(This article is a postscript to Niall’s article ‘Corbyn’s angry young stormtroopers are forged in heartless nurseries’ which was originally published on 14th June and generated lots of reaction)
Gosh, childcare is controversial. Last week, I portrayed the phenomenon of Generation N, meaning the millennials exposed in early childhood to the great nursery experiment. Whether children of middle-class parents attending Busy Bees from dawn to dusk, or poorer offspring at Sure Start centres, the institutionalisation of childcare has been firmly established since the dawn of New Labour. No looking back now, as political parties compete to offer the most free childcare. Yet all this carting off the kids to nursery, aided and abetted by government policy, may be harmful.
Here, I would like to respond to some comments on my article. One criticism was a lack of evidence backing my argument. John Bowlby’s attachment theory resulted from his careful observations on institutional childcare, and his concerns are supported by numerous studies.
A reliable measurement of stress is cortisol. This hormone plays a major role in regulating daily rhythms of alertness. A systematic review by Vermeer and van Ijzendoorn (2006) showed that cortisol secretions had a normal daily rhythm in children at home, but spiked throughout the day in the same children during nursery attendance. A study by Bernard and colleagues (2014) covered the period from children being at home until 10 weeks after starting daycare: cortisol increases in nursery persisted, so stress is not simply caused by a strange environment.
Cortisol levels do not appear to increase in older children. But for children aged up to 3 years, maternal deprivation may cause lasting damage, with indications of vulnerability to stress-related illness (possibly contributing to the rise in teenage mental health problems). Further research is needed, with longer-term cohort studies to compare types of childcare.
Some readers asked why I had forgotten fathers. While Bowlby valued maternal care as the primary relationship, he did not rule out another person performing this role. He certainly valued fathers, also emphasising the benefits of a supportive family / social network. The key point is that the young child needs a single person continually devoted to his / her care.
Others thought my political point overstretched the argument. I’m not suggesting that nurseries have a deterministic influence on voting in adulthood. But Generation N is extremely politically skewed, and I aver that the prevailing faith in ‘nanny state’ socialism must have some common factors. Early childhood stress in nursery, immersion in online social media in adolescence, and fears for the future in a financially challenging, globalised society are a toxic combination.
I don’t blame individual parents for the decisions they make. These are problems that need addressing at societal level. Reforms that promote the family should be part of the answer.