Proposed plan ... Long daycare will offer flexible hours, operating during the evening and on weekends.

Proposed plan ... Long daycare will offer flexible hours, operating during the evening and on weekends.

An article in The Australian earlier this week grabbed my attention. Titled 'Bid to trial late-night childcare', it reported a potential trial of “flexible” hours at long daycare centres, to allow them to operate during the evening and on weekends. Or, as it was described in the article, “round-the-clock care”.

The trial has been proposed by Goodstart Early Learning, a partnership of The Benevolent Society, Mission Australia, the Brotherhood of St Laurence and Social Ventures Australia, who took over many of the ABC Centres when ABC Learning so spectacularly imploded a few years back. Goodstart describe the proposal as offering more flexible solutions to support the changing needs of Australia's families. Rather optimistically, I think, they want to investigate how they can “provide access to quality early learning and care beyond the traditional operating hours".

We’re not all given the luxury to pick and choose our hours, particularly not when consumer demand is for everything to be available to us 24/7 

My question: Is around-the-clock care selfish? Sad? Or just a sign of our times?

Some are convinced that the selfishness of parents is driving the proposed changes, with news articles attracting comments such as: “These kids would just be institutionalised - because their selfish parents are too busy with their own lives and desires or just plain disinterested in caring for them. Out of sight, out of mind”.

That seems like a fair call if parents overwhelmingly took advantage of such care to "institutionalise" their children ... well, around the clock. But come on: would that really happen? I know that some people who don’t yet have children might believe intellectually that parents will seize upon any opportunity to offload their offspring, but as a mum I truly believe that the vast, vast majority of parents always have their child’s best interests top of mind. Sure, our children’s needs have to be balanced with our own financial, emotional and social needs, but that lifelong give-and-take is called being part of a family unit.

So would it be selfish? No, I don’t think so.

But sad? Yes, I think there are aspects of the proposal that are sad. Primarily I think it’s sad that the government will potentially consider subsidising around-the-clock long daycare in preference to subsidising a home-based nanny. If parents are working night shifts or weekends and could have their child looked after in their own familiar environment, surely that would be better? Better for the child and the parents? Yet sadly it’s not an affordable option for many, as home-based care doesn’t attract a generous government rebate.

On a personal level it’s also sad for both parents and child when there isn’t a wider family support network available to step in. It’s a function, of course, of our increasingly mobile and busy lives. While mobility and work provide us with a level of freedom and material security that previous generations could only dream about, they also come at a cost. That’s progress, I guess.

So is it sad? In some ways, yes.

Above all else though, extended daycare hours are most definitely a sign of our times. A generation ago, the norm was to have two-parent families with a working father and a stay-at-home mother. Of course there were dual-income families and single parent families too, but a generation ago they were a minority. And it was easier to achieve the “norm” back then, with the average home costing around four times the average income.

Fast-forward to now and the average home costs around eight times the average income (more, in some cities). That’s a doubling in real value and inevitably it means that the “average” family will need two incomes to achieve the same goals as their parents. Hence, more than half of all women with young (preschool age) children are in the workforce, and for couple families, 45 percent of children aged 0–2 years have both parents employed.

Furthermore, with around 40 percent of the workforce estimated to be in casual, contracting or other non-permanent positions, we’re not all given the luxury to pick and choose our hours. Particularly not when consumer demand for everything - from our veterinary surgery to our supermarkets, our telecommunications call centres to takaway food store - to be available to us 24/7. Again, that’s progress. But again, it comes at a cost.

Extended hours childcare is definitely a sign of our times – but is a good one? Or is there a better solution?

Have your say about "around-the-clock" childcare in the Essential Baby forum or comment below.

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