Staying home with kids is revolutionary

Kids need a primary caretaker during the first three years of their life. When a baby is unclear on who that primary person is the baby gets attachment disorder – which is a nice way of saying brain damage. Other than those three years, twin studies show there is not much you can do to change outcomes in adult life.

If you separate two twin boys at birth, and give them each to different adoptive parents, and they never meet, they will still have sex for the first time at the same age, pick similar jobs and even have similar haircuts. That research really convinced me of how little impact parental steering has on kids.

Then why do parents stay home? To enjoy their kids. To make family life nicer. And to make childhood nicer. Kids who have happier childhood memories are healthier and less depressed as adults.

We have cognitive dissonance because humans have been passing off their kids to someone else for so long.

In early history, children were separated at from their parents around age seven and worked alongside with adults for the rest of their lives. The child was protected not by one parent, but by the community, or the adult who depended on the child’s labor.

In the Middle Ages, the Church was responsible for moral development of children, and it was a parent’s job to hand a child over – spiritually – to the Church. Parents handed over their children physically as well, because when kids became an apprentice or a servant and their master had the same rights as a parent.

The industrial revolution factory replaced the family when work hours became so long as to take all a child’s waking hours. And when that felt unethical, communities built schools and passed off moral development to the school. In fact, the early school doctrines expressly say that schools will take over a parent’s job of moral education because the school will do it better

In 1966 the government became a higher authority than the parents when the Supreme Court ruled that teachers can spank students even if the parent does not want it.

Giving up economic opportunity to take care of children yourself is a radical and revolutionary act given our history of childcare. There is one opportunity we have in life to feel unconditionally loved and important: our parents. But very few parents convey to their children that their children are the most important priority. Today parents balance economic opportunity and caretaking. Not out of financial necessity, but because neither parent wants to say, “My child is my top priority.” It’s too boring.

Kids have that knowledge: I am not my parent’s top priority because I am boring. And you can tell an adult who experienced that feeling because (even if they don’t know it) they are still trying to do something to get their parent’s attention

Throughout history people have told parents they are not qualified to manage their children. And parents have felt somehow unqualified to be with their children all day. But what if the main purpose of childhood is to create good memories? Then parents are the most qualified. Because the impact of feeling like you’re most important in childhood can never be duplicated and you take it everywhere you go.

It’s difficult to get perspective looking at ourselves through the eyes of the parents sitting next to us. But if you look at a more broad historical perspective, staying home to school your kids is novel and adventurous and places the values of connection, relationships and mental health front and center. Which is probably where you thought they should be all along. And it’s probably why parents love looking at photos of their kids making good memories. Instinctively we know that’s a job well done.

8 replies
  1. J
    J says:

    Penelope you do not believe steering kids doesn’t work. You aren’t a homeschooler unschooler. You let your kids relax till a certain age then tutored them up. You paid extraordinary money and gave the same in time for music. Your child wouldn’t magically do so much music on his own. I know thoughts and ideas change as time goes on but you really don’t seem to have any governing ethos

    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      I’m not sure I understand your comment. But I think you’re saying I didn’t do what I talked about in the post. I think that’s true. I am not even sure I’d give myself credit for staying home with my kids, because I worked 40 hour weeks most of the time – some weeks more productively than others, but it was time not focusing on the kids.

      I think what you call “no governing ethos” I’d call changing my mind. But also, as an aside, why do we need a governing ethos? I think it’s probably an INFJ thing to have a governing ethos – I don’t think most people give it one second’s thought.


  2. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    This suggests that the most important role for a parent is just those first three years: either a parent (probably the mother) or a full-time nanny or nurse should take care of the kid round the clock up until age three.

    And then, from three forward, the care and education of the child is less important to the long-term interests of the child. So the traditional British system of boarding school at seven is just fine, or the public model gaining in the US, of universal preschool doing mock-academic busywork from age three is just fine. Public school, private school, boarding school, homeschool, unschool, none of it much matters, according to this idea – parents should do whatever is most comfortable and convenient for them regarding their kids’ education.

    As long as the vacations are fun?

  3. Em
    Em says:

    If you have two kids three years apart you’re home for 6 years in any case. At which point, your capacity for making a serious economic contribution has radically diminished. Then, wraparound childcare needed to care for your 3-11 year old kids between 8am and 6.30pm eats into the contribution for a long time (not to mention holiday club). Or you work part time and don’t progress. Because of this the requirement for three years of sole caring basically puts an end to any ideas of a solid dual income.

    The studies that show that mothers who work part time are the happiest confound me – are they all ‘hobby jobs’? I’ve been working for a small company part time and I feel like I’m constantly being hassled to ‘do more do more commit more’. It’s not fun working part time for a boss but it pays for me to have a break from parenting. Maybe all these happy part-timers are working for themselves? Or maybe it’s just less hard than parenting full time, which is (I imagine I’ve never really done it) mega mega hard. There must be a better way.

    I agree that declaring to the world that your children are first priority, and then actually following through and making them first priority, is radical.

    • Ann
      Ann says:

      Hi Em,
      I work two part time jobs now but was unemployed for a while when I had my eldest.Ome is a cleaning job 7 hours per week the other is in a plant nursery. They only want me for maybe 10 days ,then 2 hours emptying trucks or helping spray plants.
      Toddlers Dad owns his house and minds him while I work.It probably wouldn’t pay me or would be too hard otherwise.
      My eldest is 18,when she was younger there was no bus to her school( its the small one I went to and now clean) ,my Father was ill and boyfriend didn’t care if I was on unemployment. I bought groceries,cooked,cleaned( not so well) and paid for some meals out etc.He is a farmer so is busy certain times but can be around alot.
      There’s no progression at either job.The school one is good as I get paid during the holidays,get some kind of pensionable some time alone.Glashouse is really flexible and I get to be quite and the extroverts talk or join in when I feel like it.I have lots of time in between for my kids.Also both commutes are really short.Thsts how it works for me but I can understand how difficult it can be for others.

  4. Minami
    Minami says:

    Maybe that’s one thing my mom did right as a parent: she was committed to us in the first three years of our lives. The vast majority of those years were also spent with her parents and in-laws, and so she did not have the freedom to be abusive during those years. (We got our own place a bit before I was four, and she became abusive immediately. TMI, sorry folks.)

    Maybe that’s why I remember so much of when I was 2-3 years old – those years were so good.

    Anyway, all that to say is that by my own experience, your post tracks. And I like it because it makes part of my life make more sense.

  5. Qi
    Qi says:

    I’d love to see these posts get more scientific – can you speak to the quality and size of the studies and how strong the data are? As well as what the data show and don’t show? Can you have a nanny be the primary for 3 years and then change to preschool+parents? Is daycare 8hrs a day long enough that even when the rest of the day is with a primary caregiver it creates problems? At what duration away from the primary caregiver per day do these disorders present? What percent of kids are affected by this who do not have a primary single caretaker the first 3yrs? What out of this information do the data suggest and what are you speculating? I’m still interested in your speculation, but I’d give you a lot more credibility if you differentiated.


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