The news today is full of stories of children being sent to school in nappies. Apparently as many a nine per cent of head teachers and senior staff have had children rocking up for school in nappies, up to the age of seven. I heard a deputy head teacher on the radio this morning saying she knew of an eleven-year-old who still wore pull-ups at night. According to The Independent, children as old as 15 with no medical conditions or developmental issues are not properly toilet trained.
Everyone seems outraged about it, and rightly so. General consensus seems to be that these are not children from deprived backgrounds, whose feckless parents are too busy watching Jeremy Kyle to toilet train their children. These are the children of parents who are just too busy to teach their child to use the toilet properly.
Reports of this story have focused on the figure given, that many children in Reception year are missing out on 25% of teaching time because they're being taken out to have their nappies changed. When asked whether teachers are being asked to do too much, Michael Gove responded:
I do think hard about how much we ask of teachers, because we do ask a lot.
Well, Mr Gove, you keep thinking hard about that. Keep thinking about the endless tests and assessments and inspections, and the fact that Ofsted's chief inspector recently said that nurseries are failing to ensure children are ready to learn when they reach school, using toilet training as an example. Aren't we also asking too much of nursery staff to become surrogate parents? And they're paid less!
One panelist on Channel 5's Wright Stuff commented this morning: this is child abuse; if you can't find the time to teach your child to use the toilet, they should be taken and put into foster care with parents who do have the time.
I agree, it is the responsibility of the parent to teach their child to use the toilet, as well as to hold a knife and fork and other basic life skills. If my child were to become one of the thousands of five year olds turning up for school still in nappies, I would see that as my own failure and nobody else's.
But aren't we all missing one glaring point here?
Parents are actively encouraged to return to work, and many are working longer hours in order to make ends meet. Everyone must return to work, and children must be farmed out to nurseries or childminders. Nobody must stay at home and care for their children; why on earth would you do that, when you can go to work and... pay taxes.
As a single parent, even though I work from home, it's hard to find the time to get my work done, prepare decent meals for my child, spend quality time with her, make sure there are clean clothes for the morning and do some house work here and there - and we've not started toilet training yet!
Increasingly these days, parents - mothers in particular - have to be everything to everyone. You must go to work and not act as if you're missing your child. Woe betide the mother who arrives at the office with toddler snot on her shoulder, who looks a bit tired after a sleepless night with a teething toddler, who calls the nursery at lunch to check her child has settled ok. You must never show weakness, never let them think you're not up to the job. You already stand no chance of promotion or pay rise, because you can't put in the over time, the early starts or whatever else that your peers can.
Then you must collect your child from childcare and be all happiness and light; you must play games, interact with your child, never leave them watching CBeebies for that is the mark of the lazy parent. You must do sensory play, messy play, fine motor skills, imaginative play, outdoor play, educational play. Then you must construct a nutritionally balanced, yet appealing meal for your toddler to eat, clean it up after they throw it at the wall because they wanted chicken nuggets and dippy sauce, bathe them, read educationally sound stories at bed time, and put them to bed... and then you must clean the house, do the washing up, ensure there are clean clothes for morning, ensure a bag is packed for nursery, ensure you have done everything you needed to do for work tomorrow, clean sticky hand prints from every surface, find your other shoe, find the toddler's other shoe.
When you return to work, it's usually before your child is a year old. You bundle them up for nursery or the childminder with some spare nappies, maybe a spare change of clothes, and off you go. Suddenly, when you're finally starting to get used to the never-ending routine of life as a working mother, you realise that you need to toilet train your child. So every weekend you think to yourself, yep, we really need to start on this. But every weekend, you're beyond exhausted from a week of being both working mum and mum mum. The concept of spending your weekend in a battle of wills with a toddler, cleaning up puddles from the living room floor, fills you with a terrible sense of foreboding worse than any board meeting; so you put it off until next weekend.
But the next weekend, there's this fun day/village fete/soft play/festival/whatever going on, and you really should take children to these things and not keep them cooped up at home; make the most of the good weather while it's here, and so on. And so on, and so on.
I'm not saying parents who end up sending their children to school in nappies are faultless; I'm saying it's understandable that this could happen.
Health visitors seem to be few and far between these days, and parents don't know who they can speak to for help with toilet training. One correspondent wrote to me recently, "but my child is over 1 now, so I can't go to the health visitor with my problem." It's entirely possible that no health care professional would even see a child between their second birthday and their first day in school, let alone have the the time to notice there's a problem and help the parents to resolve it. Perhaps more resource should be put into helping parents to parent well, rather than publicly shame them (and their child) for their failings?
It's easy to lambaste parents for being too busy to toilet train their children, but really, who made them that busy? We are expected to be busy; we are discouraged from just taking time to spend with our children. It's easy to say, well, you chose to go back to work; don't have children if you don't have time for them but when society as a whole looks upon stay at home parents as just stay at home parents, only stay at home parents, lazy stay at home parents watching daytime telly all day while I have to go out to work, when people are actively encouraged to return to work and discouraged from staying home to care for their children, what did we expect was going to happen?