In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Love and Care in the Early Years

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Love and Care in Practice
  • Class and Gender in Caring for Children
  • Love and an Ethic of Care
  • Neoliberalism and School Readiness
  • Researching Love and Care
  • Love, Care, and Professional Development

Childhood Studies Love and Care in the Early Years
Geoff Taggart
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0230


It is widely recognized that children who encounter sensitive and responsive interactions in their settings go on to demonstrate superior cognitive, linguistic, and social skills. At the same time, with mothers either choosing or having to work, young children can expect to spend more of their time in nonfamilial paid care of different kinds. Researchers have therefore increasingly become interested in the role which affective, nonrational skills and dispositions may play in professional practice and the place of concepts such as love, care, and compassion in embodied professional knowledge. Because of the age and vulnerability of the children, research and practice within early childhood education and care (ECEC) is extremely sensitive to the importance of child protection. Therefore, a key intention within commentary and discussion is to redefine the notions of “love” and “passion” within a professional context so that the sexual connotations are removed. Research into love and care in ECEC highlights the cultural bias which prevents it from being taken seriously as a professional undertaking. For example, the distinction between high-status education and low-status care is symptomatic of a Platonic legacy in which the life of the body is inferior to the life of the mind. Care is also associated with the supposedly nonintellectual, private, domestic work of women within patriarchy and stands in contrast to the public, remunerated work of men within the domain of reason and language. Research into the nature and cause of close, nurturing relationships between practitioners and children therefore often has the implicit aim of overcoming such dichotomies, demonstrating that the personal and public/political domains are interrelated and that “love” may be a necessary part of intelligent professional practice. All researchers agree that ECEC is a deeply gendered occupation in that the workforce is overwhelmingly female. This state of affairs is significant since it is therefore impossible to consider the place of love and care in this practice without also considering the rights and agency of women in the labor market. Research has therefore started to make use of feminist theories, particularly a philosophical ethic of care, to justify and champion early childhood work as a form of ethical praxis, rather than as an expression of innate female biology. With this in mind, a key concern relates to the extent to which programs for pre-service practitioners can help to cultivate professional dispositions of love and care in a gender-neutral way.

General Overviews

Young children’s need for love and care in their early years is usually explained by reference to the attachment theory of evolutionary theorist John Bowlby. This argues that the survival chances of newborn mammals are enhanced by an innate capacity for care-seeking and bonding with the primary carer. The importance of early attachments has been given thorough support through further experiments in neuroscience, as discussed by Gerhardt 2004 and Music 2016. The implications of this understanding for early childhood practice are explained in works such as Elfer, et al. 2003, which recommend “key working” or “primary caregiving” whereby each child has a named adult with whom they can develop a consistent attachment. Moreover, despite some guilt and ambivalence, most parents, in their absence, expect practitioners to develop close, responsive relationships with their children, as indicated by Ebbeck and Yim 2009 and also Page 2011. Page 2013 observes that this ambivalence is a common phenomenon among newly employed mothers who are spending fewer hours with their child but anticipating attachment-led practice in the nursery. As in Degotardi and Pearson 2014, love and care are often addressed implicitly within studies of pedagogical approaches that prioritize the interpersonal relationship. Relationship, as well as being a Vygotskian tool of learning, is the symbol of trust and emotional connection in human beings. However, although many early childhood approaches emphasize this importance (i.e., “relational pedagogy”), not all of them provide practical guidance on how practitioners can enhance trust and responsiveness in these relationships, thereby maximizing love and care. The exception is the “educaring” approach devised by Magda Gerber and most fully explained by Petrie and Owen 2005. More recently, a concept of “professional love” is introduced in Page 2011 and then more fully defined in Page 2018. There is also evidence of attempts to cast light on the caring work of practitioners by drawing upon concepts used in nursing, such as the discussion of presence in Goodfellow 2008 and the consideration of compassion in Taggart 2016.

  • Degotardi, Sheila, and Emma Pearson. The Relationship Worlds of Infants and Toddlers: Multiple Perspectives from Early Years Theory and Practice. Maidenhead, UK: OU Press, 2014.

    Takes as its starting point the idea of the “early childhood setting as a relationship-rich context” and uses this as a lens to view the work of practitioners in facilitating and sustaining various kinds of relationship. Whether children are transitioning into the group setting, forming bonds of trust, or developing understanding of other minds, allowing and valuing positive connections which aid learning and development is a key aspect of early childhood work.

  • Ebbeck, Marjory, and Hoi Yin Bonnie Yim. “Rethinking Attachment: Fostering Positive Relationships between Infants, Toddlers and Their Primary Caregivers.” Early Child Development and Care 179.7 (2009): 899–909.

    Semi-structured interviews with economically diverse parents and trained practitioners (n=10) in an Australian context provide detailed views on the ideal relationship which practitioners should cultivate with children. Love, bonding, and nurturing are terms which feature strongly and support is given for a “primary caregiver” role.

  • Elfer, Peter, Eleanor Goldschmied, and Dorothy Selleck. Key Persons in the Nursery: Building Relationships for Quality Provision. Maidenhead, UK: OU Press, 2003.

    Builds upon research which shows that children can easily become managed in an indiscriminate and depersonalized way within institutions so that they receive very little continuity of attention. A “key person” approach is advocated to prevent this.

  • Gerhardt, Sue. Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain. London: Routledge, 2004.

    This is a seminal and comprehensive work which provides a strong justification for a relationship-based pedagogy rooted in attachment theory. Gerhardt summarizes neurological research and explains the significance for parents and practitioners.

  • Goodfellow, Joy. “Presence as a Dimension of Early Childhood Professional Practice.” Australian Journal of Early Childhood 33.1 (2008): 17–23.

    The paper applies the phenomenological concept of presence from nursing theory to argue that alert receptivity and connectedness to relational processes are equally important for early childhood practitioners.

  • Music, Graham. Nurturing Natures: Attachment and Children’s Emotional, Sociocultural and Brain Development. London: Routledge, 2016.

    This publication is broader in scope compared to Gerhardt, focusing more upon the ways in which sociocultural practices of adoption and childcare impact upon neurological development. It is also more detailed in focusing upon ways in which siblings, peers, and parents (both gay and straight) contribute to the process. Music is particularly insightful regarding the impact of stress and attachment style on the development of empathy in children and the growth of prosocial, moral behavior.

  • Page, Jools. “Do Mothers Want Professional Carers to Love Their Babies?” Journal of Early Childhood Research 9.3 (2011): 310–323.

    The paper outlines research into the views of mothers regarding the relationships they would like practitioners to have with their children and coins the term “professional love” to describe them. The term intentionally signifies the complexity and ambivalence experienced by practitioners who simultaneously offer responsive care while maintaining a semi-objective and detached position.

  • Page, Jools. “Will the ‘Good’ [Working] Mother Please Stand Up? Professional and Maternal Concerns about Education, Care and Love.” Gender and Education 25.5 (2013): 548–563.

    This illuminating qualitative study focuses on the case study of an early years advisor who is also a mother and highlights the emotional complexity of the process involved in arranging childcare, since these two identities would sometimes be in conflict.

  • Page, Jools. “Characterising the Principles of Professional Love in Early Childhood Care and Education.” International Journal of Early Years Education 26.2 (2018): 125–141.

    Page theorizes that a “triangle of love” ideally exists between practitioner, parent, and child in which the parent manages her guilt sufficiently in order to permit a close and responsive relationship between practitioner and child. Simultaneously, the practitioner has sufficient capacity to decenter from their own concerns and focus on the child. The child is then able to move between both adults and take full advantage of both relationships.

  • Petrie, Pat, and Sue Owen. Authentic Relationships in Group Care for Infants and Toddlers: Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE): Principles into Practice. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2005.

    Probably the most useful summary of the “educaring” approach developed by Magda Gerber, showing how it can be applied in early childhood settings which may not have encountered it before.

  • Taggart, Geoff. “Compassionate Pedagogy: The Ethics of Care in Early Childhood Professionalism.” European Early Childhood Education Research Journal 24.2 (2016): 173–185.

    Aims to resolve a tension between advocates of a psychological, attachment-based pedagogy and advocates of a pedagogy based on children’s social rights who argue that attachment-based practice restricts children’s capacity to explore and take risks. The central argument is that compassion can be understood both psychologically and socially and that “compassionate pedagogy” can uphold both “rights” and “care” while foregrounding the ethical dimension of early childhood education and care (ECEC) work.

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