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Pitchforks, prams and patchwork policy plans: The battle for childcare control in Canada

The tidal waves of societal changes ebb and flow revisions to family policies with each new federal or provincial government. In Canada, shifts in the structure and expression of family life are displacing traditional views on childcare, and tsunami-like ideological waves are now impacting public policy. Canada is known on the international stage as having a patchwork policy approach to childcare (OECD Canada Report, 2003). As increasing priority is given to early learning and childcare in political discourse across the provinces and territories, childcare and family policies merit careful review and reflection.

Feminists’ ideology align childcare as the sine qua non of women’s equality measured in economic terms. Women’s identities are not defined comprehensively in societal, civil, familial or communal terms, but instead narrowly confined as a measure of the productive economy. The unintended consequence is a devaluing of the reproductive economy and motherhood as a valid and honourable position in society and the continual disservice to the very equality efforts and freedom of choice for women. Why do we hail the battle to normalize and naturalize women’s status in labour market and economic terms on the backs of children?

Alternatively, neglect, abuse, post-partum depression, isolation, single family structure, newcomers and refugees, to name a few, are clarion calls that families need communal and societal support. Not to mention, many women today desire to re-enter the workforce shortly postpartum. How does public policy address the above challenges? What form must societal support take as it pertains to childcare and family policies? As shifts are noted, proponents of the “stay-at-home” paradigm are gently reminded that this ideal is not attainable for everyone, nor should be normalized as the most laudable choice. Can there be a way forward for transformative family policies between the feminists’ and traditionalists’ polarities for childcare control?

The importance of the public discourse on early childhood education and childcare lies not in the annals of the women’s liberation and equality movement, nor in the normative folklore of the “mothering as best” stay at home paradigm, but in my opinion, in the “X” factor of children’s cultural capital development and its attendant pathways to procure positive trajectorial outcomes across educational, social, economic and career pathways throughout a child’s lifespan. Neither extremes of normativization of the individual family as the only locus and procurement of children’s well-being and decision-making, or state control of children through bureaucratic institutionalization of children comprise the complete picture of children’s well-being. Childcare and early learning must be nestled within the cultural capital accumulation opportunities afforded to our nation’s children and their overall developmental well-being.

Cultural capital accumulation refers to the acquisition of particular embodied assets such as dispositions, skills (particularly linguistic), attitudes, knowledge, behaviour and preferences that transact value in society and support career, social advancement and life chances (Bourdieu, 1997; Lamont and Lareau, 1998). Of most relevance to children’s educational trajectory is cultural capital. According to the seminal research by Lareau (2003), children from advantaged backgrounds experience concerted cultivation processes and thus accrue significant cultural capital in contrast to children of working class or disadvantaged families who follow the consequences of natural growth. Family income and parental educational backgrounds are impactful determinants of concerted cultivation processes and thus the accumulation of cultural capital. Parents readily invest in their children’s capabilities and talents through additional recreational programs, tutoring classes, not to mention opportunities to travel abroad and expand children's horizons. Additionally, the home environment provides a plethora of stimulating materials that can support children’s overall development. Children in poverty lack these advantages. By the time children arrive in Kindergarten, the achievement gap between middle class children and children in poverty is quite pronounced.

Childcare and family policies must prioritize the quality of family life, the home environment, human capital development and the ecology of childhood. First, happy, educated and mature parents are poised to parent and raise their children well. Parents, irrespective of social strata, who develop positive attachments with children and are intentional about cultivating children's cultural capital secure their overall positive development and well-being. Positive parenting is not the purview of the stay at home mom alone. Working moms, with children in a childcare setting, are equally capable of providing a solid early foundation for children. Furthermore, raising children is a communal endeavour. Family policies must procure parental rights and operationalize parental cultural capital through facilitation of positive communal and societal bonds with organizations and institutions in synergistic ways promotive of children’s well-being and human capital development, particularly for parents and children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Secondly, family policies must also protect parental freedom of choice to promote care and development of children in accordance with the individual family's need and the unique developmental needs of the child. One size does not fit all. Thus, the expression of the child's family life and family preferences in how this developmental process is to be carried out (home care, preschool, day care, au pairs) must be respected and supported.

Thirdly, prosperity, expressed at the family level through family income and cash in the home, and not bureaucratic institutionalization of children, is the primary means through which parents can transact investments in their children and facilitate children’s development. Family policies that are promotive of tax measures and allowances, parental leaves, innovative childcare solutions (evening and weekends), flexible work schedules, and bring greater coherence to family life, are paramount.

Lastly, childcare and family policies must be embedded in a socio-ecological model of child development and follow a life-course approach to avoid patchwork-style policies and inefficiencies in delivery and access. Regardless whether provision occurs in the home, community or market, childcare is not a commodity but a human capital investment by parents and/or early care experts. Additionally, the ethics of who gets to decide or define what the policies of childcare ought to be, what is in the best interest of children and whose voices are to be most loudly heard in the public sphere calls for careful consideration. When it comes to childcare, it is the child who is the locus of attention- not feminist politics nor traditional lore. The diverse influences impacting children's life trajectory must inform policy first and foremost, and ensure support across the individual, relational, communal and societal concentric systems and layers of impact.

Lamont, M. and A. Lareau (1988). "Cultural Capital: Allusions, Gaps and Glissandos in Recent Theoretical Developments." Sociological Theory 6: 11-34

Lareau, A. (2003). "Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life." Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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