Parents are often put into difficult situations where, either from economic reasons or otherwise, they’re forced to return to work early after having children. Some parents have a different motivation: they want to make career choices on their own terms. Every parent needs something a bit different to be satisfied with their career and we can’t judge those who choose to pursue it. After all, a happy and satisfied parent makes the best role model for their children. But can we combine our kids’ needs and our parental needs without neglecting either? (And end up with a clean conscience at the end?)
What plays a role?
There are many factors that can help us decide whether our child is ready for preschool or even a day-care service. One factor is the child’s maturity: mental, physical, and social-emotional, and another factor is the type of preschool: number of children per class, number of teachers, and the amount of time children spend there.
Children’s development follows a pattern. It’s said that 90% of our character is developed in the first three years of life, the so-called crucial time of development. A two-year-old is still forming the important psychological trait of “secure attachment” to the people around them. This process starts roughly in the first year of life and is still in progress by age two. A teacher or a caretaker who has to provide for multiple children at the same time cannot manage this important attachment, since it’s primarily created one-on-one with those closest to the child (parents, siblings, extended family, etc).
Bowlby’s theory speaks about the importance of establishing a secure attachment to the closest provider—the parent. In this attachment, the child finds physical and emotional satisfaction, as it provides him or her with a sense of security. The experiences from early-in-life relationships help develop the ability to create and maintain relationships later in life. Children naturally seek to be close to people to whom they have this attachment, and displaying emotions—laughing, crying and yelling—are how they express this. Parents’ instinctive reaction is usually to provide care and safety, removing fear and anxiety from the child. If the parents’ behavior is avoidant or inconsistent, an insecure attachment forms instead, causing emotional deprivation and increasing the chance of behavioral dysfunctions.
Preschool and stress
A growing number of studies speaks about an increased level of stress hormones in toddlers who spend a long time with preschool caretakers. Children who spend more than eight hours a day outside home care showed the highest levels of cortisol (the stress hormone). It’s been proven that consistent high cortisol levels lead to sleeping disorders, a weak immune system, or blood sugar abnormalities. On top of that, there’s the emotional deprivation that the child feels during separation, while they’re at preschool.
Even though it’s a difference of one year, two-year olds have completely different needs than three-year-olds. On top of higher demands to hygiene, nutrition, or sleep, two-year-olds very often need an individual approach, more support and help, enough time to do an activity, and the teachers’ efforts to understand their mostly non-verbal communication.
As mentioned before, the type of preschool plays into the decision. You can’t compare a class of 8–10 children with two teachers and a class of 20 children with one teacher. No matter how professional and capable a teacher is, they wouldn’t be able to give a two-year-old in that environment the attention and individual care they need.
Are there any positives?
Despite all this, children being away from home in an institution with quality caretaking can have its benefits and push children’s development in the right direction. Children also learn by observing their peers and even though two-year-olds may be too young to engage in group activities, they can still watch and absorb proper social patterns.
Researchers in Norway discovered that there is a minimal correlation between the time spent in preschool and the development of behavioral issues. The research done by the London School of Economics and Oxford University in 2016 showed that children aged two to three were more stimulated by interacting with other children in preschools than with adults, which lead to an improvement in their development. According to the research, singing, painting and crafting (all common preschool activities) have a positive influence on children.
Time spent at preschool
A crucial thing the research didn’t mention was the amount of time children actually spent in preschool. Again, there is a big difference between spending the entire day away from parents and spending just a couple of hours per week. When we talk about only a couple of hours, it works as a slow training in separation, which the child can manage.
Every child grows up at a different pace and their character requires something different each time. Thanks to the many options we have today, we can always make a choice that is tailored precisely to the needs of our children. We should, however, remember that two-year-olds need more time with their parents, even when the external caretaker is the best there can be. Small groups of children should also be prioritized.
In the end, it’s best to follow your own intuition and not just follow the opinions and advice of others. After all, it is we, the parents, who know best what our child needs.
Zachrisson, H. D., Dearing, E., Lekhal, R. and Toppelberg, C. O. (2013), Little Evidence That Time in Child Care Causes Externalizing Problems During Early Childhood in Norway. Child Dev, 84: 1152–1170
May Britt Drugli, Elisabet Solheim, Stian Lydersen, Vibeke Moe, Lars Smith, Turid Suzanne Berg-Nielsen. Elevated cortisol levels in Norwegian toddlers in childcare. Early Child Development and Care, 2017
Bowlby, J., Vazba a ztráta (svazek I., Vazba), Portál, 2010