Our earliest years should ideally be the most carefree of all, close to our mother in the intimacy of the home. But, increasingly, early childhood is passing into the hands of strangers, at the urging of politicians and experts. Some parents worry that if they do not place their children in formal day care they will be at a disadvantage. Others worry about the opposite — the harm that nursery care may do their babies and toddlers. And that is only the beginning of their worries and guilt.

Into the fray enters Standardised Childhood, a new book from University of California at Berkeley sociologist Bruce Fuller. This latest contribution to the child care debate comes not a moment too soon, as activists in the United States and Canada push for universal child care solutions. Last week Canadian members of parliament voted to push a federal universal child care bill to third reading, without debate and without consultation with the provinces-an obvious encroachment on provincial jurisdiction. Why? Fuller's book at least partially gets at the reasoning: the answers lie in ideology and institution building.

Parents are not convinced that institutions are best for their young children. In fact, Canadian research shows that group day care is the last form of care parents choose — after a spouse, family members, or home care in the community. This means that activists must work hard to sell the idea that child care should be available for all young children.

Their views are, of course, informed by "the research". Says Fuller: "No self-respecting advocate pitching universal preschool forgets to invoke the phrase, 'The research shows that…'" Parents are typically led to believe that there is a universal, accepted finding on the research front proving the benefits of universal child care, "a stable, sacred truth that science has unambiguously revealed".

That science has not revealed such a universal truth at all demonstrates the central thesis of Fuller's argument: the child care debate is burdened by ideology and politics. In this environment research results are obscured and activists are less and less concerned with what parents desire.

Fuller shows how certain studies touted as proving the benefits of child care actually do no such thing. Take the Perry Preschool project — a study initiated in the 1960s with poor families in Michigan, USA. The children went to a meticulously designed care program for three hours a day. The program also included a weekly visit to the child's home by the classroom teacher to help mothers and children thrive in the home. Years later, Perry graduates, as compared with the control group, were about 20 per cent more likely to have graduated from college, were less likely to have been arrested, and the girls experienced fewer pregnancies as teens. Less publicized were other outcomes indicating the results were simply not that significant. Fuller writes, "[O]nce we get past the press releases, we find that some differences are not statistically significant, apply only to girls, not boys, or fade away."

More recently, child care activists have begun using brain development research to push the goalposts. In Canada, Margaret Norrie McCain and medical doctor Fraser Mustard published a report in March this year called Early Years Study 2: Putting Science into Action, in which they use brain science to argue that "early intervention" is imperative for the wellbeing of some children (and beneficial for all). That may well be, but the research does not even vaguely suggest government-funded institutional child care as an appropriate answer. Fuller comments: "What remains troubling is that the empirical work appropriated by journalists and advocates neither drew from new discoveries nor confirmed the claims that activists so eagerly advanced."

He identifies how advocates create problems to which they offer the universal solution, in attempting to create the political-and parental-will for such programs. This "problem-solving" strategy became clear in Canada as activists got wind of a private daycare operator coming to Canada from Australia and the United States. Prior to the arrival of ABC Learning Centres, Canada's main problem was a lack of access: parents were on long waiting lists for child care, or so we were told. One might assume, then, that activists would herald the arrival of ABC Learning Centres with joy. Not so.

Instead, they stirred up fears of "big box" care — the arrival of child care mercenaries on Canadian soil. "Our biggest concern is that foreign owned big-box child care is going to drive a stake through any notion of a national child-care system," said Paul Moist, national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. "We are deeply concerned that community-based child-care providers … are being bought out by a foreign multinational corporation," a spokesperson for the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of British Columbia says.

When it comes to deeply personal issues like how parents care for their kids, emotions are easily aroused. Fuller has achieved a tone in his book that distributes blame right across the political spectrum; indeed, he assumes child care activists are well intentioned. But he does ask pointed questions about what happens when government attempts to standardize childhood through universal programs that prioritize politics, not parents.

These are the questions parents will need to sort through: Is it encouraging or disquieting when government proposes universal solutions? What can parents learn from the child care debate?

Perhaps the simplest lesson to glean is that the happy childhood of their kids — and their successful future — has absolutely nothing to do with the political child care debate. When governments propose universal solutions, parents would do well to ask whether there is one standard answer to child care woes. Parents ought not to lose the very best of moments with their young children to an onslaught of news reports, "research", and competing political ideologies. One standard childhood? Let's hope such a sad beast never proves fully viable.

Andrea Mrozek is the manager of research and communications at the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, a social policy think tank based in Ottawa, Canada.