Wednesday, August 26, 2009

a question of childcare (2) implications

And so we come to the specific issue of childcare (and I'm tempted to run away very, very fast! I'm taking a deep breath now ... ). Please forgive the length of this post: this is a complex issue! You might want to print it out or bookmark it and read it over a few days.

Last week, we talked about the theology of motherhood. We saw that motherhood takes its shape from the gospel. Jesus’ death frees us from rules about issues like childcare. But Jesus doesn’t free us to live however we like. He frees us to love others with the sacrificial love of the cross. He shows us the shape of this love for mothers: to be busy at home as we help our husbands, love our children and are rich in good deeds towards others. The question each of us faces is this:

How can I, in the situation God has put me in, best fulfil my responsibility to love, discipline, teach and train my children?

What are the implications of this view of motherhood for childcare? I'll do my best to be careful and biblical in what I say, but because this is an issue of wisdom, you'll have to decide if these principles are true to the Bible and how they apply to your situation (if unsure, ask a wise, older, experienced Christian woman who can speak to your circumstances). Here are some suggestions:

we're free to use childcare if we are in need
Childcare centres are a good provision from God for those in need - a provision which has been supplied in different cultures in different ways, but which is given to us in this way. The single mother who needs to support her family financially but who is estranged from her parents. The mother sliding towards depression and burnout who has no supportive husband to help bear the load. The woman with chronic fatigue syndrome without a close Christian community to step in and help. Childcare not be ideal, but it may be the only option to keep your family fed and functioning. If so, use it with thanksgiving, and trust God to supply your children’s needs.

we will generally choose not to use childcare
Studies have shown that childcare centres aren't usually ideal for young children. Childcare is a good gift of God for those of us in financial, physical or emotional need, when we have no other sources of help. But it's not the ideal. While some other kinds of childcare may be preferable for young children (for example, a trusted grandparent) even this shouldn't dominate our children's week. Here's three reasons why:

  • it's our responsibility as parents to love, discipline, teach and train our children, a responsibility we can't hand over to others, but which will require us to be engaged, involved, aware, willing and wholehearted in our parenting*
  • young children need the security of a loving, consistent care-giver, and the best person to fill this role is their mother, to whom God has given this responsibility and the unique characteristics to carry it out, with the support of their father, extended family and the Christian community
  • I want to be around for my children's first years - for all the joy of milestones and those few, precious years at home!** I'm often tempted to put this reason first in my thinking, but really it's a distant third, and it may not feel relevant to everyone.

we won’t put these things before caring for our children:
1. career
On the day I conceived my first child, I received a new “career” from God: motherhood. It demands more than any career, but receives less recognition and no remuneration! Many of us will need to make the difficult decision to fall behind in our career or training in order to fulfil our responsibilities to our children. We may also need to plan for a lifestyle (home, education, place and standard of living) which is compatible with a single income. If work is so important to me that I can’t give it up, I may need to examine myself to see which hole it's filling in my heart (approval? security? meaning? affluence?) and remember that my meaning, security and joy come from God.

2. outside ministry
If I'm doing outside ministry because, at some level, it feels more "important" than motherhoood, then why aren't I valuing the ministry of motherhood more highly? A wise older woman asked, When you look back on the years when your children were at home, will you regret spending so much time discipling others that you never discipled your own children?” We shouldn’t idolise our families to the extent that we neglect people in our church and community, but during our years with young children at home it’s probably best to focus on ministry we can do from our homes or with our children.

3. relaxation
We all need rest and recreation. We're creatures, not the Creator, and it’s pride to think that we can work forever without a break. I think that it can be wise to take a few hours away from children each week to pray, reflect and rest, although we shouldn’t think of it as a “right” just because other mums or our husbands get a break. There are better alternatives to professional childcare during this time for most of us (see below) but looming depression or burnout, or a lack of other options, may make childcare necessary or helpful for some of us.

we’ll look for wise alternatives to professional childcare
If childcare centres aren't usually ideal for young children, perhaps there are better alternatives, especially if it’s for a few hours a week. Here’s some ideas (not all will be possible in your circumstances, for example if you live away from family and friends):

  • ask your husband (or accept his offer!) to care for your children for a couple of hours a week so you can have some time to pray or relax
  • structure “down time” into your day and train your children to respect it – a homeschooler I know instituted “reading hour” so that she gets a quiet hour after lunch every day
  • ask a trusted grandparent to mind your children for a regular time each week, or to care for children for longer periods if you are in need (but don’t presume on this – your parents are not your child’s parents!)
  • swap the care of children for a morning week and week about with a trusted friend
  • pay for a trusted individual – perhaps a young woman from your church – to care for your children for a few hours a week, to supply consistent one-on-one care
  • ask for help from an older Christian woman, or accept help when it’s offered by someone you trust

we'll love each other by caring for one another's children
You have to ask why professional childcare is even necessary for Christian women, since we belong to a new extended family: the body of Christ. If I see my sister in need of a break, or a single mother bearing the load alone, why does she need childcare? Aren't there women (maybe me!) in the church who can rally round and help? If you don't need to work for financial reasons when your kids go back to school, why not plan to become a Titus 2 woman who can help younger women in this way? I thank God for the young woman who cared for our children a morning a week so that I could rest and recuperate when my babies were little, but who consistently refused payment. Open your eyes and have a look around your church, and I’m sure you’ll see mums in need of help!

when possible, we’ll choose work and ministry we can do while still being available to our children
I think it's helpful to choose ministries you can do from home (e.g. missional mothering) or where you can take your children (while being fair to those you minister to! – e.g. a mum’s Bible study). If you’re in financial need, perhaps you could work from home or choose a job which is child-friendly. My friend cleaned houses and minded a friend’s children rather than pursuing her professional career to give her kids consistent care. Sometimes our exhaustion in parenting comes from the idea that we need to provide intense one-to-one activities every moment of the day, when it can actually be good for our children to be with us, observing us as we pray, rest, work and serve others, but not having all of our attention all the time.

what about the Proverbs 31 woman?
A number of you have asked about the Proverbs 31 woman, and about women in other cultures and at other times. Didn’t the Proverbs 31 woman work while servants helped care for her children? Don’t women in other cultures and didn’t women in other times share the care of children between members of an extended family or community? I wonder if their situation is less like using professional childcare, and more like what I’m suggesting: doing work (for the sake of our families, not ourselves) and ministry from a home base, and being part of a Christian community where we help one another care for our children.

meaningful motherhood
I know that what I’m suggesting is counter-cultural and challenging: that we put caring for our children above career, outside ministry, and relaxation, and generally don’t use professional childcare unless it’s necessary for emotional, physical or financial reasons. Thinking about this issue has certainly challenged my own priorities!

The world tells us that motherhood is of very little significance. It asks why I haven't got a "real job", why I'm not "pursuing my interests", why I'm "neglecting myself" for the sake of my children, why I'm not "achieving" something "important", why I’m not working for a better “lifestyle”, why my husband has a right to his career while I'm falling further behind in mine.

The gospel gives motherhood eternal significance. It asks bigger questions: why I'm not responding to Jesus' sacrifice of his life by giving my life in the service of others. Why I'm not fulfilling God's call to love my husband and children. Why I'm not absorbed with the kingdom goal of raising my children to love and serve Jesus, and using our home to reach out to others.

I pray that whatever decisions you and I make about childcare, that we will make them in wisdom and love, and that we will stay faithful to the great responsibility God has given us: to love, discipline, teach and train our children.

*I'm aware you could extend this reasoning to pre-school and school, and I have great respect for those who home-school because of this principle. We send our kids to school so we can be involved in evangelism with them, and so they can learn to relate to unblievers and to respond to non-Christian worldviews with our guidance, but I know that many would save this on-the-job training for a later date! In Australia, pre-school often doesn’t run for too many hours a week, and it's a good bridge between home and school.

**see Steve Biddulph's "Seven Shameless Reasons For Staying At Home When Your Kids Are Small" in More Secrets of Happy Children

images are from stock.xchng and from Castle Gonyea, R.Motti, locket479, and zumerzetbill at flickr


Anonymous said...

Jean, great post. You write so clearly which is super helpful for such a touchy topic.

Looking forward to the rest of the series.

Jess Green said...

Hi Jean, Thanks for all your thoughts on this issue. It's a great topic to be dealt with wisely and bravely. One question that we have been talking about with friends is if there could be specific characteristics of children that would make some time in childcare beneficial for them. For example our friend's child who requires constant stimulation and physical exertion. He would be a happier kid if he got more stimulation that him mum can give a few days a week. What do you think?

Jean said...

Hi Jess!

This is an issue which needs to be decided on a case by case basis, don't you think? Although I guess on the general principle that it's probably good to look for alternatives to childcare (for the reasons in my post) you might look for other ways to meet a child's need for stimulation first: playgroup, playground, lots of time outside, etc etc. But childcare isn't the great "evil", so if it helps mum and child to thrive, then it's definitely an option to consider. As long - always! - as it's not so much as to undermine, or a replacement for, consistency of loving care, discipline, teaching and training. I find it really hard to answer questions like this, I'll be honest! I think I'd talk all the issues through with the person concerned - which is no doubt what you and they will be doing!! And check any parenting issues, motivations of the parents, alternatives, how the mum's coping, whether there's ways people can help her out, what the quality of the care is, etc etc have been addressed first.

What do you think?

Love Jean.

Nicole said...

I wonder whether the idea of 'being a better mum by being around them less' goes with a couple of fallacies:

1. The idea that little bits of scheduled, harmonious quality time count for more than long stretches of real, authentic, imperfect hands on parenting, and

2. The idea that the best parenting is a kind of hyper-parenting, involving constant organised activities and educational programmes (i.e. far too much for a real parent to provide - hence the need for outsourcing, and the money to pay for it, and the job...).

Jean said...

Thanks, Nic, for some helpful observations about an issue which has often puzzled me.

Simone R. said...

Hey Jean. Well done.

I agree with the outcomes of your post. I think Xn women will usually not use day care for the reasons that you listed.

Probably most basic for me are not arguments about what motherhood is about, but arguments about what's best for our kids. Studies show that long hour institutionalised care is not great for little ones*. So you'd want to be in pretty desperate need before you went that way. Preschool programs for 3+ year olds have been shown to be beneficial for many kids. School is a norm in our society so we tend not to question it. But if you start with motherhood arguments against child care, it does beg the question of when things change and why we're happy to send our kids to school. I would have much more time to train my kids in godliness if I had them at home all the time.

[need to run to work... will write more later... love your stuff on down time... and responsibility... and nic's stuff on overparenting.]

* I also read an argument against grandparent child-care, saying that the outcomes for kids can be worse than with child care centers.

Jean said...

Dear Simone,

I can understand you finding the "childcare isn't good for young children" argument more convincing - certainly if you're the kind of person who follows argements through to their logical conclusions (like you and me!) it is more convincing, isn't it? But I guess the meaning of motherhood has to underlie every decision - and this is the basis on which we decide whether childcare is good for our kids anyway. So it underlies everything.

The "teaching and training" one is tricky, isn't it? I guess I see school as part of our training of our children, as we reach out together to those around us, and as they learn to relate to non-Christians and respond to worldviews. It's a little early to start this with a 2 year old (quite apart from the "is childcare good for kids?" argument) although a 4 year old can begin to understand "my teacher says Santa is real but ..." (we've had to deal with this one at pre-school!). But I can see your point: it's a less watertight argument, isn't it.

That's fascinating - and in some way unsurprising, especially if it's during many days a week! - about grandparents. Send me the link if you can find it!

Love Jean.

Rachach said...


I loved this post and I agree with you wholeheartedly.
I have been challenged by your idea of Christian women helping each other more with the care of our children, and as such am questioning my use of childcare for next year (we have 2 children who go to a 3hr session once per week because we have no family nearby, for me to have a rest). I guess sometimes, it is very hard to ask for help when you have a number of small children, fearing they will be a burden to other people.
I'd also like to see the Bible references that you would use as evidence for the point that you made about it being the mother's responsibility to be home caring for the children. Couldn't the father fulfill the responsibility to teach and train the children? What about job-sharing (when mum and dad each work part-time and each care for the children) is this unbiblical?

Love Rachel

Jean said...

Hi Rach!

Glad you liked it.

The Bible references are all in the previous post - Genesis 1-3 as interpreted by the NT. Glad to go through it in detail with you some time if you like!

I'm not sure I'd give up the morning's child-care knowing you and your situation, but we should probably talk this through in more detail some time. It would depend on how the kids are coping etc.

It's not unbiblical to job-share (sometimes it's wise or necessary!)but it's not the way you'd usually do it given the Bible model. And yes, the father is actually the one who leads the teaching and training! I'll think more about this and get back to you ...

Love Jean.

Simone R. said...

Hi Jean.

Don't remember exactly what I read before, but have a look at this 2002 research paper:

It talks about the impact that different sorts of care in the 5 years before school entry have on the child in their first year of school. It compares kids who have been FT at home, done preschool, had a nanny, family day care, grandparent care, babysitting, or combinations of these.

It's pretty full on. Down on child care centers, grandparent care, neighbour care, full time at home...

I think you win if you've used a nanny or had the kids at home until preschool. It looks at kids behaviour, intelligence and socialisation.

Really worth a read. Might put it up on my blog.

Fiona McLean said...

Jean, Thanks for your thoughtful comments. The childcare issue is one I've struggled with, too: I used to work (in Christian ministry, so a "good cause"!), which meant having my children in childcare one day a week, and they hated it, which we both found distressing. I used to walk to work from childcare each week wondering if I should resign ... When I eventually did resign (for different reasons), it was such a relief to tell my boys, "No more childcare!"

I loved Nicole's blog on Missional Mothering (thanks, Nicole, if you are reading this!). It encapsulated much of how I try to live, and the benefits of being a SAHM. One godly woman once talked about having "a ministry of availability", i.e. being available to our children, to build relationships, to volunteer for things, to make room in our lives for people, etc. I particularly love the idea of involving our children in our ministry, not dichotomising the two things (e.g. having a family from church around to lunch with our family).

One more comment re childcare: we are in a fortunate situation where my parents live upstairs from us, so it is easy for them to babysit, and they are also available for lower-key childcare (e.g. my daughter can stay home while I take the others to a swimming lesson). That may be a lifestyle option to consider for some!

Thanks again.


Anonymous said...

Dear Fiona,

love the concept of "ministry of availability." On the idea of involving children in ministry, we like to think of it as 'the family does ministry together.'

Love the blogs Jean - thank you dear sister for your courage, wisdom and humility.

Love Carmelina

Jean said...

Thanks Simone, Fiona, Carmi ...

Simone, that's a fascinating article. If anything, it strengthens the conclusions in my post - except that the alternatives to childcare no longer sound so attractive!! It seems that any kinds of extended, early childcare should be put in the "far from ideal" category (which is, I guess, what I was saying, but you'd definitely want to make sure grandparents etc. were in there too). I wonder if short-term care has better outcomes for some forms of care than others?

It's also interesting that "nannies" come up very positively in the results! I wonder if this confirms my suspicions that kids are better off with one-on-one loving attention from a carer, even a non-parent carer, than in a big childcare centre (as long as they are loving and trusted by the child).

I wonder what implications this has for the "Christian community" model? I wonder if it's more that mum and/or dad should be available all or most of the time? So even if someone is watching the kids, mum or dad is still mostly close by and available. This would be close to what happens in the "community parenting" of other cultures and times, and probably in Proverbs 31 as well. And it's a model which certainly works better in an extended household, as Fiona points out!

Anyhow, I can see some revised thoughts coming up ...

Thank you.

Ruth said...

Thanks for this post Jean, and your other ones on this topic. I've been stretched to really think about this issue, which I have somewhat avoided thinking about in the past.

I am looking forward to the next installments too.

Although I now only have two little ones at home, and the other three at school - these posts have actually changed my attitude more towards the school aged children. I have not sent any of my children to childcare, nor plan to - but once they have reached school, I've had a 'now I have some more time to myself' attitude that has possibly been very dismissive of my older children and unhelpful for me in my approach to parenting them. In the past two weeks, since reading the first post, and comments, this has changed. I have made more effort to be available to them, to pick them up from school with joy, rather than a deep-seated personal attitude of frustration, and I have made a bigger effort in looking after them and delighting in them, and with them. So thanks - not necessarily what the posts are about - but a great result for my family anyway! Thank you.

Jean said...

Dear Ruth,

Thank you so much for sharing that with us. I'm so encouraged to hear that God has challenged and encouraged you in some small way through what I wrote. It's so true - we all easily slip into the "children are a burden" way of thinking! Thanks for reminding us to love and serve our kids wholeheartedly and with enthusiasm and joy.

Love Jean.

Susie said...

Hi Jean,
Even though I have not contributed to these threads I have been emailing girlfriends about your blog and it has been sparking other conversations. Thank you for raising the questions here that so many of us struggle with and need to reflect on. If it wasn't for trusted Xn friends I am sure I would not have managed the early years of parenting.And..I thank God for Play gives me thirty minutes to read, make a call, have a cup of tea before continuing on in my day.
Well done Jean...God is using your gifts here in an amazing way.

Jean said...

Thanks, Susie, and amen to playschool!! :)

Erin said...

I've been reading this with interest. I am currently studying early childhood education (it's a bachelor of education which means I can teach children from birth to 8 years/Grade 2).

Through my study I have seen quite good childcares and also really bad ones. In my opinion for good child development, children under 2shouldn't be in regualr care (this does not include a few hours a week being cared for by friends/family to help the mother).

I plan not to work in childcare because it goes against my beliefs, instead I hope to work in preschool because of the benefits which comes from good quality preschool.

As a side issue, I was wondering if you could apply your thoughts to missionaries sending their children to boarding school so they can continue their work?
Our family homeschooled in primary school and then came back from the mission feild when I reached highschool - though I know some people critised my parents for 'putting their children ahead of Gods work'. Though my parents believed that even during the teen years they had to first care for their childrens wellbeing and do Gods work in a country where they could do that.

Jean said...

Dear Erin,

Thanks for some useful observations from someone who's seen childcare from the inside! Very helpful, and what you say sounds spot on to me.

I don't know enough about the boarding school issue to say a lot either way! I know parents who decided as yours did, and their children thrived; and others who sent teenagers to quality mission boarding schools, and their children thrived!

Weighing up how to care for your kids while pursuing mission and ministry is always a tricky question, isn't it?! Clearly we must never neglect our children's needs - but to allow them to share some of the cost of ministry and mission is actually loving for them as well as others.

Like your parents, I think parents always need to love and care for their children and that the Bible makes clear this is one of their first responsibilities before God (so the old school approach to mission where you sent 5 year olds to full-time baording school is clearly unhelpful!)- but it's also right for children to share the costs of ministry and mission (although I don't think I would include undermining a sensitive child's security and trust as among the reasonable costs, if this was the price of secondary boarding school for some children). So individual decisions about boarding schools would have to depend on factors like parental philosophy, the personality of the kids and the schools available.

Lots of rambling! I'm sure your ideas about this are clearer than mine!!

Love Jean.