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Dutch parents, experts and policy makers: conflicting views of day care.

Child care has long been a controversial subject in the Netherlands. Until the mid-1980s, the Netherlands, among European nations, had the second lowest percentage (24 percent) of mothers (who have children under the age of 10) working outside the home (European Commission Network on Child Care, 1992). (Only Ireland at 18 percent had a smaller percentage of mothers working outside the home.) The percentage rose dramatically to roughly 46 percent by 1991, but still remains low in comparison to such countries as Denmark (86 percent) and Belgium (69 percent). Most Dutch mothers now work at least part-time. A new type of middle-class family life is developing: a full-time working father and a part-time working mother who have one or two children in part-time day care (Singer, 1991; Van Dijke, Terpstra & Hermanns, 1994).

This article examines to what extent national policy meets parents' evolving needs for child care. First, the author explores the Dutch government's child care policy in relation to the views held by Dutch education professionals. Second, policy experts' views on child care are contrasted with parents' existing needs.

National Child Care Policy in the Netherlands

Until 1990, the Netherlands had very few child care centers. Most of those available were subsidized by the government. This enormous shortage of day care centers resulted in long waiting lists, but that began to change in 1990 when the government passed legislation known as the "Stimulative Measure on Childcare" (Ministerie van W.V.C., 1992a, 1992b). Government officials designed this legislation to create a rapid growth in the number of child care facilities. Local governments and employers at first received subsidies to purchase child care slots in centers and family day care homes. Today, child care centers must work on a commercial basis (Ministerie van W.V.C., 1993a).

This stimulation program has been very successful in several ways (Ministerie van W.V.C., 1994). Three years after implementation, Dutch day care capacity is double--the program created child care slots for 47,849 additional children. Well-educated parents with better jobs, however, profited the most from this program. Employers invest less in child care for the children of their unskilled and easily replaceable employees. Lower-income parents find for-profit private centers to be too expensive (Ministerie van W.V.C., 1994).

The Dutch government keeps a low profile in ensuring the quality of child care facilities. Minimal national standards will be established later, and then incorporated at the local level. Local inspectors will be required to enforce these standards (Commissie Kwaliteit Kinderopvang, 1994; Ministerie van W.V.C., 1994). In addition to basic standards, child care professionals will establish a self-regulatory system to ensure high standards.

A discussion of Dutch child care policies would be incomplete without mentioning the national and local governments' preventive policy. Playgroups are designed to give ethnic minority parents information on upbringing and to stimulate disadvantaged children's development (Ministerie van W.V.C., 1991; Ministerie van W.V.C., 1993b). This preventive policy is, therefore, particularly aimed at the same groups who are at risk of being excluded altogether from child care by those facilities' commercialization.

The Media on Child Care

The public attitude toward child care is much more positive as a result of the Stimulative Measures legislation. An evaluative paper on the legislation, developed by the Ministry of Welfare, National Health and Culture (WVC) in 1992, reports that "day care for children is on the way to becoming an accepted social phenomenon in the Netherlands." Media discussions of child care, however, are more heated than ever (e.g., see the Volkskrant of December 1992 to February 1993).

In the Netherlands, such media controversy is nothing new. The University of Amsterdam studied how national newspapers, magazines, women's journals and academic literature report on the effects of child care (Singer & Paardekooper, 1992). The study showed that since the 1970s, child development experts, politicians and some parents have regularly made public, emotional statements against child care. These critics have depicted gloomy scenarios: babies as "little wet bundles being delivered to the crache"; only "extremely strong children will be able to cope with this"; child care is equivalent to "trading in child-meat."

In spite of this coverage, during the past 20 years relatively few negative articles about child care have appeared. Of the 71 articles we found about child care's effects, only 14 were completely negative. Most of the articles in favor of child care, however, took a defensive stance, as evidenced by titles such as: "Will my child survive a crache?" and "Are children of working mothers insecure?" Nevertheless, 47 of the 71 articles pointed out child care's great advantages for social development. Only those articles in favor of child care actually referred to scientific research.

Experts on Child Care

Very few Dutch researchers have carried out research on working parents' child care needs (Singer, 1992a). During the last 20 years, Dutch research on the care and education of children younger than 4 focused primarily on the children's upbringing within the family, especially on the mother-child relationship. Only recently has the father's role been "discovered." Attachment theory dominated this research, especially updated theories based on the work of Van IJzendoorn, Tavecchio, Goossens and Vergeer (1982) and Belsky (1984), which are broader in scope than the original theory (Bowlby, 1969). Other popular theories are based on studies of home-based early intervention programs (i.e., programs for early identification of developmental disorders) and educational programs in child care centers for ethnic minorities (Rispens & Van der Meulen, 1992; Van Loggem & Bekkers, 1994).

A strong tradition of problem- and prevention-oriented research persists, based on the assumptions that all parents are in need of expert guidance, and that at-risk groups urgently need expert guidance to cope adequately with their children (Singer, 1992b, 1993). Parents' unique experiences, needs, educational values and coping styles seldom are taken into account. In fact, very little research is available about the daily life and family upbringing in minority or at-risk groups--the intended recipients of the intervention programs.

By large, children are studied in dyadic relationships with adults. Researchers' advice to parents generally concentrates on how to handle an individual child. The most common suggestion, based on attachment theory, is to be sensitive and responsive to an individual child's signals. Little research exists on interactions among young children or adults and a group of children, which are the norm in child care centers. The expert's attitude toward child care was, and remains to a great extent, neglectful.

Parental Needs

Discussions about child care rarely include parental opinions. To ameliorate this situation, the author conducted two studies--one of 144 parents who send their children to child care centers (Singer, 1991), and one of 754 parents whose child care arrangements include using baby sitters, family child care and center-based care (Van Dijke et al., 1994). In both research projects, parents with a higher level of education clearly made the most use of formal child care facilities.

Middle-class parents' experiences and wishes appeared to be profoundly different from the experts' thinking regarding quality child care. In both studies, we found that working parents usually do not feel any more guilty than parents who choose to keep their children at home, in contrast to what some experts believe. Rather, guilt appears, to a certain extent, to be simply a natural part of parenting (Van Dijke et al., 1994). Guilt usually is caused by some concrete situation in which parents felt they reacted inadequately. For instance, they might feel guilty if they could not take leave from work to care for a sick child and instead had to scramble to find a caretaker (Singer, 1991). A relatively small group of parents expressed doubts about whether child care was good for their children (Van Dijke et al., 1994). Most Dutch mothers who work, however, do so only part-time; those we interviewed made use of day care only 2 or 3 days a week.

Many parents did have difficulty at first leaving their child with someone else, particularly if the child was still an infant (Singer, 1991). Many Dutch early childhood experts expressed doubts about the benefits of care for infants younger than 7 months. Many parents, on the other hand, suggested that babies younger than 7 months familiarize with the new situation more easily than older children. Parents often felt separation problems when the child was younger than 7 months, but the children experienced separation problems more often if they started when they were older than 7 months. Nevertheless, most parents and children quickly get used to the new situation, and parents' doubts soon disappear. Caregivers could help the transition period by maintaining a positive attitude and paying individual attention to the parents and the child. Parents most value knowing that they can trust their child's caregiver.

Parents, in general, have two simple criteria when judging the quality of child care facilities: "Can I leave my child here when I am working?" and "Is the day care good for my child?" (Van Dijke et al., 1994). Parents have a number of complaints with regard to the first criterion. Child care centers' hours of operation seldom correspond with parents' working hours. In addition, parents express concern that ill children will not be cared for and must be sent home. At home, parents can make arrangements to have their child cared for by a baby sitter or relative. These arrangements can be more flexible for parents who work in the evenings, during

the weekend or at unpredictable hours, but child minders and baby sitters can resign or be taken ill themselves, leaving the parents with no child care. Research shows that the lack of correspondence in other countries between a child care center's operating hours and parents' working hours, and care unexpectedly being withdrawn, also cause an extensive amount of stress for working parents, which, in turn, has a negative effect on the family (Hughes & Galinsky, 1988).

Dutch parents have very modest expectations from child care. First, they want positive interactions between all people involved. The atmosphere and the way staff treat the children should be pleasant, homely, relaxed, warm and loving (Van Dijke et al., 1994). How the staff treats the parents, and whether, at the end of the day, staff members can say something personal about their child is another critical selling point (Singer, 1991). Parents also find it important that their children learn good manners, obedience and how to behave with other children. Many parents admitted that they are reluctant, and find it somewhat difficult, to discipline their children at home because they do not want to disturb their children's spontaneity. Thus, they generally welcome supplemental discipline in the center. In addition, many parents wanted their children's caregivers to encourage creativity and imagination. Parents do value the smaller environment and homeyness afforded by child minders or baby sitters.

Middle-class parents have little affinity with the sometimes pedagogic or lofty goals local governments and some field experts set for day care facilities. In general, they do not want a more formal academic program. Parents also feel no need for guidance or expert advice from staff regarding their parenting. Parents would prefer discussing their child with staff while on an equal footing (Singer, 1991). Day care centers rarely inform parents of their pedagogic policies, according to parents (Mutant, 1993; Singer, 1991). Parents also note that they have more influence on a child minder or baby sitter than on child care center staff (Van Dijke et al., 1994).

Parents of Ethnic Minorities

The needs and wishes of ethnic minority parents deserve special attention. In the Netherlands, both the national and local governments view child care centers, especially playgroups, as a type of preventive policy, a means of giving ethnic minority parents information on upbringing and a means of stimulating development in children from disadvantaged backgrounds (Ministerie van W.V.C., 1991; Ministerie van W.V.C., 1993b). Yet this preventive policy is particularly aimed at the groups who are at risk of being excluded altogether from child care. To reiterate, the Netherlands' national stimulation program has mostly benefited well-educated, well-paid parents. Employers invest less in child care for the children of unskilled and easily replaceable employees (especially immigrant parents). Most experts suggest, however, that lack of quality child care facilities for all children can cause a number of much more expensive and extensive problems for society (Geense, 1994; Van der Zwaart, 1995).

Very little information is available about how different ethnic minorities organize child care for their children. When child care centers were subsidized, they were quite popular with Surinamese and Antillian families. Now, however, local governments' policies will determine whether these children can keep their subsidized places. Other minority groups, such as Turks or Moroccans, seldom use formal child care in Holland. Some child care centers have developed a special policy to attract Turkish families, such as hiring qualified Turkish caregivers. Since the commercialization of child care centers, however, they serve almost no Turkish children.

It is possible that many young children of working immigrant parents receive care in the informal circle of family and friends. Only anecdotal evidence is available

about the ways parents try to cope with their child care problems--leaving the child alone in a room above the restaurant where the parents work, keeping older girls at home to take care of the younger ones, sending the child back to Turkey until he or she has reached school age, or parceling the child among many relatives (Geense, 1994; Van der Zwaart, 1995).

Until now, the Netherlands' child care policy has favored formal child care in centers with qualified caregivers. Also, many experts have stressed the need for better training and higher qualifications. Most baby sitters, child minders or grandmothers, for example, do not have child care certificates or diplomas. Yet, many parents we interviewed favored more informal child care in a family context and are very satisfied with it. This preference for informal child care might be even stronger among minority groups. Policymakers and experts must change their negative image of informal care, and support parents' preferences.

Policy Recommendations

Working parents make decisions based on all aspects of their family's circumstances. On this basis, they formulate their desires for their children (Lamer & Phillips, 1994). In addition to convenience, they want high quality child care that is, above all, pleasant and homey. The government's idea of encouraging widespread formalized care is a mistake from parents' perspective. Rather, government should investigate possibilities for more informal child care supports. The government could provide tax incentives, for instance, that would make informal child care financially more attractive. It should also investigate greatly expanding services to working parents within the more formal care circuit.

Dutch child care centers seldom include parents in discussions regarding their pedagogic policies (Mutant, 1993; Singer & Miltenburg, 1994). Parents often have very few opportunities to express their pedagogic and care wishes, particularly in child care centers with highly ambitious pedagogic ideals. The professional perspective dominates the view of the family upbringing (Singer & Miltenburg, 1994).

Scientific support in this area is also desperately needed. Many day care centers do not fully explain their policies; instead, the staff work spontaneously, and they limit discussions to among themselves. In particular, methodology aimed at developing social skills and encouraging creativity and imagination is crucial. After all, these are the priorities that parents find so important. According to Dutch parents, a great deal of room for improvement exists. They want centers' hours to correspond better with their working hours; more choice, including informal care options; more clarity and more involvement in the pedagogic policies; and better explanations of how important goals, such as social development, can be realized with groups of young children through child care.

In order to make child care correspond to parents' needs, governments and professionals, within day care centers as well as at the scientific level, need to rethink policymaking (Singer, 1993). They have to put their own pedagogic ideals into perspective and start taking the realities of parents and children as a starting point.

Note: This article was adapted from a keynote presentation given at the 1995 ACEI World Conference in Oulu, Finland, which was sponsored by Finland Association for Childhood Education International and the University of Oulu.


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Elly Singer is Lecturer and Researcher at the Universiteit Utrecht, The Netherlands.
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Title Annotation:day care for children in the Netherlands
Author:Singer, Elly
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Sep 15, 1996
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