National Post

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Saturday, October 23, 1999

Let's not get emotional about daycare
David Frum
National Post

Is there a more explosive topic than daycare?

On Tuesday, my column debunked the recent Statistics Canada report that claimed daycare improved children's standing in Grade 1. The report, I complained, lumped together five-hour per week playschools and 50-hour-per-week daycare centres. It failed to allow for the educational level of the children's families. (University-educated women are four times as likely to send their kids to some kind of preschool than high-school dropouts.) Its sample sizes were badly skewed. It was so defective, in fact, I worried that it reflected a creeping politicization of Statistics Canada, which often seems to see itself less as a neutral gatherer of facts and more as a cheerleader for the Chretien government's dream of a national daycare system.

All in all, a typical day's policy wonkery here on the Comment page of the National Post. But daycare is a subject not lightly wonked with. My analysis provoked a furiously indignant reply from Patricia Pearson, another of this paper's writers, who accused me of having shown disrespect to her daycare provider, Camille. I had, she said, accused Camille of being a "ceiling tile or piece of furniture," "a cardboard box" -- something less than a "relevant human being." I hadn't actually said any of those things of course. Whatever: Patricia feels certain that I think them, and that's reason enough to attribute them to me.

Feelings matter a great deal to Patricia, and those who disagree -- who think facts are more important -- are guilty of "sling[ing] data at one another like handfuls of jello in a food fight without paying any respect, not even a whit, to the actual people -- be they parents, daycare staff or nannies -- who spend their days with our children. It's as if the debate is about optimal hog-farming methods, with aggregate outcomes deciding the correct course of action."

Now, given that Canadians may well be asked in the next session of Parliament to pony up billions of dollars a year to fund childcare initiatives, I would have thought aggregate outcomes would actually matter a great deal. Apparently not: It's personal experience that counts. So let's listen to the voice of personal experience -- as a matter of fact, the personal experience of Patricia Pearson herself, as described here on Sept. 6:

"I dropped my toddler off at daycare the other day, and she clung to me, wailing in dismay, while children swirled around her in a chaos of motion and sound. I felt as if I was leaving her at Taco Bell or a train station, just tossing this tiny girl of mine into the madding crowd. I gasped with guilt all the way to the office, feeling terribly, intolerably uncertain." Is it altogether fanciful to read some echo of these uncertainties in the rancour of daycare proponents toward daycare critics?

Toward the end of her article, Patricia expressed great curiosity about my own family's life. "I would, I must say, dearly love to see David Frum write about the nanny who raised his children. What did he like about her? How did she influence his children in special ways? What was it about her, and her alone, that made him glad to know his kids were holding her hand every day?"

Her curiosity would be greatly disappointed by the humdrum truth. Like most modern women, my wife works. She's a writer and editor whose byline readers may recognize: Danielle Crittenden. But again like most modern women, she chose ever since our first child was born in 1991 to compress her own work in such a way that the hand her children held every day could be her own. We never had that fantasy nanny Patricia endows us with. Instead, we lurched along from one babysitter to another. The kids survived -- it was after all only a few hours per week. This is a form of behaviour the Statistics Canada report tried to wish away, but it remains the way in which most mothers still organize their lives and work whenever they can: They switch from full-time to part-time work, they work evenings or weekends so that their husband can watch the kids, all in order to avoid entrusting their children to strangers -- even strangers with degrees in early childhood education.

It's Canadian public policy to beat down that natural reluctance of mothers to part with their kids. Families that try to meet the bills by having the husband work longer hours are taxed much more heavily than those that put the wife into the workforce instead. The tax dollars squeezed out of families where the mother cares for the kids are then used to subsidize the institutional daycare that fills even its die-hard advocates with such terrible doubts. Does this make sense?

Earlier this year my wife wrote a book about the problems faced by the modern woman, What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us. It's a book that provoked a great deal of hostile buzzing, because it reminds us of the single truth that the daycare advocates most indignantly deny. "[W]hile the problem of childcare is very real, and often a nightmare, for working mothers, it's not essentially The Problem. The Department of Health and Human Services could announce tomorrow that it is creating a system of completely free daycare centres, each one headed by Mary Poppins, and The Problem wouldn't go away. For despite all the reassurances to the contrary, the woman who kisses her child's forehead each morning before walking out the door to her office still harbours the agonizing suspicion that what her child needs most is her."

Copyright Southam Inc.