Sunday, August 16, 2009

In Defense of High-Quality Childcare

Friday night was Ladies Night and we were having a blast. Sitting around the fire, wineglasses in hand, the group of mothers I belong to were enjoying a night out away from our kids. And, as usual, our conversations kept returning to our children.

Less usual, the topic of child care centers took precedence. One mother was describing her visits to different CDC’s around Portland/Clackamas County, and her disappointment with what was available out there. She’s a child educator who works with developmentally disabled children and like some of us in the business, she has pretty high standards. I was relieved that her family had found a place which had openings for both her infant and toddler children and a higher quality of care than most of the places that she’d checked out. I wasn’t surprised to hear the horror stories: dirty centers with broken toys; hands-off staff in infant rooms; unsafe play areas and so much more. Sadly, all of the above are far more common than one would expect at a CDC, which would ideally reinvest its profits in new materials for the kids, teacher training and education and janitorial services.

Our conversations prompted one mother to ask a very profound question that has stuck with me since she uttered it aloud: “What do you tell someone who says they don’t know what all the fuss is about. ‘The lady down the street took care of us and we were fine’? What would you say to someone like that?” I told her I probably wouldn’t say too much, that it sounded like a very defensive answer from a person who already had their hackles up about the whole subject. “But what if it’s your husband, or a family member?” she asked. “What if it was about care for your own child?”

This, I think, is a question that has relevance for everyone in this country, parent or otherwise. It’s not a surprise to anyone who has worked in child care or who happens to be a parent: High-quality care for young children is in constant crisis in the United States, and the fallout of this crisis has manifested itself in several ways. If this failing (and it is most certainly a failing) were corrected, the affect would be deeply felt, resulting in a myriad of positives. For example, the acute divide between working and stay-at-home mothers would likely soften because the perception of a mother “letting some stranger raise her kids” would be replaced by the understanding that loving, caring professionals were providing real social and emotional support for our little ones. In a quality care setting, the children would be empowered to explore their world and ask questions, and to pursue activities which authentically reflected their own interests and abilities, which would develop their self-esteem and confidence, as well as their sense of competence. Skilled teachers would have the ability to model what positive leadership looks like for our children and even with the potential for chaos, keep things in control through gentle guidance and age-appropriate transitions and daily routines. Children would graduate on to kindergarten with not just a basic knowledge of the fundamentals, but with the ability and skills to work through peer conflict in positive manner, which would in turn allow them to better focus on learning and to appreciate the new experiences of primary school.

This last piece is the one that I honestly feel is the most critical to our children’s success, not only in academics, but throughout life. The data and study of a child’s brain development from birth through their adulthood carries both an explicit and implicit message that our young children’s emotional and social development is the first and foremost aspect of their needs to be addressed. Children who are unhappy, who find themselves in stressful situations and who lack security are the ones most likely to do poorly in school later on. Overwhelmed or unempathetic teachers, classrooms without adequate staffing or support, abrupt transitions, punitive methods of discipline, and a lack of guidance and precorrection (or forethought)—all of these are all contributing factors to a child’s feeling insecure. When children have to spend more time coping with the adult-created instability, they have less capacity to engage in positive learning experiences. This shortcoming can follow them through life unless corrected and only aggravates the potential for conflict and unhappiness in the child’s familial relationships and how they deal with challenges in the world as they get older. If children aren’t given a chance to manage their emotions and work through conflict in a group of say, four or seven or ten children, why is it that we expect them to come into their own as one child within a group of twenty or more? Such a common-sense question doesn’t require a college degree to be answered.

Our government institutions contribute to the problem as well. Through federal trade policies, the average wage earned by the majority of Americans is severely depressed. For most of us, including those with bachelor and master’s degrees, the Livable Wage is an endangered species. The powers-that-be bemoan the lack of affordable child care just like everyone else, but the way in which child care is subsidized is absurd. Only low-income families may qualify for subsidies, and those funds are inadequate to cover the cost and expenses of the provider. That the US Government is the largest consumer of child care is a fact, and their limited resources and low-prioritizing of the education of very young children falsely deflates the cost of childcare. A market research study conducted in Multnomah County in 2008 shows some disturbing numbers. The average hourly price for infant care in a Family Child Care setting is somewhere between $3 and $3.50. While this may seem reasonable to working families, consider this: how many infants at this pay rate does it take to make a living wage for the provider in question? Twelve dollars an hour, gross, is poor compensation for the person hustling to meet the needs of four infants; not to mention insurance for her business and the cost of overhead in supplies and food. Take out taxes and it’s a job that barely pays for itself; and if the provider is a committed professional, they aren’t going to get paid for the time before or after work spent cleaning and preparing activities.

While this number looks questionable, it only gets worse. Toddler care pays $3.00-$3.10 per hour per child. Same ratios (1:4), less money, only now this group has more material needs. While the USDA program does compensate providers, to a degree, for money spent on approved food, toddlers tend to eat more than infants. They also require more in the way of art supplies and toys and space. As children age up, costs go down, but at what ultimate cost? The end result may be the attractive arrangement of mixed age groups, which allow up to ten children in total. But for many children in such a group with one provider, it is next to impossible to truly meet the developmental needs of each child. Quality care receives another boot to the head.

As if we as a society were a stubborn child, wanting to sleep longer not because we need to, but because we like the fantasy of the dream, our society as a whole tends to excuse themselves from the responsibility of raising our children in a high-quality care environment. We rely on the myths of teachers’ altruism and “life calling” to justify paying a pittance to professionals, claiming that our work is so rewarding, reasonable monetary compensation is only a secondary consideration. Many parents blame both ‘greedy providers’ and affluence for the high cost of premium child care and choose lower-quality programs based purely on affordability or convenience. A lack of understanding in the general population about child development leads to our broad tolerance of child care providers who use television and are overwhelmed with too many children.

And the mental environment in which we parents must raise our children also creates confusion. We are told educational television shows stimulate learning, but what are the negatives? We refuse to see television’s potential to negatively influence behavior, yet it is the poorly-chosen actions of the characters on these shows which drive the storylines—and still we wonder ‘where our kid learned to act like that’. We get the silent message from others that our kids have to fall in line with “the real world” and that any aberration must be nipped in the bud. The popularity of quick-fix books that seek to address every aspect of behavioral challenge or personal development appeals to our society’s desire for fast results, but rarely acknowledges the child as their own, authentic human being who grows in their own time. Well-intentioned but eminently misguided results-oriented programs such as No Child Left Behind have their appeal to the masses, but fail to respond proactively in preparing children for primary school by investing in quality care. Parents, teachers, and children alike are all stressed for different reasons, but the crux of it can be traced back to the lack of a federal mandate for quality child care for each and every child in the USA, regardless of income or circumstance. And furthermore, it stems back to the lack of our awareness as a country that how we care for our children—indeed, how we perceive our children—must change.

This might seem a bit lofty, so I’d like to share three stories of the fallout of low-quality childcare that I’ve seen directly.

One child I worked with had previously spent their days at a caregiver’s home. As lovely as the woman was as a person, she relied heavily on television to entertain the children. Overwhelmed providers tend to “do to” children instead of taking the time to have children participate in their own care, and consequently, the lack of encouragement in areas such as toileting and dressing did this child no favors, instead, the child and their family would work through these challenges for years to come. What’s worse was that this three-year-old suffered greatly when they made the transition to a high-quality preschool program: instead of enjoying the new school, the child was socially and emotionally challenged to adapt to a school that had a daily rhythm and which expected a reasonable amount of participation and involvement from the children. Fortunately, the new teachers were able to help this child in many areas of their social development, but to see a child caught at such a disadvantage so young was heartbreaking.

Another memorable experience was the time I provided care for a child who had spent far too much time in front of the television. Beyond precocious, this eight-year-old was sassy and disdainful—par for the course at that age, with some kids—but what was worse, their imagination had been utterly atrophied from lack of exercise. This child could not find anything to do on their own; entertaining oneself was a foreign concept and the child had simply not learned how to keep themselves busy for any amount of time without adult assistance. In my opinion, a lack of quality care had robbed this child of so much joy as well as the ability to simply play. For a child to live with sort of condition is utterly criminal.

Low wages have also had profoundly negative, permanent effects. Attracting less trained professionals and more “warm bodies”, programs that only have low wages to offer have to lower their standards. Years ago, working at CDC that relied primarily on DHS reimbursement, I was shocked to discover that one of my toddler student’s older siblings had been sexually molested by other children in the kindergarten class. The teacher of this class suffered from multiple mental health disorders and should never have been allowed to be alone with young children due to her instability. What’s more, the preschool floater also on duty hadn’t caught the multiple incidents because she was too busy reading a book while the kids were on the playground and “hadn’t noticed” what was going on. And yet no one was fired because replacing them was deemed too costly. (If you ever see a teacher sitting around reading their own book and it’s not naptime, turn yourself around and find some other care. No one should be that tuned out while the kids are awake!)

These, I know, are varying degrees of horror stories, but they confirm my belief that a lack of high-quality child care has severe consequences. These sorts of stories are practically non-existent in high-quality programs, familial problems notwithstanding.

For those out there who question our insistence on high-quality childcare, here’s a question: Would you pay some stranger good money to fix your pipes if they didn’t have a plumber’s license? Would you let someone do a half-assed job fixing your refrigerator because you didn’t feel like spending the money to hire an AC&R guy, and just accept the results? No? Then why in the world would you consider anything but high-quality care for your child? No, it’s not a one-time cost, but if your child is more important than your plumbing or the fridge, isn’t it worth every penny? Doesn’t your child deserve to be with people who like children and who take seriously the task of spending the day with them, teaching them about their world and guiding them in to be a positive participant in it?

If none of these reasons matter, I’ve wasted my proverbial breath and the time spent typing this. But if you are on the fence, look into your heart. Yeah, the lady down the street may be awesome—there are a lot that are. But if she isn’t, look further. Keep on your search. Our children depend on us to understand the importance of their happiness and to nourish their potential to be confident, self-actualizing people, because if we parents don’t, who will?

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