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Guilting parents out of child care

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In the crass world of Canadian right-wing politics, there is a surefire way to diffuse voters' earnest desire for affordable, high quality child care and early learning options: play the guilt card.

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley did it just last week in response to a federal Liberal promise to revive the national child-care program Paul Martin said he would implement before losing grip of his fledgling minority government five years ago.

Finley reportedly said: "It's the Liberals who wanted to ensure that parents are forced to have other people raise their children. We do not believe in that."

Her comments caused a firestorm, revealing the left-right framing divide on this issue.

Liberal MP Bob Rae responded in outrage: "For decades we've realized that women are working, men are working and the second thing we've realized is that there's a great benefit to children from working and playing with others and learning with others. The notion somehow that child care is some form of alien abduction is just completely preposterous."

NDP MP Olivia Chow did too: "Finley insulted all teachers, all early childhood educators, child-care workers, organizers of parents' resource centres and even babysitters. She is trying to inflict guilt on all working parents -- a truly shameful, divisive behaviour."

Child care expert Martha Friendly spoke for working parents when she noted Finley's remarks are out of sync with modern day reality.

"I'm stunned to hear a government official say this in the 21st century," said Friendly, who is executive director of the Childcare Resource and Research Unit. "The view that women who work 'give their kids to someone else to be raised' is an astonishing one. I'm sure that hardworking mothers and fathers who are employed believe they're raising their own children and are just hoping for some support to help them do so."

So why do Conservatives deploy a frame that seems at odds with the majority of working families today? And how do they get away with it?

Within the neoliberal frame, Conservatives equate the problem of child care with parents' responsibility to figure it out themselves. In the process, Conservatives tap into parents' anxieties about leaving their children in other people's hands while they work. It comes out as child care = bad parenting and it reinforces the conservative value of individual responsibility (none of this 'it takes a village to raise a child' stuff for conservatives).

On the surface, you'd think it would be a difficult frame to sell because it sounds so, well, 1950s. Even for those mothers who really truly wish they could stay home with their children, most can't afford such a luxury. Most Canadian households need two income earners to make it anymore. In Canada, 84 per cent of mothers with children aged 6-15 are in the paid workforce; 69 per cent of mothers with children under two work. The revolution of women flooding the workplace quietly unfolded over the past generation but our child care options haven't evolved to reflect it.

Guilt can be a strong emotion, especially since many parents wish they could spend more time at home with their children.

The Harper Conservatives diffuse the very real need for quality child care options by deploying their favourite code word: choice.

"We believe that [parents] should have the choice as to whether they care for their children at home or whether they use daycare or whether someone close them, a family member or neighbour, looks after that," Finley said in the House of Commons in an attempt to quell the firestorm.

The Harper Conservatives' utilization of the word "choice" is consciously misleading and a cynical use of a term that, for progressives, means creating new quality, regulated, affordable not-for-profit child care spaces that parents can trust (and, really, aren't our kids worth it?).

Among his more cynical moves, one of the first things Harper did when he was elected five years ago was to cancel the national child care program and offer, instead, a $100 monthly "universal child care benefit". The great unkept secret is that this bonus -- in focus group sessions conducted by Environics Research last week in Toronto, I listened to one mother refer to it has her "baby bonus" -- does nothing to create new child-care spaces. And at $100, it falls far short of the actual daily cost to parents opting for child care.

Derek Leebosh, from Environics Research, observes the Conservatives' use of the word 'choice' is interesting, since it's usually associated with the abortion rights movement. In practice, the Conservatives' use of "choice" is neoliberal code for "if you want children that's your problem and it'll cost you".

In the absence of a true range of child care options they can trust, those families who receive their "baby bonus" are relieved to get any kind of help. Does this suggest Canadian parents are easily bought off? Actually, it's more complicated than that.

Canadians are regularly bombarded with a rich lexicon of neoliberal catch phrases to make them feel badly about needing quality child-care options.

As Martha Friendly, Laurel Rothman and Katherine Scott make clear in this op-ed, the National Post weighed into the child care debate by recycling familiar phrases that are emotionally loaded: non-profit, regulated child care becomes "institutionalized daycare". Working mothers become selfish parents "pushing babies out of the nest", "farming children out to strangers at a tender age". Advocates for better child care options are castigated as "forcing" parents to use "a massive coast-to-coast daycare program".

Who says we don't have Tea Party antics here in Canada?

The Conservative frame on child care helps tap into another conservative and very American value: small government within a free private market system. They're happy to let the market fill the gap with unregulated, private, for-profit child-care businesses.

Their "choice" code word also triggers simmering discontent with government in general. That discontent is troubling for progressives, because it's not only extreme conservatives who take a dim view of government efficiency and service provision. Many biconceptuals (social progressive, fiscally conservative) share this view.

Years of Conservative messaging that government is wasteful and ineffectual (Toronto Mayor Rob Ford swept to power with his 'gravy train' metaphor) triggers deep emotions. Toronto Star readers articulated it this way in these comments:

"State daycare: Canada cannot afford to get in the business of raising children -- if we truly want to help working...... democracyinjeopardy"

"Why?: Why am I paying my tax dollars to subsidize the keeping of other people's children? It sure as hell...... Steve_YYZ"

"Canada should not be providing child care services: Nor should Canada be paying people's child care expenses. They are not essential services. Uncle Cool"

"Twenty years ago when my kids were small I was interested in a daycare program. Now my kids are adults and like millions of other taxpayers I have no further need of such services. I've also had 20 years to watch what happens when bureaucrats try to run anything. Forget it Mike. I don't want the TTC approach to service or operational management implemented in child care centres. I was quite pleased with the wonderful "unregulated" caregiver to whose home we brought them every day when they were pre-schoolers. Yes, we shopped around and met some that we didn't feel were a good fit so we chose not to do business with them. But we also had issues about some of the staff at the regulated daycare they attend before and after school. One option is not inherently better than the other so best to have all the options in place and let people choose. Besides we can't afford another grand national scheme."

Under the conservative child-care frame, early learning opportunities for our children quickly dissolve into an us against them war of words, overshadowing more progressive Canadian values such as social responsibility, fairness, and caring. Also, eclipsing parents' real need for quality child care.

Through it all, progressives struggle to speak to Canadians' diminished faith in their own governments.

Generally speaking, progressives in Canada have taken several approaches to framing the issue, but all avoid the elephant in the room: the best quality early learning programs the world over are run by governments. For progressives, Canadians' diminished sense of what government is capable of -- fanned and fueled by conservatives -- makes child care harder to sell. Though not impossible.

This poll, for instance, shows Canadian parents prefer child care to their $100 cheque by a ratio of two to one.

A poll in 2006, when the national child-care program was axed, showed 50 per cent of Canadians wanted a national child-care program while only 35 per cent wanted the Conservatives' baby bonus cheque.

Other research shows parents who rely on child care worry greatly about quality. They want their children to be safe and to receive good early learning opportunities. Progressives have responded to this and attempted to broaden the idea of child care to include early learning. They draw on reams of neurological and psychological research that shows children who have access to quality early learning in the first seven years of life emerge better equipped to handle life as students and, later, as adults. In this frame, early learning = superior education.

While the conclusion speaks to parents' quality concerns, it fails to hit the same emotional hot button as the conservative guilt tactics and ineffective/nanny state government frame. In fact, some parents take exception to the notion that their child could possibly receive a better education outside the home. For parents who have no option but to work, they hope for the best early learning opportunities for their children but that isn't a primary motivator.

Sometimes, progressives lock themselves in the conservative "choice" frame by arguing the federal government should give Canadians "real choice". While the intention is to argue for the creation of more child-care and early learning programs for parents to choose from, by repeating the "choice" frame progressives inadvertently reinforce the conservative frame. (George Lakoff: Negating the frame activates the frame).

What, then, to do? Canadians believe we are more caring and sharing than many other societies (especially the U.S.) and we hold the strong progressive value of social responsibility (people shouldn't get left behind). But, above all, we are a pragmatic people. If there is work to be done, then by golly we will do it.

The main thing is that, unlike the 1950s when apparently father knew best, it now takes two income earners for most households to make it these days. Most Canadian households have to work. Many can't even afford to take the first full year off work to be with baby. By steadying the progressive frame on this lens -- early learning and child care as a practical necessity -- we come closer to speaking to parents' fears, as well as to their hopes for something better than Sesame Street to feed their child's growing brain.

For progressives, it's not about choice (walk away from the conservative frame). It's about social responsibility -- to work to help keep the household afloat and contribute to a healthy national economy as well as to ensure our children are in safe hands, getting the best possible care and learning while they're at it.

Yes, many parents would prefer to stay at home until their children are older. I'd like to live on a farm, grow my own food and embrace my inner hermit but life has a way of delivering a multitude of reality checks. If you have children, you probably have to get out there and work to provide for them.

Parting thoughts: In my own research into parents' perception of early learning and child care, I learned ...

Parents struggle to find care for their pre-school children and they worry about the quality of that care.

Cost/affordability, is an important factor in a parent's selection of early learning and care.

Many parents struggle to find flexible care hours and are open to more options.

While parents would like to see more flexible, affordable, high quality early learning and care options, there is no culture of expectation -- many accept the burden of responsibility lies at the feet of parents.

Parents are receptive to a progressive early learning and care system but they have trouble envisioning and understanding the nuts and bolts of such a radically new system. In reality parents want a system that helps them manage, but they like to think that it's about what's best for the child.

And, when it comes to ensuring our public health and safety, Canadians expect our governments to regulate businesses (even child care businesses) to make sure profit doesn't come before our collective well-being.

This blog was originally posted on www.framedincanada.com, a blog about issue framing in Canada.

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