Last week I watched two shows on TV that made me think. About parenting, about children and about how to constructively explore and debate Big Issues.
The first was Life at 3. You can watch this show via the web site and I thoroughly recommend it, along with the predecessor show, Life at 1. This is the very public and localised examination of a very large and general longitudinal study of child development. The TV shows follow the same 11 children and their families and explores the specifics of their lives in the context of what this and other research tells us about averages and generalities. They put topics such as stress, obesity and bad behaviour under the microscope.
What I really really like about this show is the way the individual life stories of the children are told through a range of lenses. The aim of the study is described as the search for what it takes to give a child the best shot at life, but it doesn't seek this out merely through the generation of a range of statistics and norms. Rather the show looks at what a kid has going for them in a theoretical way and then proceeds to look at the reality of their lives to find the things which might be helping them to do better, or presenting unexpected barriers.
In watching the show I feel like I learn a lot about the theory, but also about its limitations. About the kids who defy the expectations and about the many opportunities parents have for making a difference, and for changing the course of development in all kinds of ways. It explores really complex and vexed issues without either dumbing them down or losing their unique and human dimensions.
I also watched Insight, a high brow audience participation current affairs show. Last week's show was called Holding the Baby, on child care and parental leave (also available to watch online). I watch this show quite a bit because the format allows them the opportunity to draw on a wide range of views and expertise, they cover interesting topics and the presenter is pretty good. I thought their coverage of the issues of child care and parental leave were thought provoking and host Jenny Brockie's comment that given how many people this effects we haven't really had this debate was right on the money.
But the show was distinctly unsatisfying and conversations I had in the following days showed highly polarised views had in no way been moderated by the discussion. Child care is good, childcare is bad. Maybe quality of care makes a lot of difference, maybe not. Maybe the age of the child or the number of hours of care a week make a difference or maybe not.
And lots and lots of people think that merely asking some of these questions, or voicing opinions about them are dangerous or disrespectful and certainly inciteful, rather than insightful.
Now I have opinions about childcare, as I am sure most parents do. And I have moments of doubt, as I am sure all parents do, about whether I am doing the best job I can raising my child and whether my choices are as good as they can be. And I feel, as I am sure many parents do, hurt and sometimes angry when I feel that other people are telling me I am making bad choices, regardless of whether I agree with them or not. Particularly questions about the balance I strike between my needs and those of my child, about how and where I take the inevitable compromises of family life.
But how are we to ever really gain the best possible understanding if we close our ears? Not to the findings of a single study, not to the views of someone else, but to the questions themselves? You only have to look to how Michael Leunig or Mem Fox have been treated for saying they think childcare is bad bad bad to know there is far too much heat in this, and far less evidence. People state unpopular or ill informed views all the time and generally get ignored, but those that do it about child care get whipped, or in the case of Leunig, threatened with death. I mean can that be right? To kill a man for disapproving of childcare, in the name of his lack of caring? Why do so many people care what he thinks anyway?
It seems to me that to really understand how good, bad or otherwise childcare is you really need to look at the question a bit more like the Life at 3 team would and a bit less like the gladiators in the amphitheatre would.
Start with the research and evidence that already exists. Not just one or two studies that support your own intuitive feelings, but the whole shebang. The good, the bad, the contradictory, the inconclusive. And not just the exec summaries and media briefings. Understand the methodology and how the findings were made. Look at the things that emerge from the data, even where it was outside the scope of the study. When you fully grasp the body of knowledge that has already been captured, then look for what you can know, not just what you can conclude.
Armed with the general now look at some specifics. Why does one kid thrive in full-time care, while another seems to be living up to every stereotype of what can go wrong? Understand that for every kid experiencing care there are all the variables of the care (length, quality etc) and all the variables of the kid (age, personality, family situation, genetic and physiological factors etc). So while the general info is a great starting point for making decisions, it can only ever be of limited value for understanding the individual situation.
Plus, and this is a really big plus, the general body of knowledge has to assume a kind of generic starting point of possibilities. By which I mean evaluating care is something a study most likely does with no alternative point of reference - or at least a point of reference which may be unattainable for many. Is child care better or worse than full time loving maternal care, or is child care better or worse than being on the floor of mummy's office while she works, beside her on the couch while she tries to care for brand new twins and post natal depression or juggling knives while she turns tricks to fund her crack habit? Does care at home feature siblings or peers or activities or outings or 8 hours of TV?
This is what makes Life at 3 so great and Insight so deeply unsatisfying. While the former truly explores what it means to be a parent in a unique and complicated situation and attempts to inform as much as possible the choices parents face within their own landscape, the latter plays one unique situation against another as though all choices exist in a uniform way. And this quite simply creates a range of divisions which are as ridiculous as they are unhelpful. There is a real difference between looking at and talking about the evidence and forming a judgement about what it means in any one situation.
I also finished watching all of Underbelly, which taught me nothing at all but was really engrossing.
Both the kids were also sick again.
Both the kids are also fine again and we are expecting a car park with a hand engraved name plate in the parking lot of our doctor's practice.
And I suspect this little attempt at a light hearted ending is sinking fast...