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Do parents make better early childhood educators? Let's roast this chestnut!

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Oops! There it goes again!

It was one of those Facebook posts from a frustrated educator asking one of those questions – the kind they don’t want to ask in person but they really want to discuss.  “Does it make you a better educator if you have children of your own?”

During the most recent discussion of this question we read many thoughtful, heartfelt comments from educators both with and without children.  There was so much respect for the question and so much goodwill between commenters that we decided to take on the topic in Amplify! and several of you answered the call to contribute.

It’s a question that raises so many issues – for a start, why should anyone be asking about your parental status in terms of your work? (Read this great article on the subject in Women’s Agenda.)  And, as our regular contributor Jennifer Ribarovski sent in, the question also plays into the old chestnut of early childhood education being ‘women’s work’, with the assumption that because women can be mothers they will be naturally better at caring for small children.

So with a wealth of insight to choose from on this issue, here are our top three picks to carry the discussion on…

No, but let’s talk about empathy – Kelly Marie

Before I became a parent I had very strong ideas about how children should be raised. My future child would never use a dummy, they’d eat what they were given and they’d certainly never throw a tantrum in the checkout line at Woolworths. As someone who is very involved in online communities for educators all too often I see others complaining about children or parent’s behaviour, asserting that if they were the parent they would do things differently. That was me five years ago, I think.

It’s definitely not accurate to make a blanket claim that parents make better educators than non-parents. Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses and our skills and opinions are formed and moulded by personal experience. It stands to reason though that educators with children of their own bring something different to the workplace than those without. Being a parent gives you a first-hand insight into the issues parents face: the sleepless nights, the dinnertime battles, the endless trials and worries that come with being completely responsible for a tiny human being.

Having lived these struggles, I can talk to parents without judgement

As a parent myself I find it easy to empathise with the parents using my service. I know what it’s like to worry about my toddler not eating vegetables while simultaneously worrying if they’re eating enough food at all. I know what it’s like to leave my preverbal child at daycare after a tearful drop off and worry about whether or not they’re happy. I know what it’s like to slog through a day on four hours of broken sleep and not have the energy to argue with a wilful pre-schooler when we finally get home in the evening. Having lived these struggles, I can talk to parents experiencing them without judgement and without labels like “anxious” or “spoiled” floating in the back of my mind.

My experiences as a parent allow me to relate to and sympathise with the parents I interact with and I believe that this is where a parent-educator’s real advantage lies. Does being a parent automatically make you a better educator? Of course not, but it definitely helps when forming partnerships with parents based on shared experiences.

Kelly Marie works as an Early Childhood Teacher in Sydney while studying towards her Master of Teaching. A strong believer in the environment as the third teacher, Kelly’s programs focus on engaging learning environments which she documents on her Instagram account, @EarlyLearningAus.

Different doesn’t mean better –  Danielle Bopping

As an early childhood educator who has worked in the sector for 20 years this year, and who is still single and childless, this is a question that is often asked, directly, indirectly, consciously and subconsciously. It’s in the comments, “Oh, you don’t have your own children?”,  and the raised eyebrows that suggest, “Well how could you possibly know or understand then?”

For the record I am acutely aware, more than the many of those people (parents and colleagues) who are already lucky enough to be married or have found their soul mate and have been blessed with children, that I am not married and do not have children and that despite years of training, education and experience, it’s not the same as having your own children. I do not need to be reminded. However, just because I am not a parent it does not mean I am incapable of being an educator of the same quality as one who is a parent. Perhaps it allows me to be the better educator, as not having my own children affords me greater objectivity?

We don’t expect doctors to have had terminal illnesses…

Do my years of years of training, education and experience mean I have all the answers? Of course not. Similarly, just because an educator is a parent, it does not mean they have all the answers either. Being a parent or not, is not what determines someone to be a better quality educator.

Am I a different educator? Yes. Do we offer different perspectives and insights? I hope so. Do some of our approaches and interpretations on the many aspects of being educators vary? Quite probably. Do all of those vary because one of us is a parent and one isn’t? Probably not. Does that make one of us a better educator than the other? Of course not. Every educator brings to their role their own strengths; their own set of skills, talents, cultural knowledge, personal interests, passions, perspectives, experiences and empathies. It is the combination of all of these different aspects within a group of colleagues that provides richly diverse and multifaceted learning experiences for children.

We don’t expect doctors to have had terminal illnesses, chronic diseases or even broken bones to be able to treat their patients. We trust that with their industry research, knowledge of the most up to date information and practices, and previous experiences of practice, they will do what is exactly right for their patients. Why then would there be an assumption or expectation that to be a better quality educator, you need to have had your own children?

Danielle’s early childhood career began in 1997 when she completed an Advanced Diploma of Child Care Studies. Over the last 20 years, she has worked in a variety of early childhood settings, with children aged 0-12 years, in Australia, England, Ireland and Thailand. This has included roles as a nanny, pre-school music teacher, outdoor educator, OOSH assistant, room leader and Director.

Not nature or nurture, let’s focus on skills – Jennifer Ribarovski

This is an age-old question that has been debated over many years.  It is of course influenced by the evolving face of early childhood education and care (ECEC).  ECEC in Australia has been shaped historically, and essentially through a nationalist lens.

Since its inception in the late 1800s, ECEC has existed firstly to ‘save’ children, through to the mid 1900s, when it was primarily to cater for women who were working in war times, through to the 1960s onwards, which brought a focus on maternal employment and national productivity.

These historical influences are focused on maternalism, the cultural view that women are innate caregivers and therefore should be the primary caregiver for their child.  Why the history lesson?  Well as the renowned historian Edward Carr (1961) reminds us:

The function of the historian is neither to love the past nor to emancipate himself from the past, but to master and understand it as the key to the understanding of the present.

So, in response to the debate about whether parents make better educators, historical context helps me to frame my thinking.

As 97 % of the early childhood workforce are women, it’s not surprising that this debate rages on.  If women are ‘innate caregivers’, then it stands to reason that they would make better educators.  It also supports views such as those of Senator Lleyonhjelm (remember he believes educators are just nose wipers!)

If you innately know how to do something, why would you need qualifications?  And if you don’t need qualifications, then ECEC is not a profession worthy of equal pay.  How do male educators, or others who for whatever reason don’t have their own children, manage their role if they are not ‘innately wired’ to care for children?

The ability to tune into children, and connect with families, may well be sharpened by the shared experience of parenting. But as with any other profession, early childhood educators require the knowledge, skills and aptitudes to do their job well.

Jennifer Ribarovski has over thirty years experience in the education sector, including playing a key role in the implementation of the National Quality Framework for both the NSW Regulatory Authority and the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA).

Tell us what you think in the comments below.

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11 thoughts on “Do parents make better early childhood educators? Let's roast this chestnut!

  1. I believe everyone brings something different to ECEC and it is more about a persons qualities than it is about their marital or parental status. I believe I am a better parent because of my training in ECEC which I had done many years before parenthood – the experience I gained from other’s children helped me to learn values I wanted to instil in my own parental journey which were founded in my understanding of Early Childhood theory. I feel my practice as an Early Childhood Teacher has change more because age, maturity, greater understanding of what high quality practice looks like through reading, engagement with EC networks and Professional Development not because of parenthood. As a parent I have learnt that parents are human, life can be tough and rarely goes to plan – I have learnt that parents bring lots of emotion with them when it comes to others caring for their children – but I feel I was an empathetic educator before children which has continued to develop with maturity.

  2. I just posted a video about this exact topic on my Essentials in the Early Years Facebook page. I don’t believe you need to be a parent to be a great Educator as it’s our skills, knowledge and experience that make us great Educators. In my video I say not every parent has a sound knowledge of child development and implementing quality early childhood programs just because they are a parent. That knowledge comes from our training, our experience, our skillset.
    Think about it:
    If you had to have heart surgery do you choose the heart surgeon who has completed the study, who has the skills and who has the experience behind them, or do you have someone who’s had heart surgery perform the operation???

  3. I wrote this on a Facebook group discussing this topic recently:

    As a director, I have been asked if I have children during centre tours by so many families over the years. When I say that I don’t have any, most are accepting, but some do show concern. I have even been asked if I’ve chosen not to have any because I work in child care.

    Sometimes I respond that I have lived with my sister and her two sons (12 and 13) for the last 7 years just to show that I do have some at-home experience.

    Unfortunately, people don’t realise that asking those kinds of questions can be really upsetting. Yes, I’m almost 29 years old and childless. Perhaps I couldn’t possibly be the best director I could be because I do not have children yet.

    However, unfortunately for me, I have not yet met that special someone and feel I’m too young to stress about not being a parent just yet. Whilst all these people were busy having children, guess what I’ve been doing? Working full time (a lot of the time longer than required), studying, attending session after session of professional development, networking, visiting other services, and researching. Surely that’s got to count for something.

  4. I’m not comfortable that this has been asked or is being reflected on. We work along side families as they are the primary educators, carers and decision makers. This is similar to bringing the other debates of males in childcare, cultural practices, discipline, education, age, etc into the same debate of who is the superior educator.

    I do not have any children. There are people out there who do not have any children and cannot have children. There are people out there that do have children and may lack the experience, knowledge and patience that we develop as an educator within the field.

    Parents have developed their own culture, practices, tolerances, patience, expectations and they may have gone through the same education process as the rest of us however their predisposition to parenting may or may not impact on their teaching styles within a centre.

    Can we just agree that everyone who is passionate about playing an important role in assisting children to grow into the best person that they can be are the best person for the position and are valuable without requiring specific statistics and dispositions to be the more superior early childhood educator.

    Everyone brings skills, abilities and preferences to their position however parents and educators will not be exposed to everything that will confront them in their career and how they respond will not come down to a single element of whether they are a parent or not.

    1. Hello Lesley
      We appreciate the discomfort that the question raises and considered it carefully before engaging with it. It is a question that is asked of many – probably most – educators at times throughout their careers and it can cause hurt and self-doubt. It also, as Jennifer’s contribution to this article states, feeds the notion that early childhood education is ‘women’s work’ and ‘babysitting’ and can be accomplished by anyone.

      For these reasons we felt it was a suitable topic to shake out in daylight. The original post on an educators’ group that inspired the article was started by a young person feeling judged by her own colleagues, who were parents. She asked the question of fellow educators and in reply received a series of thoughtful, caring and concerned comments. Two of those original commenters, Danielle and Kelly Marie, are the other authors on this article

      Your thoughts about parents’ and educators’ respective skills and understanding reflect those of our other commenters both here and on Facebook and we value your reply.

      Like you, we wish it was a question that was never asked but, acknowledging that it is asked all too often, we stand by the decision to publish and to share the responses as a way of highlighting the potential cruelty of the question and the many ways in which it can be either answered or shut down

      Developing as a leader and professional growth in any discipline is tied to having a safe place to truly reflect on those uncomfortable issues that impact and challenge us. As the peak body with a focus on capacity building it is part of our role to facilitate discussions such as these in a respectful manner.

  5. I think the uncomfortable topics are the ones we should be discussing!

    It doesn’t mean we all need to agree or resolve. That’s what reflective practice is, talking about the white elephants and getting comfortable enough to feed them peanuts.

  6. This type of question makes my blood boil. Being a parent does not make you a better EC educator, it might make you a different EC educator or change your person perspective. I am a sadly infertile women with no children who has worked in early childhood services for almost 40 years. I now teach EC teachers and have taught diplomas and cert 3s as well as run parent workshops. The message I always give is being an early childhood educator or teacher you are trained to care for and educate other peoples children usually in a centre based. large group setting. The choices EC educators make in their professional role are different to the choices parents might make for their own children. This is partly about the differing environments, group care management, the degree of legal responsibility and work based duty of care. I have also worked in enough centres where staff have their own children attending to be aware that is extremely difficult for both the parent and the child to separate the parent role from the job role. We are almost all inherently bias and more protective and forgiving of our family members including our children because we have a different type of relationship with our on family. It is not a good idea to blur the personal and professional line too much!

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