatedly among themselves. Each of them, like me, held a leather lead, but while I had just one dog on the end of mine, their leads divided into three strands, each attached to the waist of a tiny child. The tethered toddlers were safe, of course, and were getting some necessary exercise. But, as they milled about, bumping into each other, they were learning nothing but bewilderment and confusion. Their parents were presumably out at work, earning the nursery fees that entitled their offspring to less personal attention than my family dog.

Something is seriously wrong with a society that accepts this as inevitable. As one harassed mother recently told a nursery worker as she handed over her toddler: “I don’t have time to bring up my son.”

If boys are to receive the high-quality personal attention they need at the start of their lives, we have to find 21stcentury ways of tipping the domestic balance away from systems and institutions and back to personal interaction and parental collaboration. Because without the love, learning and language that comes from personal care, boys are more likely than girls to grow “colder, sadder, more stressed and more aggressive” with every passing year.

 



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