Family change and early childhood development


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Content type
Research report

September 1983


The concern of the paper is to outline how social change affects the nurturing tasks of family life and to suggest a re-thinking of how the community as a whole might assist the child development process. The authors discuss the sorts of changes taking place in the family contexts of Australian children including the increasing numbers of one parent families, the implications of remarriage, the trend towards smaller families, the increasing mobility of the population, the growing numbers of married women in the workforce, and the effects of widespread unemployment. In this context, they critically discuss eight major propositions about early childhood development. Finally, suggestions are offered for positive measures which should be taken to improve early childhood development in Australia through changes in the way family, school and community organise their approach to the problem.

This paper was presented at the 16th National Triennial Conference of the Australian Early Childhood Association titled 'Being and Becoming' held in Hobart on 24-28 May 1982.

The Changed and Unchanged Child

The theme of this paper was prompted by a dissatisfaction with the way developmental theories match the nature of social change and an impatience with several propositions that continue to be made on the basis of poor evidence. Our concern is to try to outline how social change affects the nurturing tasks of family life and to suggest a re-thinking of how the community as a whole might assist the child development process.

Bronfenbrenner (1979) in recent years has formulated for the psychology of child development what sociologists have always asserted: that each individual develops within a context, under socially determined situational constraints, that there is an ecology of human development which varies across cultures, across status groups, across physical, geographic and political boundaries, across families and even (for the individual child) across time within the context of a single family. Not only are those varied contexts themselves subject to more or less rapid change; change is also the essence of every individual's life no matter what t.he context. As Samuel Butler put it many years ago:

All our lives long, every day and every hour, we are engaged in the process of accommodating our changed and unchanged selves to changed and unchanged surroundings; living, in fact, is nothing else than this process of accommodation; when we fail in it a little we are stupid, when we fail flagrantly we are mad, when we suspend it temporarily, we sleep, when we give up the attempt altogether, we die (quoted in Anthony and Chiland, 1978:3).

,p> Butler can be forgiven for omitting to mention Piaget's theme of adaptation, the active moulding of the environment as opposed to merely accommodating to it, but society in his day appeared stronger than the individual. Doubtless it still is.

It is Bronfenbrenner too, who has insisted that:

... [an] 'ecological transition' occurs, whenever, during the life course, a person enters a new role or setting ... such events include arrival of a younger sibling, entry into day care or school, graduation. finding a job. going on vacation, becoming ill ... marrying, moving. becoming divorced, changing jobs, remarrying. retiring and that final transition to which there are no exceptions-dying (Bronfenbrenner. 1982:38).

More than that. we agree with Bronfenbrenner, that every environment involves more than one setting. That is why research on child development and the growth of self through the life course is so difficult. The environment of school. for example. has varied settings and interacts with the 'ecosystems' of the family and work, each of which contributes in complex ways to each child's capacity to learn. Disappointingly few studies have looked at the complexity of .settings as they affect child development and fewer still have examined the impact of 'ecological transitions' on either cognitive. social or moral development as children grow in self-awareness and maturity.

Moreover, too many theorists in child development are adult-oriented and still view the process as a passive one of the child being influenced by significant adults, rather than as an active one where the child vigorously pursues its own ends, trying to produce effects, succeeding or failing to control its own environment. Researchers such as Robert White (1959), HailUs Papousek (1969) or Margaret Donaldson (1978) remind us that even babies are motivated not just by rewards but by the sense of satisfaction gained when they succeed in producing effects which build an inner representation of their own world. which allows them to predict and hence. survive.

The difficulty is that the world for many children is neither predictable nor controllable, because the contexts in which they live are too rapidly changing and too traumatic. This fact has implications for family and community organisation which must be critically examined.

Changes in Families

The following is a brief outline of the sorts of changes taking place in the family contexts of Australian children. Divorce has increased from 10 per 10000 population in 1971 to 28 per 10000 in 1980, with a huge 'hiccup' of 45 per 10000 in 1976 because thc new FamilyLaw Act released a flood of couples whose marriages had broken down at least 12 months before.

An even greater number of marriages break down to the point of separation, desertion, wife-bashing, child abuse or a teeth-gritting but conflict-ridden 'hanging-in-there' situation. There are no figures on 'breakdown' as opposed to divorce 'breakup', but the iceberg's submerged presence is betrayed by the fact that 80 per cent of legal aid money in 1980 was spent on family disputes such as custody, maintenance or access orders. As a result, one-parent families have more than doubled from 130600 in 1969 to 282 200 in 1981 (that is, 13.2 per cent of all families with dependent children in Australia).

B ut perhaps more dramatically, a total of 459 200 dependent children were living in 1980 with one parent rather than two. Since 1976 alone, nearly five per cent of all children under age 18 (a total of 232 549) have been affected by divorce. We have no idea how many thousands of others are affected by their parents' inability to live together harmoniously. In the United States, Mary Jo Bane ( 1979) estimates that one-third of all children have separated parents, and that 50 per cent of all US children are likely to spend an average of five to six years in a one-parent home.

What this means is not so obvious however. One-parent status is not usually forever, especially for men who remarry more quickly than women. The access parent is still a significant figure in a child's life, even if that parent has only weekend (or less frequent) contact.

Remarriage gives children three or four parents instead of two - they could be called 'plus parents', in preference to the old imprecation step-parent. Remarriage also gives children, quite often, both step-brothers and sisters, who share blood kinship with one of the newly married partners only, and half-brothers and sisters from the new marriage. Whereas in 1968 only one in eight marriages involved partners who had been previously married, by 1978 this had increased to one in three of all marriages (McDonald, 1980). Apart from that sort of change in family structure, there are more grandparents around than there used to be. Historically, we have more extended three-generation families now than ever before because people live 10nger.·It is grandmother who is the more likely to be living with married sons or daughters and their young children, as 61 per cent of women aged 70 and over are widowed. Alternatively, separated sons and daughters may have moved back with her for cheap housing. Child development in this context is different from that of the nuclear family household.

Couples are also choosingt(; have fewer children and to have them later. This is a good thing if it means greater preparedness and economic security, but smaller family size means fewer siblings and a greater likelihood that children will be seen as interfering with the couple's well-established, free and highly mobile life-style.

Mobility also counteracts the possible benefits of having grandparents around. Australians are the most mobile home-changers in the world. so demands on child care, baby-sitters and home help go outside the family into neighbourhood and public sources.

The proportion of married women in the work force has increased from 32.5 per cent in 1969 to 42 per cent during the last three years. A lesser known fact is that of 800000 females employed in 1945. only 53400 returned to full-time home duties to make way for returned servicemen (Beaton. 1982). So the phenomenon of mothers working is not so new. It must be pointed out that most of these women work part-time. not full-time. which means the two-income family is rather a misnomer. Their part-time wages supplemem family income. but if they lose a husband. they do /lot have a living wage. Thus. the significance of working women lies more in the lack of time left over for parenting - the rush. the fatigue of carrying two jobs (one poorly paid. the other not 'paid') and very often unrelieved by male parenting or household help. It also lies in the poverty of one-parent families and the impact this has on children through poor nutrition, inadequate housing, restricted opportunities for those wider experiences which better-off families take for granted.

The average income for married couples with dependent children was $16580 in 1978/79. whereas the average for female-headed one-parent units was $6130. No one can deny that the opportunity structure for children in the latter context (nearly half a million children) is severely limited. What is worse. part-time jobs in the low income manufacturing area are those most affected by economic recession and unemployment, so one-parent and migrant family contexts are getting worse, not better.

Unemployment is now double the 1974 rate, with close to half a million families affected. In the Institute of Family Studies' project on family support networks virtually no families were found which had not experienced problems of unemployment either directly or indirectly. In Australia the average duration of unemployment has increased from 6.5 weeks (August 1974) to 32.7 weeks (May 1981) with the highest rate of 58 weeks being for males aged 35-54, that is men who are likely to have young children or grandchildren.

Familiar Theories on Child Development

Now, given this context of family change, what are the major propositions about early childhood development? What do experts say is desirable for children to grow as competent individuals, the Being and Becon:ing of this Conference? Obviously there are many which cannot. be covered here, so those chosen are those that bear on the topic of change and the need to involve the community in the societa/ responsibility for children.

Proposition 1: A child needs the enduring irrational involvement of one or more adults in care and joint activity with the child.

This is a long-standing notion that clearly has some validity. From Freud's early emphasis on the emotional significance of the mother, to Erikson's stress on the mother's role in a child's achievement of that finn sense of personal trustworthiness which fonns the basis of identity, to the excesses of Bowlby and others talking of bonding to the mother after birth and maternal deprivation in institutional settings, we have finally come to realise that it is not so much which adult that matters, so long as there is an adult who cares, who is mad about the child, whose functions are diffuse and limitless rather than specific and detached (Katz, 1982).

However, this raises several problems in relation to modem childhood. Too much or too prolonged a pattern of 'irrational involvement' may in fact be detrimental to the child's development. Not only in the family setting, where a mother is expected to .do and put up with everything a child cares to dish out, but also in the peer and later school setting, the harsh reality of social life refuses to offer an irrational assent to the ego's demands.

In other words, irrational parenting may be undesirable rather than a requirement of healthy development. A child can only learn the limits of selfhood if there are limits set and we should be careful not to confuse love with a confusing and confused pennissiveness. That is why Lilian Katz (1982) rightly insists on optimum attachment; optimum irrationality, optimum spontaneity on the part of the mother. Note that even she talks of mothering, not parenting. But her point is that too much or too little attachment, irrationality or spontaneity is bad for the child's social development. She leaves open the answer to 'how much is too much?', yet she makes an important point in this regard. Katz argues that a slippage of roles is dangerous in early childhood. A parent who becomes too much of a teacher, or a child care agent or teacher who becomes too much of a parent, will be dysfunctional for the child. The teacher's role or the day care worker's role is and should be more specific, less affectively involved, more rational, more intentional and more concerned with the whole group than a parent can or needs to be. Pressure on parents to take on instructional functions, home intervention programs, skill training and so on may lead to a situation where 'the child has no mother" (Katz, 1982:7). Notice again the easy slip into mothering.

In contrast, Bronfenbrenner makes a further proposition.

Proposition 2: The developmental impact of emotionally involved care and joint activity with the child is enhanced by the participation of adults of both sexes.

He insists that he is not stigmatising one-parent families or saying they are less effective than intact two-parent families. But he is recognising the research evidence that in the USA one-fifth of all children spend some time in a one-parent situation, that these families often do not work as well, that children often show emotional disturbance and cognitive disadvantage and that where one-parent kids are doing well, it is because there is a third party (usually the ex-husband) available for support (Hetherington and others, 1979).

The Australian figures are not so dramatic. Neither is the US evidence so convincing. The point for us is that if both sexes are needed, for whatever reason (role modelling, economic support, wider cognitive stimulation), then schools and the wider community ought to be providing male as well as female adults for those growing numbers of children who lack one or the other. Yet there is still a prejudi~e against males in child care, in kindergartens, as nurses, as primary school teachers. Patricia Sexton (1969) made a rather hysterical point of this in her book The Jeminized male and Daniel Moynihan ( 1966) also over-reacted in his critique of mother-dominance in the American black family. Nonetheless, the logic of the two propositions just outlined is that society must face the consequences of marital breakdown, must not be indifferent to the sorts of settings in which'children are placed. and must actively provide a variety of adults with skills to assist and enrich child development.

Related to this is the following proposition.

Proposition 3: Fathering is just as important as mothering, not only in terms of irrational involvement with the chiid but also in terms of the models for maturity provided to the child.

The work of Lamb (1975) in the USA, of Graham 'Russell (1980) in Australia and my own work on Australian adolescents (Edgar 1980) all suggests that the father has been a forgotten figure in child development. Given that males have held the dominant power and authority positions within society for so long. it is extraordinary to have supposed their very presence and behaviour in the home were unimportant to children.

Men are now learning the art of parent-child intimacy, the 'parenting trade', and beginning to follow the dictum of Letty Pogrebin's book Growing lip free (1980). 'Don't be the man you think you should be, be the father you wish you'd had'. She points to the way definitions vary: maternal deprivation becomes father absence; the male dominated household is called traditional whereas the female-dominated is called matriarchal. She points to the bonding myth and its Madonna and Child view which pushes father out of the picture; to the need for fathers to attach to the child early on if healthy relationships are to grow and if that sense of loss reported by adolescents about their 'unknown' fathers is to be avoided. Men and women who stop their sons from playing doll~ or houses are in fact preventing them from acting out the father-parent role, from putting the developing self in the place of the male in the household with whom the son is supposed to identify. As Pogrebin (1982) puts it, 'our culture creates an aversion to the very activities that make a man a good father', and instead teaches males to screen their behaviour, to avoid participation in parenting, to deny their own input into the child's development.

Proposition 4: Sensitive care and a core of predictability on the part of parents (or carer) are essential elements in the development of basic trust in young children. The sense of sameness and continuity involved affirms the chiId's identity and sense of control.

Few would quibble with this version of Erikson's comment on ego development. Nor with the associated later stage expressed in the following proposition.

Proposition 5: A sense of industry, the experience of producing things beside and with others is crucial to the child's appreciation of the division of labour, of di fferential opportunity, of self-worth rather than inferiority. Yet notice what is implied here. First, continuity may not be possible because both settings and people change. With high occupational mobility, familiar home surroundings, the security of the back yard and one's own room cannot be guaranteed. With marriage breakdown. desertion, separation and divorce, there is little chance for a child to trust, to make meaning out of the situation or to feel he/she is in control of the home and social environment.

For example. we know that pre-school children are adversely affected by divorce. Wallerstein and Kelly's work (1974) suggests that both boys and girls in the two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half year age group responded to divorce with observable behavioural change - crying, whining, regression, irritability. anxiety, sleep problems. This was in spite of the fact that all but one stayed with their mother in a familiar environment. Their play was restricted and joyless and the toy world was seen as unsafe. After a year they showed a strong need for closeness, even with strangers. What counted most for children was the degree of conflict between parents and the quality of caretaking able to be given by mothers distracted with their own adult problems.

The middle pie-school group was less inclined to regress but 'their concept of the dependability of human relationships and of objectives was profoundly shaken, and they were frightened, confused and sad' (Wallerstein and Kelly, 1974). Moreover, they tended to blame themselves for their father's departure, a timely 'reminder that children see themselves as active not passive participants in the family drama.

With the oldest pre-school group (five to six years), aggression and anxiety increased although their cognitive ability to interpret the situation was better and their developmental progress appeared unimpaired at later interviews.

Another study by Hetherington and Cox (1979) found boys and girls from divorced homes less happy, more anxious, depressed, guilty and apathetic than other children. They showed less imaginative play with less cooperative and constructive relations in play activities, an interesting reminder of the importance of play in acting out (or suppressing) the realities children have to test in life. Perhaps even more significantly in this study, teacher interaction with children from divorced homes, particularly boys, was more negative or ambivalent, a finding supported by a study (Edgar and Headlam, 1982) of teachers' attitudes to children from one-parent families.

In short, large numbers of children do not grow up in the ideal, intact home with nuclear' family role models, so the contexts of child development are in themselves changing. Parenting in such altered circumstances is difficult and requires support; child care providers, kindergarten and pre-school teachers, and neighbourhood self-help centres must all face the challenge and adapt their methods to family and childhood needs.

The second implication of the proposition about the importance of industry and productivity to self~worth is that all children should be given the chance to make things, do things, produce effects on their environment. I have written extensively about this before in terms of competence as including two elements - first, the 'equipment for competence' (the family background resources, language styles, interpretive skills and range of roles available to a child) and second, 'the competent self' which emerges differentially from the child's success or failure in dealing with and in acting all the world (Edgar, 1980). As Brewster-Smith (1969) puts it, successive experiences of success build into a 'benign circle of socialisation'; but let a child experience the reverse. and failure after failure builds into a vicious circle of incompetence which colours the rest of life

The competent self that emerges will depend upon our symbolic capacity (which largely depends upon language) and the range of roles that are available to us. It will depend on our learning skills of interpretation. presentation of self and impression-management. and the degret; of cynicism with which we handle social situations. In short, our structural location in society determines our chances of sharing the necessary ,'equipment for competence' that constructs our individual sense of 'the competent self' (Edgar. 1980: 157).

Rather than labour the point of unequal opportunities, another proposition should be considered.

Proposition 6: The family as it is constituted today may provide inadequate play, inadequate linguistic and interpretive skills, too narrow a range of roles for children to emulate, for the adequate development of either autonomy or initiative or industry as the basis of a sense of competence and self-worth.

Here, it is possible to cite only briefly the sort of evidence that bears on such a proposition. The context is that of family change described at the start of this paper - more one-parent families, fewer siblings, more grandparents, fewer relatives, greater housing mobility, more mothers working, less time for parents to parent, inadequate consideration by the economic system of job demands on parents, provision of adequate child care arrangements and the value disjunction between parental rights to self-exploration and the rights of children to be properly nurtured. The isolated housewife syndrome is probably less valid now than the harried two-job woman; the latch-key child less valid than the TV-addicted family; the language of the mass media more common (and limited) than status group differences in language skills; and the time for family interaction more restricted than ever before.

Children from economically disadvantaged homes, from homes riddled with conflict and loss of significant adults, inevitably lack opportunities to build up varied experiences, to play at roles in ways that enhance their cognitive ability to interpret (and hence, control) the ~orld they live in. A Victorian ACCESS skills project in 1980 showed that such children could not even interpret the simpler elements of Marie Clay's Sand test (1972), a modified book in which children are asked to find print, a picture, front, back, or a word. The writing ability of older children was limited to their experience of TV shows and their imagination stultified. it is not sufficient to simply blame parents for the restriction and stultification of young children. The failure of communities to provide playgrounds, child care facilities, stimulating children's TV programs, support for parents and access to informed advice within the neighbourhood all contribute.

Proposition 7: Parents, not peers, are the significant others in early childhood development.

This assumption needs to be challenged by the following proposition.

Proposition 8: Siblings and peers are as significant as adults in the development of moral values and in achieving a sense of worthwhile identity.

Erikson (1975) makes a distinction between the behaviour of the pre-school child with adults and with the peer group. With adults, the child defines self as 'learner' and adults as 'knowers' and therefore conforms to adult expectations. With peer group challenges to the child's everyday reality, more autonomous and mature attitudes emerge.

It is Piaget (1954) and Sullivan (1947) who give greater attention to the importance of peer group contexts. In early childhood, adult rules save the child from trial and error and give the child a firm place in the world of meaning, whereas later cognitive development and especially moral development depend upon testing of ideas and self in equal status, reciprocal situations. As Youniss puts it:

Piaget proposes that peers begin to interact with a naive sense of equality which is gained through the practice of direct reciprocity. One is free to behave exactly as the other has in an exchange. This eventually brings peers to a mutual understanding (Youniss. 1980: 14).

Children have little control over one another. They clearly commence sociable behavior almost as early with other children (if any are present) as they do with their parents. tweaking noses and poking at others as objects, but gradually learning to share ideas, to communicate, to be friends. Zick Rubin ( 1980) suggests this process of reciprocal learning from peers starts very early.

The implications for us are several. If children learn constraint and cooperation through peers (Youniss, 1980), if they learn that meaning is constructed lVith others, not just imposed 011 them, if they learn that the self and its view of reality is not the only possible version, then the earlier they learn that the better. Yet we still hear the emphasis on parenting, on teaching kids the proper values, on the family's responsibility for how children are reared. The ideas of the Israeli Kibbutz or of China's subordination of the individual to the 'collective may have been too extreme. but the opposite is 1I0t isolation of the child in the home with a frustrated mother. What is needed is exposure of every child to peer relationships at an early age to assist development and innovation. With smaller families and less neighbourly neighbourhoods, the need becomes greater for children and families to be re-surrounded by a more concerned and caring community.

Suggestions for Policy and Action

The Australian community's indifference to children, as reflected in the scattered and unequal provision of child-support services and in the piecemeal, inconsistent development of children's policies, is a major contributing factor to inadequate moral, cognitive and social development of children. However, positive measures can be taken to improve early childhood development, through changes in the way family, school and community organise their approach to the problem.

All we can do here is to list some of the problems that exist and suggest a few alternative app'roaches. Kindergartens, pre-schools and child care centres are not equally available to children in each State, each town or city. The 1979 New South Wales Children's Services Study, for example, found only one place in child care centres was available for every 60 to 80 children who needed a place in the poorer working class areas of Sydney. The Knox Report (Wadsworth, 1976) found only 400 of the 2500 children under five of working mothers were catered for in day care centres. Infant Welfare Centres are limited in their functions to weighing babies and making up feeding formulae, yet the best of the Infant Welfare Sisters are asked for, and give constantly, advice on a whole range of child rearing concerns. If encouraged and differently staffed they could do much more.

There is confusion about the pros and cons of community child care, family day care, child care centres, pre-schools. Funding support varies inconsistently across the Commonwealth and there is virtually no monitoring or evaluation of which schemes work best for which families. Control of funding is split between the Office of Child Care at the Commonwealth level, State departments of health, education and community welfare, and local government levels. The latter, in particular, vary in what they provide.

Worse than that, no funds were allocated for new child care centres in the Federal budget in 1981; the Spender Report (1981) suggested a means test for subsidised child care and a pilot program to subsidise privately owned child care centres using funds already allocated to non-profit centres. Such thinking flies in the face of the economic reality of women who cannot earn a living without having places to leave their children. It also ignores the question of quality care versus profit and takes no account of the plight of non-working mothers who also need occasional child care facilities. We fully endorse the call of the National Women's Advisory Council for a complete re-thinking of Federal government policies and funding of child care.

At the broader societallevel, Australia has nothing comparable to Sweden's comprehensive family support schel1}es, where"men are entitled to svare six months' paid parental (not maternity) leave when a child is born; three months' leave at any time before the child's eighth birthday, 12 days' leave to look after children if they are ill, and the right to job-share with their wives if they so choose. Nor do we have anything comparable to the French system which aims at systematic relief of family hardship and which recognises that the economic needs of families differ according to the stages of their life cycle. The welfare of children in France is all-important, with generous maternity allowances, tax deductions and child endowment (Charlesworth, 1980).

Unlike Australia, the French provide for maintenance of income at levels which avoid poverty for both one and two-parent families. Rent subsidies are provided so that rental costs do not have the effect of leaving families with almost nothing to live on, and costs of travel on public transport are reduced for life for parents. Such a system would alleviate the impact of changes resulting from separation, divorce, unemployment, handicap,' sudden trauma. The rhetoric of support for families needs to be matched by that sort of reality.

We also need a closer interface between families and those who can advise them. The experts on child rearing cannot stand apart. There has to be some pathway between the professionals and a more effective, do-it-yourself sense of parental responsibility. Moreover, that link must not separate early childhood from later stages of development.

The model of the Early Childhood Development Complexes in Australia needs to be extended so there is more two-way traffic, with input from the community as well as from multi-disciplinary experts on the staff. A South Australian suggestion from Don Matters (1982) is that 'Neighbourhood Family Resource Centres' be established which would be locally based and managed by parents. These centres would provide a drop-in, call-up-foradvice base and would coordinate access to experts on child health, parenting skills, handling family finances, youth problems, infant welfare - any aspect of the nurturing functions families are supposed to fulfill.

Don Matters has prepared a report which will be published soon. He has costed the provision Australia-wide of such Neighbourhood Family Resource Centres at round $300 million per year. But they would replace much more expensive and scattered services which parents at present have difficulty in locating. His rationale is similar to that used by Kenneth Keniston in his 1977 report on US families. As Keniston puts it, parents can no longer fully prepare children for life in our complex society. Instead, the new job for parents is to act as an executive - choosing, finding and coordinating 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 in this view: 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.

Clearly, many parents at present do not possess such skills and are not assisted by professionals who use jargon and higher status to make parents feel powerless and incompetein. 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 recognise 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. That situation needs to be reversed so that parents (male and female, together or alone as solo parents) learn those executive skills, can demand service, and expect the right to know from professionals.

We should emulate the models of projects Head Start and Follow Through in the USA; linking education, medical-dental care, nutrition, psychological and social services, in a way that educates parents and uses community volunteers. Despite the early scepticism that Head Start was not a success, it has proved that the gap between home and school can be bridged in ways that have long-lasting positive effects on children.

We should emulate too, the British Haringey Reading Project (1979). Teachers in schools there showed parents how to hear their children read and encouraged them to do so at home. Children in these home collaboration schools significantly improved their reading scores compared with children in control schools where no extra encouragement was given, and with other children in schools where teachers gave special in-class support. What is most significant about the Haringey Project is that even parents with little formal education themselves became successful reading collaborators, their children showing marked interest and improvement. Given that language skills are the key to every child's ability to interpret the world and to find self-validation in it, this Project should be known to every person involved in pre-school education. It puts paid to the notions that parents are incompetent and that children from disadvantaged home backgrounds cannot be brought to higher levels of cognitive development given the right mix of familybased and professional help.

Knowing as we do how unequal families are in the economic and cultural resources they provide, our goal should be to build on each family context. and assist parents in their efforts to develop young beings with a sense of their own self-worth. That can only be done with concerted social effort in a time where rapid social change leaves many parents floundering and their children adrift. The challenge is to find new ways of involving the community in assisting parents.


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Edgar, D., & Ochiltree, G. (1984). Family change and early childhood development (Discussion Paper No. 6). Melbourne: Institute of Family Studies.