It Takes a Village: Why Not Outsource Childcare?

The 100th Anniversary of International Women’s Day last week got me thinking about how glad I am not to be Betty Draper. Yet despite our advances, the promise of happier people – which of course includes happier families – has not borne out. The feminist movement has made great strides toward equality, but often at the expense of children, many of whom now grow up in an environment with no parents at home. We could debate at length why so many families feel the need to have two working parents (is it that corporations no longer pay a “family wage”? or have standards changed and now families believe they need more things, bigger houses, etc.?), but it would not alter the fact that most families have not substituted a father working all the time – and a mother at home – with two parents alternating working half the time. Throw in a divorce rate hovering around 50% in the Western world, and single parents who have no choice but to work long hours, and the result is millions of children with almost no parental direction for much of the time, let alone quality time with two parents.

One of the enduring themes of this blog is the increasing over-specialization of work, study, and entertainment, but I have yet to touch on the arena of parenthood. So allow me to play Jonathan Swift for a moment with my own modest proposal: outsourcing childcare to those who can do it efficiently and – most important – effectively.

Why not outsource parenting? We seem to have made most of the rest of our lives as efficient as possible. Instead of each of us owning farms that grow all our own food, we have created supermarkets and other supercentres that not only sell food, but everything from pharmaceuticals to care tires. Millions of office drones sit in cubicles doing the white-collar equivalent of screwing a bolt into a chassis over and over for eight or more hours a day, the epitome of over-specialized corporate work.

And childcare itself has changed from the days of one parent teaching her young how to get on in life. Public schools were established 1 000 years ago to teach Latin to poor children who could not afford private tutors. Today it is a legal requirement in most countries that children spend their weekdays in classrooms full of other children. (And most do: the latest statistics for homeschooled children that I could find put the number at only about 3% in the United States.) We have already outsourced the majority of education to professional teachers, from the fundamentals of literacy and numeracy to advanced calculus and classic literature.

At an even more basic level, many working parents outsource childcare to day cares, nannies or relatives. Crèches, the forerunner of modern day care, were established in France in the 1840s near factories so working women could drop their children off there during the day. Today they are everywhere. As the percentage of working women (in Canada) aged 25-54 rose from around 50% in the 1970s to over 80% today, there was an accompanying rise in the number of children in non-parental care.  In 2002, 54% of Canadian parents had someone else look after their children during the day, up from 42% in the mid-nineties. In the U.S., almost two-thirds of pre-schoolers are in non-parental child care.

So outsourcing our parenting – if I can be forgiven for using such a cold, economic term – is certainly palatable to the majority of parents, at least some of the time. And there is most definitely a broader need for it, though less quantifiable. I needn’t go into the many social ills connected with a lack of influence, or parental influence, attention, or role-modelling during childhood, as these are well known.

There are many bad parents out there, but while we are quick to want to get rid of other minders who are ineffective, like teachers or nannies, social and biological conventions dictate that it is a lengthy and difficult process to “fire” parents. Leaving children exposed on mountaintops or in the care of a nunnery (in which something like 80% of the unfortunates dropped off died anyway) has gone out of fashion in developed countries, except in certain safe havens like Nebraska, so instead they remain with bad parents, or in foster care, which for most is not the optimal solution. Even parents who love their children can make bad child-rearing decisions with the best of intentions.

But what if the default option for raising children, like public schooling, was communal (or private) care by qualified parent-like figures? The right to “home parenting” (like home schooling) could be awarded only to those who are qualified to practice it, with regular supervision by a central body. Consider: specialist “parents” rearing children in groups is hardly a radical idea. The old African proverb about a child needing more than one knee, or the much more famous one that serves as the title of this post, indicates that our modern way of raising children is little more than a hiccough in the trajectory of human history.

Most parents raise only a few children, but almost all say that it gets easier the more they have, as they build experience and knowledge. Specialized parent substitutes would have the benefit of raising perhaps tens of children, and, what’s more, they would love it, because it would their career of choice. Children would also have the benefit of a diversity of tried-and-true, centrally vetted and approved child care methods, culled from what has been proven to work well internationally and throughout history — call it a “best practice” approach to parenting. Just think of what costs could be reduced or eliminated in  a society with a higher proportion of well-adjusted children – everything from healthcare (therapy and counselling) to policing and incarceration costs.

Clearly, this is not likely to happen anytime soon, and I no doubt open myself up to charges of everything from heartless communism to wanting to run state finances into the ground by proposing elaborate centralized childcare schemes such as these. But consider: we wouldn’t trust spinal surgery to someone who has never done it before and who would spend half the time we’re in the operating theatre off in corporate meetings somewhere else or on his Blackberry. We wouldn’t want an unqualified engineer building a bridge we have to drive over, especially on almost zero sleep while laying the foundations.  Yet we allow complete amateurs to raise their own children armed with little more than evolved instinct and maybe a copy of Dr. Spock. Does that really make more sense?

4 Responses to It Takes a Village: Why Not Outsource Childcare?

  1. James says:

    I’d like to quote John “Jimmy” Duncan, Republican Representative of the 2nd District of Tennessee, who said “It seems rather elitist to me for people who maybe have degrees in this field to feel that they, because they’ve studied it, somehow know better than the parents.”

    Now, with that bit of absurdity up there, what do people with degrees in the field say? I just googled “social problems, parent to child” and found out that Lynne Namka, child psychologist, wrote an article about how “[harmful] coping patterns are passed down from parent to child resulting in generations of dysfunctional behavior.” We’ve all heard of cycles of abuse and those sorts of things, and the difficulties of problem children put into foster care after their formative years have already saddled them with learned problems. Why not start early?

    It would be highly beneficial for the state to have well-adjusted citizens rather than damaged ones. I’m curious about how the data on children from families with two working parents would compare to children from broken homes, as far as attachment theory goes. Anxiousness and avoidance could follow from either. Just depends if they have a stable figure in their lives.

    I think a problem arises when you consider what a “curriculum” of professional parenting would have to address. Schools can decide what to teach on academic subjects, but how does someone prepare to be a consistent attachment figure, and how do we determine that they’re good at it? Not an insurmountable problem, and I guess it’s better than not having anyone.

    I don’t know; I think the problem could be addressed more directly and less expensively through education reform. The system is still based on an agrarian culture — summer vacation to help with the harvest? — and kids are let out of school far too early. If the school day went from 9 to 6 and there wasn’t a summer vacation, it would be a lot more manageable for working parents to find that amount of time. When there’s an unavoidable need to have a nanny or other caregiver take the kids after 3 PM, there is less incentive to make time for the kids when possible, since there’s already a substitute in place. Placing the kids in the hands of teachers for longer days would necessitate better teachers as well, and I think schools are criminally underfunded by governments in both Canada and the United States, though it’s definitely worse south of the border. Up north we have a problem in that lousy teachers can’t be fired, and that should be corrected. Pay for teachers should be much higher, and they should be vetted accordingly. The curricula should be amended and brought up to speed with where the world is at, and there should be classes on attitude and the basic psychology necessary to not become dysfunctional. I think a stronger school system could achieve many of the benefits of outsourced parenting, while avoiding a large degree of the setbacks of a centralized parental bureau.

  2. Geordie says:

    I advocate something slightly different: 1) national (and free) childcare. This might happen one day, and is at least on the radar of politicians. 2) State-enforced, mandatory parental education. As you point out, there’s a lot to learn and no system for disseminating this information. But why? It would obviously benefit society more than it would cost. One day, I’ll advocate for this because I think there’s a good chance that it is the single best investment that a government could make. But, sigh, there’s no time for that now.

  3. Kathryn Exon Smith says:

    More and better education is always the answer, isn’t it? if only we paid educators as much as we paid investment bankers and consultants, maybe the smartest and most socially adept people would go into teaching more. Wouldn’t a program akin to Teach for America be wonderful in Canada as well?

    James, Re: “how does someone prepare to be a consistent attachment figure, and how do we determine that they’re good at it?”

    Being an HR person now, I’d say feedback – qualitative and quantitative. Do studies on the children coming out of different kinds of parenting styles (which are already happening, I’m sure) to determine which behaviours on the part of the attachment figure lead to physically and emotionally healthy adults: track health habits/issues, resourcefulness, independence, civic mindedness, kindness, open-mindedness, volunteerism, whatever else we want our society’s participants to look like. If you can’t control the “nature,” at least work on the “nurture.”

    Re: Geordie’s mandatory state education of parents: assuming you can reach everyone with this strategy, how can you ensure they use it? Do we have more stringent guidelines for the “stick” part if parents don’t apply what they learn?

  4. Many thanks! Lots of information.

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