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