Oliver James: Mother doesn't know best

Exactly half the emails I received in response to my observations two weeks ago about nursery daycare for under-threes more than begged to differ with my view that it is often not a terribly good idea. Anna King's son, for example, who has been in daycare since the age of one, for half the week, 'looks forward to his nursery sessions, playing with the other children in a small group ... when we pick him up at the end of the day he's often lively and chatty, as he is with us at home.' Several other mothers had similar tales to tell, and I am pleased to hear it. However, that does not mean the overall evidence regarding the matter can be ignored (see my latest book, They F*** You Up).

Sally Unwin took me to task for lack of realism. 'Working is not a choice for me but a necessity.' Her job as a lone-parents adviser meant my views 'doubly irritated' her 'as someone who daily provides help, support and advice to single mothers and fathers who want to move from the poverty line to slightly above this, many of whom cannot manage this without daycare of some kind for their children'.

I have to agree with the retort to this provided by reader Annie Sly, a retired Ofsted inspector who observed innumerable minders and nurseries. She wrote: 'It makes no sense to me for a nation to be paying parents to pay other people to look after their very young children when most parents do that job better themselves ... It has always concerned me that numbers of children are being cared for in nurseries and creches and many do not like it, but are put there each day and can do nothing except show their dislike and unhappiness by their behaviour ... nursery staff do not know what the child is like outside the nursery and the parents have no idea that the child is a different person at nursery. My own four children,' wrote Sly, 'attended playgroup/nursery when they became three and two of them had trouble settling ... I was not aware until I stayed and saw for myself that their behaviour was not normal for them - and this was at age three, when they can give you some clues.'

But reader Anna Dukes would not agree, and it would be more than my life is worth to not present her view ('I hope that you have the balls to print this letter or to at least acknowledge in print the other side of the coin, instead of scaring parents by your useless, futile comments.') Her daycared toddler has learnt to understand 'the importance of sharing, interacting with other children, learning how to communicate, and gains a huge amount from the stimulating environment of the school'. But that defies both the scientific evidence and my experience. The greatest lie about daycare is the idea that under the age of three, children get much from their peers. While they can play happily enough alongside each other, in parallel universes, parents remain their primary focus. I await Anna Dukes's disagreement with trepidation.

oliver.james@observer.co.uk

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