Is love the same as care?

A growing trend has seen the term ‘love’ used to describe everything from government welfare drug testing to what educators should aim for in their practice and environments for young children. Two blog posts on The Spoke examine the issue from very different perspectives. In this blog, LISA BRYANT argues that love is not interchangeable with care. Love may be unconditional but it is also blind and a shift in the sector may have implications for children and for educators.

You might also like to read why Fay Hadley and Liz Rouse argue for the reinstatement of ‘professional love’ in early childhood. Click here to find their blog on The Spoke.

Ever seen or heard the expression ‘yeah, nah’? Apparently it’s an expression pretty unique to Australians and New Zealanders. It was the first phrase that came to mind when hearing about the concept of ‘professional love’ in the early education and care sector.

There are those that argue that we don’t even need the care part in ‘education and care’—because care is implicit in education. Although it may need to be made clear to families, to politicians and the general population that we undertake both tasks—educating and caring for young children, I don’t think the care part needs to be elevated above the education part by elevating it to professional love. After all our primary and secondary schools don’t even use the word care in what they do—but we automatically presume they do care for the children they are charged with educating.

Did you know that a quick online search shows 10 services in Australia that use the word ‘love’ in their name?

All make me squirm.

In the post-Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sex Abuse world, I’m really not sure any institution should be talking about loving kids, much less naming their service love and hugs or anything similar. I want every child to go to a service where love and hugs are available if a child wants them, but I don’t want it to be the dominant offering of any service.

When educators tell me they are educators because they love children, it also bothers me. I want and expect educators to love children (collectively, rather than individually) but I don’t want this to be the main reason they are working in the sector. I want them to love learning, to love helping children reach their potential. Loving children per se in a professional context seems fraught. Do the children you love have the option of being in a loving relationship with you or is it all one way?

There is no doubt that the best sort of love is unconditional love. I want parents to have that for their children. On the other hand, I want educators to have objectivity about a child because, as we all know, love is often blind. We need educators and early childhood teachers not to be so blinded by love that we rush to make the world right for a child. Educators facilitate learning by not rushing to always give the child what they want. Some children are more lovable than others—often the children that need the most from educators and carers are the ones that are least likely to evoke love. If professional love is all the rage, what happens to the somewhat unlovable?

Love is also not a word that is interchangeable with care. Love is that intense feeling a parent describes having for their child. I have heard many parents talk about the fact that when they meet their first-born child they realise that for the first time they would lay down their life for another. That feeling is not easily duplicated, no matter how much an educator cares for children they are responsible for professionally. Do parents really want us to love their children? Isn’t what they really are after is someone to care for their child, maybe even intensely care for them, while they are unable to?

Research conducted by Professor Karen Thorpe and the late Professor Collette Taylor as part of the E4Kids study examined the relational quality of services. It showed our services had ‘high-moderate emotional quality such as warm and positive emotions, responsiveness to children’s social, emotional and learning needs and regard for students’ perspective’. We have the caring bit down pat—without the need to muddy it up with the introduction of terms such as professional love.

I wonder if introducing the concept of ‘professional love’ makes it hard to advocate for higher wages for the sector. As soon as people think that those working in a service are loving the children they work with, bing goes the argument they need decent wages. Because parents (especially mothers) always prioritise loving and caring for their children society escapes the need to collectively value the act of child raising. If women just ‘love’ caring for children, why would they need to get paid for something so intrinsically rewarding? (The reward being the reciprocity of their love).

Hopefully every educator deeply cares for the children in their care. But love? Yeah, nah. Let’s keep that on the quiet until society values and pays for whatever it is educators do.

So do I think we need to talk about love more in the sector? Talk about professional love? Yeah, nah.


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In early childhood settings, educators can support parents’ and carers’ wellbeing. This resource contains strategies for educators to develop positive relationships with families, and invite feedback from them. You can purchase your copy here on the ECA Shop.

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Lisa Bryant

Lisa Bryant is an advocate, consultant and journalist in the education and care sector. She is a regular opinion writer for Fairfax newspapers and the ABC on early education and childcare issues, co-author of publications such as A Director’s Manual, Managing an early education and care service in Australia and Fairs, Fair: How to tackle bias in education and care services. Lisa undertakes research about social planning and education and care provision. Lisa is a sought-after keynote speaker on education and care issues. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of government policy (historical and current) in the early education and care areas. Her special interest is the impact that the gendered nature of the sector has on those working in the sector. Lisa is proud to work in a sector dominated by strong, lively women who stand up for children’s rights on a daily basis.

13 thoughts on “Is love the same as care?”

    Karen Hope says:

    Hi Lisa,

    Dare I say, I “love” this post.
    This issue resonates so strongly with me. Last year I wrote an article for The Spoke titled “What’s love got to do with it?” I am still defending these views a year on. I really do wonder whether the over use of this word may ultimately do the profession a disservice?

    In my piece I made the analogy between the profession of Nursing. I think that Nurses might love Nursing but I doubt they love their patients.

    Heather Barnes says:

    As always, Lisa Bryant has nailed this! I love (pun intended) the way she advocates for children’s wellbeing and learning and at the same time advocates for educators’ professional recognition. Thanks Lisa.

    Rowena Muir says:

    An interesting perspective here. It prompted me to read through the article by Rouse and Hadley (2019) again, to try and consider the notion of Professional Love with a different lens because when I read it the first time there was nothing that confronted me or made me ‘squirm’ for that matter. There was nothing that made me feel we were risking institutional abuse or replacing a parents love, in fact I think the initial article addressed all these fears well. When I read it even now, I see an article that encourages us to rethink the language we use rather than seeing a ‘growing trend’ to use the word love and diminish our professional status. When I read both articles, I read them as a mother, as an early childhood teacher and as a United Voice member and the question it makes me wonder is – Why does it have to be all or nothing?

    Anne Kennedy says:

    Thanks Lisa for this wise response to the use of the term ‘love’ in a professional context.
    We have been trying to throw off that unhelpful and non-professional image that Anne Stonehouse identified years ago that we were: “Nice ladies who love little children”
    There is a world of difference between my love for my children and what I felt for children as their teacher.

    Beryl Cappello says:

    As a nursery teacher I advocate for our infants as learners. When someone implies my work is just love and care I feel a strong urge to speak up and demonstrate just how much learning goes into these first two years. If we want to raise the standards for infants and toddlers we need to look closely at the words we use. Love and care nah. Learning and dispositions yeah. ECTs in a nursery are necessary to build social capital and educate families and the community. Communication and engagement about the role of the teacher at this early stage is extremely important. Education begins in the nursery.

    Elizabeth Rouse and Fay Hadley says:

    Early childhood as a profession has fought long and hard to be valued and recognised for the work those within this profession do. It is undeniable that early childhood education, and as such early childhood educators, has a significant impact of the lives of young children and their families. However, as a profession it is important that what we do is grounded in research and scholarly thinking. Key Professors in early childhood education in Australia such as Jennifer Sumsion, , Manjula Waniganayake, Margaret Sims and Linda Harrison (to name but a small few) have researched extensively in the area of the professionalization of the early childhood education and care sector. Key international scholars such as Peter Moss and Michel Vandenbroeck continually seek to challenge our thinking in relation to early childhood as a profession within a global context. Currently significant Doctoral research is being undertaken by people such as Catherine Jones and Max Grarock into what being a professional means for educators. Collette Tayler spent her professional life trying to raise societal recognition of early childhood education as a profession to be valued. Being part of a profession requires engagement with research, scholarly thinking and theory. When the work of internationally renowned scholars and researchers such as Jools Page and Nel Noddings is sidelined and diminished, without a critical debate drawn from across the early childhood profession then this, rather than a professional discussion on pedagogy of care and pedagogical love, is what runs the risk of early childhood education not being taken seriously. Suggesting that professional love, or pedagogical love, is akin to the unconditional love of a child and a parent, demonstrates that this deep scholarly engagement which positions a profession as being just that, is not important. What exactly are these key international academics and scholars arguing? More than just a ‘sound bite’, there is a space for professional dialogue and debate. As a member of the early childhood education profession I feel very strongly about the work I am doing to engage in professional debate around practice and pedagogy, but these challenges are grounded in contemporary academic research and thinking, which is what being a profession is about. It is for those within the profession to lead the debate about what it means to be a professional rather than this being dictated for outside by the media and journalists.

    Jess H says:

    I think a love for humanity (especially those most vulnerable within humanity) is a great primary driver for working with children. We would never think badly or be suspicious of an aid worker who said they experience a love for humanity, nor would we consider them unprofessional. I had a moment recently where a child I had known for years ran up and hugged me and said “I love you, Jess!” And because I wanted to be “professional” I smiled and said something like “thank you for those kind words..” And I could tell from her face that what I said back had really wounded her.. she may have really needed to hear that she was loved in that moment, but I put professionalism above their needs and *that* is the real unprofessionalism. We are here to meet the needs of children socially and emotionally before they receive the rigour of academic education and formal instruction.

    We each have our own personal philosophies when it comes to educational approaches children but you can’t have a philosophy without “philo” which means… You guessed it, Love! ❤️

    Liam McNicholas - Northside Community Service says:

    On behalf of the educators and leaders at Northside Community Service, I’d like to thank Lisa for this insightful and considered post. Lisa has identified a number of significant points of reflection and discussion in the post.

    At Northside, we strongly promote and embed principles of professionalism and child safety in every aspect of our work as early childhood educators, teachers and leaders. We consider using terminology such as “love”, even in an academic context, does not promote further gains in professional recognition and respect. We are closely following and embedding the requirements of the new Child Safe Standards, which are built on research and reviews that make it clear the important necessity of not blurring personal and professional boundaries, which concepts of “love” are likely to do.

    It is disappointing that comments on this post have reflected on the author as an individual, and challenged her right to even be involved in this discussion. Lisa has been deeply involved in the early education sector for many years, working directly with professionals and has an understanding of policy and regulatory frameworks that is unmatched in this country.

    Even if that were not the case, her view would still be welcomed in this discussion. It is concerning to see people making a judgement about who “is” and “is not” within the profession as a basis for a response to a well-reasoned discussion piece.

    I note the many comments here, and elsewhere, from those “within the profession” who agree with the views expressed in the post. As an Early Childhood Teacher, and advocate for children and educators, I strongly echo Lisa’s views. I hope that I am considered to be “within the profession” enough to be able to put forward that view.

    Academic research is critical to the ongoing flourishing of the sector, but it is important to remember it must thrive alongside the actual lived-experiences and operational functioning of the sector as it currently is. While discussions of “professional” or “pedagogical love” can create interesting points for reflection and debate, we must remember that it occurs in the context of real educators who are fighting for professional recognition, value and wages.

    Thanks again, Lisa. We welcome your views and ideas on the early education sector, and can’t wait to read your next piece.

    Leanne Gibbs says:

    Great contribution, as always, to the debate on the critical issues for the profession.
    What is the research on children’s perceptions of love in early childhood settings?

    Lisa Bryant says:

    I have the utmost respect for research and will always do my absolute best to ensure the sector knows of the work being done in academic institutions and is supported to implement practices that are research based.

    Those that know me also know I make it clear I am not a practitioner and have never been one. But lordy me, after almost 20 years of fighting for this sector, of doing my best to give it a public voice and for fighting for the rights of all children to have access to high quality education and care and the rights of educators and early childhood teachers to be paid living wages and given status and standing, surely I can be accepted as somehow part of the sector with a right to a view?

    I would have thought that academics should defend their ideas rather than attack the right of someone that questioned those ideas to do so?

    ECA asked me to write this piece because they guessed (rightly) that I’d have strong views on the topic.

    On social media and in the comments here, many educators have agreed with my position and some have disagreed. Debates are being had within the sector as a result of both pieces being published. This is good.

    I challenge the views politicians and bureaucrats hold about early education and care daily. I must have forgotten to read the memo that academics’ views can only be challenged by other academics.

    At ECA we recognise this is a contentious issue and we want to respectfully support and explore a multiplicity of views. We welcome comments from readers and authors. We particularly appreciate the thinking, effort and often courage that authors muster to articulate their arguments and share them on The Spoke. We will continue to bring other perspectives into the discussion. If you would like to write a blog in this series you can contact us at thespoke@earlychildhood.org.au. In the meantime thank you everyone for being part of a discussion so vital to the early childhood education and care sector.

    Fay Hadley says:

    Wholeheartedly agree multiple views are important and on a topic such as this as it will generate many perspectives – it has and is critical to how we continue to refine professionalism and identity in ECEC. When we responded yesterday that we don’t want the ECEC agenda hijacked we were not directing this at Lisa. Yes Lisa is a journalist but as she has correctly outlined above she has advocated long and hard for the ECEC sector – sorry Lisa if this message was misunderstood. It is important we debate these notions of professionalism and the characteristics that are important for high quality early childhood education and lead these discussions across the sector. Of course when educators (who have clear codes of conduct in relation to child protection and ethical practice) and families engage in true reciprocal partnerships there will be a common understanding of the boundaries and what will be appropriate for that child and family and that setting. Children’s agency and voice is also important in these discussions – and yes we need more research on this. The research Liz and I are currently undertaking (listening to both educators and families about what they value in parent partnerships) has noted themes of “professional love” or “pedagogical love” are emerging. The work of educators in the ECEC sector has also been examined in relation to “emotional labour” and how this can moderate workforce issues such as burnout or low morale (See Yarrow, 2015: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09575146.2015.1077206).

    Lisa Bryant says:

    Thanks Fay. Good to know you were not dissing my right to contest the concept of professional love.

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