The family and the pre-school child


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Research report

July 1980

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The paper stresses the social context of child rearing and challenges some standard assumptions concerning family arrangements for the pre- school child, including the widely held belief that the family (which to many people still means mother) is the only institution responsible for rearing children. On the contrary, the paper argues , parents alone can no longer fully prepare children for life in our rapidly changing, increasingly complex society - and nor should they be expected to. It should be recognised that the young child is also society's responsibility.

Paper presented as the Mary Gutteridge memorial lecture to the Institute of Early Childhood Development, 14 July, 1980.


I have called this talk  'The Family  and the Pre-School Child'  because I feel early childhood education  is seen too narrowly. Perhaps an even better title would have been 'Society and the Pre-School Child'  because I want to stress the social context  of child-rearing.

Our lives are so short that we tend to take for granted forms of behaviour and social relationships  that are not,  in fact, very old. We call things 'traditional' which have a very limited tradition, whose history  in the life of humanity is miniscule.  The modern nuclear family  starts (to borrow David Attenborough's 'Life  on Earth'  terminology) at about one minute  before midnight of the 'life  on earth year'. The middle class traditional nuclear family, of Mum at home with  two or three kids and Dad the breadwinner, barely precedes the midnight chimes.

Yet children  have been cared for over millions of years in varied ways. Whilst in most societies child rearing has been tied to the female capacity for child-bearing, by no means all sOcieties have assumed that caring for children was solely the mother's  responsibility. In some societies men have looked after children  while women were the hunters.  In others the biological  father was not the pater, the one who raises the child  as a father. The sociological  father may be a female or several persons. The child  may rarely interact  with  the natural  mother, but be reared by more senior members of the kinship group. Children were not the sole responsibility of the parents or, especially, of the mother  alone. They were a communal responsibility, cared for by everyone and left alone only where social conditions made 'caring' difficult.

Even in the Western European tradition, historians have given us some shocks about parenting.  Phillippe Aries (1962) argues that maternal indifference was more characteristic  than motherly love. Edward Shorter (1975) goes further  and claims that  the first sign of 'modern' maternal love found by· Aries in 16th-17th century  noble and upper bourgeois groups, did not reach the consciousness of the European masses until the early 19th century.  Elizabeth  Badinter  (1979)  in a book called Love as an  Extra  shows that between the Middle  Ages and the French Revolution, babies were regarded as 'expendable'.  They died like flies and those who lived were encumberances- to the poor because they prevented the women from working  -to the .well off  because they interfered with  social duties.

In Paris of 1780, only  a thousand of the 21,000 babies born spent childhood at home- the rest were sent to wet nurses. Six thousand of the 21,000 born were abandoned or put  into  the poor house. In Britain too all those who could afford  it- not  just the wealthy  -had their babies wet-nursed. It was not until realization that national  prosperity depended on the birthrate, in the era of modern colonial  expansion and industrialization, that children  became valuable and 'mother  love' was promoted by church and state.

I make this little historical  excursion not to suggest that children  were not loved, or that no mothers cared, or that people were callous brutes, but rather to insist that family-child relations reflect  the nature of work and social relations generally. As Shorter says

These millions of traditional mothers were not monsters. They had merely failed the 'sacrifice' test. If they lacked an articulate sense of maternal love, it was because they were forced by material circumstances and community attitudes to subordinate infant welfare to other objectives, such as keeping the farm going or helping their husbands weave cloth (1975: 170-1).

We have come a long way since then and society  in general (not  just the family) realizes more clearly how vital are the pre-school years. Yet if we think about it for a moment,  we can see the signs of further change.  The system of division of labor we assume (centralized  work-places, separate homes, sex-role differentation, property and capital as the key to power and influence)  has made women subordinate  and has had consequences for children  less extreme but nevertheless unfortunate.

Work as a marketplace occupation for men takes them out of the home and away from  children.  It spawns suburbs, freeways, isolation  of dependent wives, and is a trap for children  who must relate to one person too much and another person too little. Children  are no longer valued for their  economic contribution to the family  so child-bearing  costs become a rnajor cause of conflict, separation and divorce.  On the other hand it rneans that·people  may deliberately  choose to have, and when to have children, so they are likely  to be both economically and psychologically prepared for child-rearing as a couple.

A rnajor change has taken place in Australia, as elsewhere, in recent years. Child-bearing  is no longer the sole or even the main function of marriage and the family, Figures frorn the Austral ian Census of 1976 revealed that 44.1% of Australian  families do not have dependent children; 32.5% of those who divorce are childless (1976 Census). 

Couples are marrying  later, delaying children  until  the second five years of marriage and, with  better contraception, are restricting family  size to barely replacement level. Marriage is now 'companionate' marriage, not merely 'institutional' in the sense of doing what's expected.

Thus the place of children  in families is changing. Delayed until the couple is reasonably well 'set up', children  arrive by deliberate choice, not accident,  and have a better chance of adequate care than before. But that very delay, and the ethic of individual fulfilment that lies behind it, also reinforces the dual career nature of new family  life. Women want to work and will  continue  to demand institutional change to make work  possible.

Of course women have always worked, but  'traditionalists' like to forget that in their cries against 'maternal' deprivation and neglect, the 'attack' on motherhood. The U.N.  Decade for Women Conference now in progress in Copenhagen reports  that women and girls 'put  in two-thirds of the world's working hours, receive a tenth  of the world's inc:ome and own less than 100th  of the world's  property' (Age11 /7/81). In Africa, women do sixty  to eighty  per cent of all agricultural work,  fifty per cent of all animal husbandry and one hundred per cent of the food processing. Yet new agricultural technology  provides tractor·s for men rather than mechanical weeders that would  reduce women's workload. Add to this the almost one hundred  per cent load women carry for household work  and childcare and you have a massive  probelm  of chronic  exhaustion.

The situation here in Australia  may be less extreme but  is similar.  Of 1.4 million married women in the work  force, over half  (56.1%)  work  full­ time, not necessarily from choice, but often  from  economic  necessity. They carry the burden of housework  as well, with  few signs that husbands have been 'liberated' beyond  the point  of drying  the dishes and reading a story  to the kids at night 

Today's AgePoll claims that eighty  seven per cent of men agree they shouldshare the housework,  yet thirty five per cent agree that  the male need not be the breadwinner  (Age14/7 /80).  And men are much less likely to believe a working mother  can establish warm and secure relationships with  their children.  If Canadian figures are any guide, the husbands of working women still  do only  thirteen per cent of household chores in any case.

What, apart from  men's attitudes, is society's structural  response to women working?  Work hours are still  geared to male expectations of full-time and continuous careers. Schools keep to rigid  timetables and offer  no before or after school care. The media continue  to purvey the old Women's Weekly ideal of mum as homemaker.  And political attacks grow on working women supposedly taking  jobs away from  men. What lies behind all this is an attempt  to preserve the vested interests of those for whom  the social structure has 'worked', those who do not want to lose control and who use the master symbols of the age to keep mothers 'in their place'. 

The signs are there, nonetheless, that these more recent traditions will change, with  uncertain  consequences for the family  and the pre-school child.  And you, as people responsible for early childhood education, should be in the vanguard, in preparation for the new forms of parenthood that may emerge.  

We should recognize the fact that parenting  has changed and continues· to change with  social conditions. We should also be aware that academic theories, as well as taken for granted 'common  sense',reflect a particular time and the particular  interests of certain groups. As a result social conditions may change but vested interests still  persist with old theories and old ways that do increasing harm to the interests of new generations and new interest groups. 

Think  about some of our standard assumptions concerning family arrangements for the pre-school child.  These extend beyond the early years of course but operate most forcefully when the child  is young.

First,  that the child  is weak, vulnerable and in need of protection. Undeniable, but forms of protection do not have to be merely the parents' responsibility. The Israeli Kibbutzim offer  one recent alternative  that is not entirely  a failure. 

Second, that children  have physical and emotional  needs that must be met. Of course, but parents too have similar needs. Moreover, as the Rapoports  point out, needs are not all of the same kind,  requiring  immediate  and/or constant attention. They may be 'preoccupations' felt as intrinsic concerns at developmental  stages; or 'requirements' laid down by experts who assert they are needed; or they may be personally felt  'needs' in particular situations.  It parental needs are subordinated  to those of the child  we may stunt the development of both  and do more harm than good. The prevailing etho·s of the 1970's was child-centred and it is only  recently  that  the needs of the parents have re-emerged, or that recognition has been given to the fact that not all parents find baby an endless joy. 

Third,  is a major fallacy of prescriptions for parenting  that 

the opposite of harmful is what is 'right'; It is said to be harmful to remove children from loving, concerned care of parental figures and to expose young children to impersonal, unstable influences. This does not mean, as it has sometimes been taken to mean, that the biological mother (and no other) must be there (always and exclusively). This is neither true logically nor psychologically; not for the child, and not to the parent (Rapoport, 1979, " 27).

Fourth, and this follows  from  the previous point, is the assumption  that there is one 'right' way of being a good parent. The experts, from  Freud to Spack, pontificate about early childhood and what must be done if psychological  disturbance  is not to disturb  'normal' development.  The broad shorthand of Piaget and Kohl berg describing stages of development is taken too literally and methods of treating children  (down to fine details of the curriculum at pre-school or kindergarten)  are laid down  as hard and fast rules.

The nonsense of applying  developmental  psychology  too rigidly  lies in the failure  to remember a basic premise about life:  individuals  are different and the social conditions, cultural values and expectations  they face, make for an endless variety of 'right' ways of parenting.

The harm done by child  experts is best illustrated through  the fifth assumption to be questioned.  The equation  reads, "Parenting  equals mothering". Fathers are appendages important only  as providers, yet, as we have seen, women have always been providers too and men in many societies have been important to child-rearing, even, in some, being made the sociological  'mothers'  of young children.

Once again, it is the potted  versions of pop psychology  that cause problems. The psychoanalytic writings  of Bowlby  and Winnicott have been wrongly  applied. Bowlby's work  on maternal and sensory deprivation focused on extreme situations that do not relate directly to ordinary family  life  (Rapoport, 1979:  36), and though Winnicott looked at ordinary  family  relationships,  he, too, saw the father as merely supportive. They said nothing  of the father/baby role and saw the constant presence of the mother  to be both crucial and natural  until   the age of three. Bowlby impI ied that parents, or rather mothers, are either good or bad, with  nothing  in between; while Winnicott purveyed the view that the 'ordinary  good mother  in being herself, would  be all loving'.

Popular baby manuals spread the same ideas, with  fathers being linked  to the wife rather than the child, if they were mentioned  at all. Dr. Spock's "Baby and Child Care", first  published in 1946, sold over 20 million copies world  wide. I recall a parent group meeting in Washington in 1973 where he had to scramble to apologize for his attitudes to women, explaining hastily  that his next edition would  remove sexist assumptions and terminology. His book still  assumes that mother  is a housewife; if she works it should be only  when absolutely  necessary, but he does mention that perhaps father can play a more important parental role with  the young child.  Old values die hard, but even the experts have to respond to social change.

The implicit reverse of the assumption  "Parenting  equals mothering" is that fathers have no influence  on early childhood development.  What a strange notion to maintain  when males hold the purse-strings, dominate authority positions and dictate  the most important decision-making areas both  inside and outside the family. Here again, research blinkers  have made father 'the forgotten parent'.  Interviews about child-rearing  have dealt with  mothers, seldom fathers. Only recently  have child studies looked at father communication, father values, father control of family processes that set the parameters for ch i_ld growth.  Sexist attitudes  must stem from  more than just female tendencies to use pink  or blue, let little girls cry but tell boys to 'be a man'. Males set limits too, fathers let sons handle tools  'too dangerous'. for girls, buy toys 'too  mechanical' for girls, take sons in the car or out with  the boys while girls stay home with  Mummy.  The role model fathers provide  is likely  to reinforce  male­ female stereotypes, of males being remote, in control, firm,  aggressive, unexpressive (or, less kindly, it could be said emotionally crippled). 

Dr. Graeme Russel at Macquarie University  found  only  fifteen  per cent of fathers very involved in child care, but  in another study of shared-role, two-parent families, found children  were thriving on the close relationship with  both  parents.

Ironically, just as the research literature, the child-manuals  and the women's magazines are beginning to catch up with  the importance of fathers to early childhood, fathers seem to be going out of vogue. Worldwide, one third  of all families are now headed by a woman.  Partly due to a rising divorce rate (doubled  in the USA and USSR in the last fifteen years), that figure reflects the fact that  'nearly half of all single women over fifteen years old in the developing countries  are mothers' (Age, 1117 /80).  In the USA one third  of women who work  are the family's principal breadwinner  (Rapoport, 1979:  19)

In Australia  the marital  breakdown  rate is nearing one quarter  of all marriages and over eleven per cent of all our families have only  one parent. One in every thirteen of our children spends at least part of their  growing years with  only one parent.  More significantly perhaps, is the very high re-marriage rate after divorce, which  means thousands of children  have to. adjust to living with  a new mother  or father and a new family  of potentially rival siblings.

I want merely to ask, how many of our educators, our pre-schools, our politicians, our government  agencies, are planning  for  the changes taking place? How many, instead, are crying  in the dark for a return  to what never was quite  there and never will  be there again? New forms of parent­ hood will place new demands on other social institutions and we need not only policies that will  help remove the causes of breakdown  but  which also cope with  the real products  of change. 

This brings me to the last assumption about parenting  I want to mention, though  there are many others. That is, that  the family  is the only institution responsible for rearing children. Simplistic talk of 'the family  as the basic unit  of society', of selfish parents, of working women neglecting their children, ignores the facts and lays blame in the wrong place. The facts are that the family  is not the sole agency for the developing child. As Kenneth  Keniston  (1977)  puts it, parents can no longer fully prepare children  for life in our complex  society.  Nor are they expected to. Instead, the new job for parents is to act as an 'executive'  choosing, finding and co-ordinating experts involved in the upbringing of their children. Finding health care centres, doctors, welfare advisers, kindergartens, pre-schools, child  care centres, house-cleaners, babysitters,  is now a major task  for parents. They have to buy the 'right' clothes, nappies, furniture, car-seats, baby food, toys, educational  games for their pre-schoolers. They must monitor television programs, attend  parent-teacher  meetings, vet the quality of playmates. And  for all this they must rely on experts and services for  'proper' parenting. 

Notice  what is involved and what is implied  for the family  and the pre-school child:  that parents have the executive know-how to find  and use such services and the experts. who provide  them; that the services are available to all parents who need them; that  the experts are able and willing to assist in parenting as those parents desire; that parents have the self-confidence  and sense of power to demand expert  help to service their needs.

Need I state the obvious? Experts like to mystify. Their  jargon and higher status make many parents feel powerless and incompetent. We know  that child  abuse results from  that sense of ignorance, incompetence and powerlessness in extreme forms. 'chi ld-bashers' have the same hopes, values and beliefs as other parents - they are not sick - but their  access to help and the supports every parent nowadays needs is socially not available. Experts prefer to teach courses in colleges rather than to be used as resources upon which parents can draw. They think  in terms of formally set up kindergartens and pre-schools instead of 'early childhood education' in the homes where know-how is desperately needed. They insist on entrance qualifications to courses, rather than open-entry  courses on the most serious vocation  of all -that of parenting.  They 'deliver services' but fail  to recognize the existing  competence and experience of people in the community who might also be used as resource people to improve the quality of child care in this country. The Early Childhood Development Complexes are a step in the right  direction. It remains to be seen how effectively they accommodate two-way  traffic with  input  from  the community as well as from  the multi-disciplinary experts on the staff.

Even more obvious perhaps are the structural gaps. We have nothing comparable  to Sweden's entitlement for men to share six months' paid parental  (not  'maternity') leave when a child  is born; or their further three months' leave any time before the child's eighth birthday; or their 12 days leave to look after children  if they are ill; or the right  for couples to share one job so they can share responsibility for child-rearing. we'have flexitime at work, but none in schools. We have no arrangements for career advancement in part-time  jobs, not even in the public  service which should be setting an example. Child care and pre-school places are unevenly distributed and too few in number.  The recent Knox  Report  found  only four hundred  of 2,500 children  under five of working mothers were catered for in day care centres. The rest have to make private arrangements, yetthe society creates the need for women to work.  The NSW Children's Services Study  found only one place in child care centres was available for every sixty  to eighty children  who needed a place in the poorer  working class areas.

So how seriously do we really take the needs of early childhood? My point has been that the pre-school child  should not be isolated in 'the family', in a home with  few siblings, few extended  family  contracts, an isolated mother and a workaholic father.  As I've suggested, the pre-school child is also a father's responsibility, a community responsibility, society's responsibility. Early childhood educators must take up the cudgels in a new way, so their expertise is available as a resource that can be used by those most in need- the family  and the pre-school child.


  • Advertiser (Adelaide) 25/6/1980, "Mothers, love your children."
  • Age (Melbourne 5/3/1980 .. "Move Over Mothers", by Sally Wilkins about research by Dr. Graeme Russell.
  • Age (Melbourne) 14/7/1980, "Sex role bastions chipped", by Leonard Radic.
  • Age (Melbourne 11/7/1980, "Sweden leads the way", by Sally Wilkins.
  • Australian Bureau of Statistics, Divorces 1976 and 1977.
  • Austral ian Bureau of Statistics, Labour Force Status and Other Characteristics of Families, July 1979.
  • Aries, Phillippe, 1962, Centuries of Childhood, London, Jonathan Cape.
  • Bishop, Frank I. and Moore, B.G., 1978, Maltreating Families: Report of a Melbourne Study, Victoria, Ministry of Health.
  • Bowlby, John, 1968, Child Care and the Growth of Love, Harmondsworth, Penguin (first published in 1953).
  • Bowlby, John, 1975, Attachement and Loss Vol 2 Separation: Anxiety and Anger, Harmondsworth, Penguin.
  • Keniston, Kenneth, 1977 ,The American Family Under Pressure, New York, .Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
  • NSW Children's Services Agency, 1979, Published by the Family and Children's Services Agency.
  • Rapoport, Rhonda and Rapoport, Robert, 1980, Fathers, Mothers and Society: Perspectives on Parenting, New York, Vintage Books.
  • Shorter, Edward, 1976, The Making of the Modern Family, Glasgow, Fontana-Collins.
  • Spock, Benjamin, 1976, Baby and Child Care, Revised Edition, Pan Books.
  • Wadsworth, Yoland, 1976, The Knox Project:.A First Annual Assessment of the Knox Early Childhood Development Complex.
  • Winnicott, DW., 1976, The Child, the Family, and the Outside World, Harmondsworth, Penguin, (first edition published 1964).

Edgar, D., & Ochiltree, G. (1980). The family and the pre-school child (Discussion Paper No. 2). Melbourne: Institute of Family Studies.