Every few years, studies circle through the media regarding one of the touchiest topics in the post-1968 world: the mass institutionalisation of young children and infants.
The recently published results of the decade-long Tennessee preschool study seemed to catch politicians and journalists yet again by surprise:
Data through sixth grade from state education records showed that the children randomly assigned to attend pre-K had lower state achievement test scores in third through sixth grades than control children, with the strongest negative effects in sixth grade.
A negative effect was also found for disciplinary infractions, attendance, and receipt of special education services, with null effects on retention.
Not only did any cognitive gains prove only temporary, not only did they score lower the more time passed, but these effects alarmingly appeared for socio-behavioural issues as well. As one of the authors of the Tennessee study openly states:
“This is still the only randomised controlled trial of a statewide pre-K, and I know that people get upset about this and don’t want it to be true.”
For over 50 years, our politicians, technocratic class, and media have promised the moon to families. Individuals who questioned institutionalising small children have been relegated to corners.
Despite decades of propaganda, a 2016 Gallup poll of over 300,000 women showed a marked preference for being at home during the early childhood years. It is remarkable this preference has been maintained even as extended family networks have hollowed out and the move of women into the marketplace has left most neighbourhoods ghostly during the daylight hours. Still, mothers persist in their desire to be with their young children.
Despite these studies and the articulated desires of mothers, the push for institutionalising young children grows louder. The current progressive agenda places universal early childhood care high on its list of demands, and this desire is promulgated by upper-class technocrats who will trade motherhood for a law office and maid rather than stocking shelves in an Amazon warehouse.
Outside the media and technocratic bubble, questions about the consequences of outsourced care remain. As a former nanny, social services assistant, and preschool teacher, I observed that even the highest quality care could elicit sustained traumatic responses.
I was the adult frequently sent to soothe children in the throes of separation anxiety, and I believe that what is celebrated as adjustment (“see, they’re fine!”) was more frequently a sign of the child learning the futility of crying out. The most entertaining preschool with a room full of friends and nearly every need met on cue could not erase a longing for home in the best circumstances.
In more troubling situations, the child would struggle to separate the roles of paid versus familial caregivers. Separation from the staff with whom they spent most of their time became as traumatic as separation from parents. Stressful transitions and confusion flooded the child’s body: as repeated studies have shown, the levels of the stress-hormone cortisol remain elevated for children in institutionalised care compared to children in a home setting.
So why do we keep doing it? Institutionalising children at ever-younger ages, for longer hours of the day is rooted in the desires of adults and businesses. From those desires comes a form of widespread wishful thinking, which has reinterpreted its understanding of child development in ways that satisfy the adults, such as the blank slate theory. This is most often found in the weary insistence that children are “resilient.”
But children are not blank slates and “resilience” is an inspiring-sounding word that can cover all manner of sins. A child is part of a web of meaning, a thread in a tapestry with a past and future. Their parents are not mere legal contract participants, but organic roots and branches in a child’s tree who imbue their child’s mind and heart with a sense of meaning and home. They are stewards for their children’s interests. They have a personal connection to the child that cannot be equaled by a paid bureaucrat.
Early institutionalised care separates families made vulnerable by economic woes to yet further strain via technocratic interventions. The problems faced by these families are swept into the background in favour of upper middle-class narratives of empowerment. In these scenarios, the mother’s happiness is almost blatantly pitted against the child. Communities in which the mother and child are supported rather than isolated have no place in these discussions.
Institutions bear a message deeper than their content, a message embedded in its very form. This is what Marshall McLuhan observed about modern media (“the medium is the message”). Institutionalisation of children has lessons embedded in its very nature that are as powerful as the saintliest preschool teacher:
“Nothing here belongs to you. You will not bring this place home with you at night, or when you grow up, or on special holidays. Strangers come and go. As much as any good child care provider may love you, her foremost task is managing the immediate safety of a large number of children. What is most important is that you learn to follow the rules and accept a massive fall-off in personal attention.”
For children, ages 3 to 4 are years of belonging and stories. The toddler has slowly, loudly, discovered he is a separate self. “ME” has come to an end and the child begins to place herself in a larger context. This story of participation in a group will, if done with reverence, provide the child a sense of security as the foundation for lasting adult confidence.
Yes, some children are beginning to form play bonds, and it is good to stretch relationships beyond the home. But the real lesson they’re absorbing at this age is who they are and what the world around them means for them. Children want to know who Mommy and Daddy and their grandparents are, where they come from, and how they fit in.
To take a child who is beginning to create context for her surroundings and personal relationships and place her into shuffling, bureaucratic relationships is an act of disorientation that cuts to the foundational sense of self.
When adults, politicians, journalists, or administrators then refuse to admit the inherent dangers of over-institutionalisation for their own reasons, children lose the opportunity to receive compensating support to help them find balance in a supportive constellation of meaning and identity.
Instead, children find themselves in an interchangeable unit alongside up to 25 other children. If they find an activity they like, they cannot take it with them. They become a permanent transient renter in the impersonal technocracy. Authority figures come and go, and their foremost concern is (because it must be) Order.
The child comes close to loving objects and adults but is always put back at arms-length. Indeed, flying in the face of traditional knowledge, in some places it is now forbidden to hug a child who only a year or two earlier was allowed to receive a reassuring pat on the back. But because there is no personal friendship, there can be no personal comfort. The technocracy cannot risk an outbreak of hugs.
There are genuine moments for institutional care. A few hours of preschool a few times a week is not equivalent to the 10 hour-a-day institutionalisation some infants experience as early as 6 weeks.
Some homes are dysfunctional and dangerous. Sometimes full-day child care is unavoidable, particularly for single parents. Each of these things may be true, but they should not foster a reluctance to recognise even the best institutionalisation carries its own intrinsic meanings, which can undermine a child’s healthy development if not counterbalanced. By recognising it as less than ideal, we can take steps to make sure children are not burying anxieties only to have them re-emerge down the road.
Life laughs at our attempts to eliminate risk. Chance will always have its say. The material luxury of modernity can fuel us to micromanage the perfect childhood into existence, creating its own heartaches and stress in the process. But a child’s need for simple embraces from people he or she has known since infancy endures.
The signal that our increasing institutionalisation of early childhood is leading to negative outcomes is an opportunity for us to re-examine our relationship with our children and ourselves. It invites us to create and support situations that allow for mutual thriving. And hugs.