A new report commissioned by lobby group Family First is calling for New Zealand to undergo a "timely and long overdue re-evaluation of motherhood" and a change in the way parents use early childhood education.
The report written by UK psychologist Dr Aric Sigman for Family First says that attending early childhood education for an extended time can cause young children significant stress and have long-term consequences for their mental and physical health.
In the report entitled WHO CARES? Mothers, Daycare and Child Wellbeing in New Zealand, Dr Sigman says that "there is growing evidence of profound beneficial neurobiological effects a mother’s physical presence has on her young child that cannot be achieved by anyone else including paid childcare workers".
He says the quantity of care is the fundamental issue and quality of care should not be used to avoid this in debate.
Children should be put at the heart of discussions about childcare rather than focusing on what is best for adults or the economy, Dr Sigman says.
The report says full-time parenting should be seen as a child’s right and that full-time mothers should be recognised and valued. It makes a number of recommendations including an extension of paid parental leave and a re-evaluation of government policies which invest in professionals to be paid to care for children but does not make extra provisions available for parents who make the decision to stay at home with their children.
Family First national director Bob McCroskie welcomed the report saying it provides "compelling evidence that the political and policy focus has been on the needs of the economy and the demands on mothers, rather than on the welfare of children and the vital role of parents".
In New Zealand, it is not usual practice for government and its officials to check new ECE policy and funding proposals against what would be in the best interests of the child.
The Family First report once again raises the issue of whether parents should feel guilty about sending their children to an ECE service particularly for long periods of time as Dr Sigman argues that it is the quantity not the quality of childcare which matters. There is perhaps some evidence to support this. What needs to be remembered though is when talking about very young children it's important to look at children's interests in the context of the family as a whole.
A major UK study has shown that children attending ECE for as few as 12 and a half hours a week gain a similar level of benefit to children who attended for more hours.
In other research it has been shown that the risk of adverse effects even when the standard of care was high started to appear from attending for around 30 hours or more a week. A large and methodologically robust study in America showed that even with controls for other factors such as type of care and the quality of the centre, an increase in the time spent in ECE consistently predicted higher levels of behaviour problems such as defiance and aggression. However it can be difficult to draw generalised conclusions as every child is different and will respond to ECE differently.
More debate in New Zealand recently has centred on the care of under-2s, particularly babies.
In 2011 the Children’s Commission released a report which said "in an ideal world for infants in their first 12 months of life, good care at home with a parent and/or care with extended family members is optimal". However the report also said that "formal non-parental education and care is not inimical to the interests of infants and toddlers provided it is of good quality and risks are well managed".
Many have also argued, like Dr Sigman that paid parental leave should be extended to allow parents to stay at home with their children for longer. Extension to paid parental leave was highlighted by several parties in their election policies but National has indicated it may be unlikely to extend the scheme during its term in government.
Questions to consider:
- Is it too simple a conclusion to say that longer hours in ECE is bad for children? Can quality be a mitigating factor and does the optimal amount of childcare vary from child to child?
- Should working parents feel guilty for using ECE as long as their child is happy and settled?
- Would an extension of paid parental leave solve all the problems?
- Should full-time parenting be a child’s right?
Criticism of Dr Sigman's views is reported in the Dominion Post newspaper, Wellington NZ, today. "However, the study, by Dr Aric Sigman, hit the headlines last year in Britain, where it was questioned by experts. Dr Sigman is also behind a 2009 claim that Facebook and other social networking sites cause cancer. He was accused of "cherry-picking" evidence and ignoring that which did not support this theory. Writing in The Guardian last year, Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at Oxford, disputed his claims and questioned his credentials. "Sigman ignores or selectively reports evidence for this more nuanced position," she wrote. "He justifies his one-sided approach to the evidence on the basis that "while open-mindedness has its place in academia, it is a luxury children can't afford".