…and the erosion of the family that the Church isn’t talking about enough
Orthodox Christians are champions of the family, and rightly so. Stretching back to the beginning of history, marriage – and, by extension, the family – was the first institution that God created (Gen. 2:18, 24-25). Chronologically, the family supersedes the State, the Church, and any other institution in society. For that reason, Christians often call the family the “basic unit” or “basic institution” of society.
Inseparable from the concept of the family is the principle that parents have the primary responsibility to care for the children that God has entrusted to them. This responsibility springs from the unique, natural relationship between parents and their children. Over the first few months and years of their lives, most children are raised almost exclusively by their parents. Over time, parents may gradually delegate some of their responsibility to professional caregivers and teachers. However, their right and responsibility as primary caregivers are never forfeited; they are only delegated. Ultimately, parental responsibilities towards their children are non-transferable.
This responsibility is not only natural but also biblical. Throughout the Bible, God commands parents to teach their children the law of God, their shared history, and their religious practices. The wisdom of the book of Proverbs is imparted as from parents to children: “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching.” Deuteronomy 6:7 also says that the people of God,
“…shall teach [God’s laws] diligently to your children and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”
Although the Bible teaches that parents bear the primary responsibility to raise their children, it does not indicate that parents are required to do it alone. All parents need assistance in this task. In the Reformed tradition, we even make commitments at the baptism of our children to “instruct them in these things or have them instructed in them” (from the “Form for the Baptism of Infants,” in the Book of Praise). We acknowledge, basically from day one, that there may be others involved in the raising and teaching of our children.
Because of this natural and biblical basis, Christians have traditionally advocated for primary parental responsibility in matters of modern education (for example, by advocating for parental choice on whether to homeschool or which school to send their children to).
But as the church and individual Christians became less directly involved in delivering education, the government gradually took on more responsibility in this area. Public schools have been available options for more than 100 years now. Almost 90% of Canadian children now attend a fully funded, secular public school for the greater part of their childhood and adolescence. This has had an immense impact on our culture and ongoing transformation into a secular society.
Now, governments in Canada are proposing the single greatest expansion of state authority over the family in the past century in the form of child care policy. And Christians aren’t even batting an eye.
The State’s plans for childcare
When governments and advocacy groups speak of child care, they generally mean non-parental, institutionalized daycare, where trained professionals care for children from a wide variety of households in a daycare facility. (Because child care should refer to the care of a child no matter who provides the care, we’re going to use the term daycare to refer to this professionalized, institutionalized form of child care.)
Daycare typically focuses on children aged 0-5. Recently, daycare has been undergoing a transformation away from being about just caring for children and towards early childhood education. For example, British Columbia recently moved responsibility for child care under the Ministry of Education. This signals that, in essence, the government wants schooling to start at an even earlier age.
In their 2021 budget, the Canadian federal government earmarked $30 billion over the next five years to daycare, with an annual commitment of $9.2 billion by 2026 and beyond. Their goal is to cut daycare fees in half by 2022 and to ensure universal $10 per day daycare is available to all parents by 2026. Subsidizing and regulating daycare falls within provincial responsibility, so the federal government will have to coordinate their efforts with the provinces. This is similar to how Canada’s health care system works: the provinces are responsible for health care, but the federal government provides provincial governments with billions of dollars in funding under the condition that their health care system meet certain national criteria.
Now, although each province requires all children to receive a formal education, there is no such requirement that all children must attend daycare. As it stands right now, the provinces are only planning to make universal, subsidized childcare available for those who want it. Prior to the pandemic, the parents of 57.6% of children wanted non-parental child care, despite the current high cost of such child care.
The government – and many daycare advocates – are keen to establish government-funded daycare spots for a variety of reasons. Their primary argument is that access to daycare helps achieve gender equity for women by relieving mothers (who are disproportionately involved in child care) of the responsibility for caring for children. This enables more women to be employed and narrows the labour force participation rate gap between men and women. Second, advocates think that subsidized daycare will make life more affordable for the average Canadian family. Third, they claim that early childhood learning programs and quality daycare lead to better outcomes for children.
Four problems with State-funded daycare
Why is this approach to child care something Christians should be concerned about? There are at least four problems with this model:
#1: Subsidized daycare encourages more parents to spend less time with their children
If parents are ultimately responsible for raising their children, particularly young children, then subsidizing daycare encourages parents to hand off responsibility for raising their children to others while they pursue economic goals or search for self-fulfillment outside of the home.
A classic principle of economics is that when you subsidize something, which is functionally the same as lowering the cost of something, people demand more of it. They demand more of it because it is cheaper for them. The same principle holds true for daycare. If the government subsidizes daycare, some parents who already use daycare a couple of days a week will find it convenient to use it for the entire week. Or some might start sending their child at age 3 instead of age 4. Other parents, enticed by the lower cost of daycare, will start sending their children to daycare for the first time. Obviously, the time that children spend in daycare is time not spent with their parents.
#2: Subsidized daycare encourages parents to see children as a burden rather than a blessing
The primary argument in favor of subsidizing daycare sees children as a burden rather than a blessing. Supporters of subsidizing daycare view it as a way to increase women’s participation in the labor force and the economy. Without access to daycare, women are “stuck at home” or “forced to stay home” to care for their child(ren). This is against their presumed “true desire” to rejoin the workforce, either to find fulfillment in a career or a higher material standard of living. According to this mindset, children are not a blessing, but a burden on the career advancement or financial stability of parents, particularly mothers. Subsidizing daycare contributes to this mentality.
#3: Subsidized daycare fails to appreciate the choice of some parents to care for their own children
The subsidization of daycare underappreciates the decisions of some parents to stay at home and care for their own children. Our broader culture already looks down upon this decision as, at best, a waste of time or talent or, at worst, perpetuating outdated or sexist stereotypes. This disregard will only grow if our provincial governments support only daycare.
For Christian parents who choose to raise and/or educate their own children, they would be required to pay taxes to support publicly funded daycare while also forgoing the income of a second parent in the workforce that most other families enjoy. In a country where the cost of living – particularly housing – is rising quickly, this extra taxation without any resulting benefit makes it more and more difficult for a parent to prioritize raising their children themselves.
#4: Daycare is not in the best interest of all children
In discussions around daycare, many advocates speak primarily of the benefits to parents, particularly women. But what about the children? Are daycare programs good for all children?
A significant body of evidence suggests not. In their 2019 report A Positive Vision for Child Care Policy Across Canada, Cardus describes how Quebec’s universal, subsidized daycare led to poor outcomes for children. A working paper published by Baker, Gruber, and Milligan finds a correlation between attendance of an institutionalized childcare center and lower social and behavioral skills.*
These findings should not be surprising when we look at the biblical pattern of parents having the ultimate responsibility for raising their children. God designed the structure of a family, and we know He designed it for His glory, our good, and the greater good of society.
What can we do?
For these reasons, Christians should be critics of universal subsidized daycare. Yet, this change in government policy is an opportunity for Christians for at least two reasons.
First, we should continue to praise parents who fully embrace the responsibility to care for and educate their children themselves. The child care provided by stay-at-home parents has been discounted for decades. We live in a capitalist culture driven by goals of productivity and career advancement where many find their primary identity in their work. We also live in a secular culture dominated by individualism and materialism where being a stay-at-home parent is often met with disdain. We need to laud parents who make sacrifices in other areas of life to fulfill this responsibility well. We should support policies that enable parents to care for and educate their children themselves rather than encouraging parents to pass this responsibility to others at earlier and earlier ages.
Secondly, daycare is an incredible opportunity for the Church. Canadians are calling for a government-supported daycare program because they often don’t have the social networks to help them in this task. Many families need daycare due to poverty, disability or sickness, or single parenthood, and we know that childhood years are fundamental in shaping children’s character. Rather than leaving only non-Christians to care for and educate young children, Christians should also pursue childcare careers and make child care a mission field.
Subsidized daycare is often presented as a pro-family policy because it reduces the expenses of many families. Although it might materially enrich some families in the short-term, however, it is more aptly characterized as a get-moms-back-to-“real”-work strategy. Our culture increasingly thinks children should be entrusted to professionals over parents. Parents, relieved of their duty, are then expected to work full-time. Extending significant funding to daycares will entrench this mentality in our society and perhaps increasingly creep into the Church. Instead, government policy ought to emphasize that the care of children is primarily the responsibility of parents, and this is a task – and calling – to be taken up with joy.
We have a window of opportunity to influence the shape of childcare systems now as these systems are being formed, but it will be much harder to change these systems once they are in place. Consider the points raised above, talk about it with your family and friends, consider how you can be a salt and a light to the world around us, and start a dialogue with your representatives today.
* Michael Baker, Jonathan Gruber, Kevin Milligan. (2019). The Long-Run Impacts of a Universal Child Care Program. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy. 11; 3. p. 1-26
Levi Minderhoud is the BC Manager, and Anna Nienhuis is a policy analyst and editor for ARPA Canada.