But the fact remains that many, many parents, whether by choice or necessity, do put their children in daycare, and that a lot of those kids spend 8-10 hours a day, 5-6 days a week in some sort of daycare situation.
Since that is so, I believe that parents have a duty to think about how the way they handle their kids at home influences the way they will behave in daycare.
In "What You Encourage in the Puppy, You'll Live with in the Dog" I point out that parents need to consider whether the behavior they encourage in their infants and toddlers will seem very cute when the child is five or eight years old. Similarly, I believe that parents should think about whether behaviors that are perfectly acceptable at home might create serious problems--even terrible dangers--in daycare.
I am not referring to the ordinary aspects of socialization. Whether or not specific parents are actually any good at socializing their kids, there is a general awareness among parents that the basic rules of acceptable social behavior should be taught and reinforced at home.
But much of what parents teach their children at home doesn't even strike them as being related to the child's daycare experience. In fact, it doesn't even strike them as something they are actually teaching the child at all.
Nevertheless, the results of such inadvertent training can create real problems for daycare providers and for the childen in their care.
Let me give you an example of what I mean.
For about eight months in 1997 I had in my care a three-year-old boy whom I will call "Timmy." Timmy was large for his age. In fact, he was the size of a very large six-year-old. Not fat--just big.
Timmy's twin brothers, who were eighteen years old, resembled redwood trees. They were handsome, healthy young men: 6 ft. 4 in. tall, each weighing about 190 lbs. And "little" Timmy gave every indication of someday dwarfing his brothers.
Now, you know that teenaged boys are going to play with their little brother. Timmy was his brothers' favorite windup toy, and boy did they get him wound up! They were crazy about the kid, and whenever they weren't busy with their lives as active, popular teenagers, they were playing with their beloved baby brother.
Do I need to tell you how men and teenaged boys play with little boys?
They wrestle. They encourage the little devil to take running leaps at them. Timmy's mighty brothers thought nothing of lying on the floor and letting Timmy leap onto their solid, muscular bodies. To them it seemed as cute as could be.
It was also cute when their brother ran full tilt at their legs and tried to tackle them, since he could no more knock them down than he could the redwood trees they so resembled. And they liked to "box" with him, letting him punch their hands and shoulders and laughing at the fact that he couldn't hurt them.
Timmy was a darling. He was a gorgeous child, and he was so loved at home that he was as sweet and loving as he was cute. We all adored Timmy.
And we were all scared to death of him.
He was huge, he was strong, and he played rough--really rough.
His best friend at my daycare was a little girl two months older than he. "Dawn" was as small for her age as Timmy was big for his. If you had seen them together, you would have guessed her to be perhaps two and a half years old, and him to be six or seven.
But the only way that Timmy could imagine playing with people was to tackle them, to wrestle with them, to "box" with them, and to jump on them. Dawn stayed very close to me during the time Timmy was part of our group. She really liked him and wanted to interact with him, but only if I was close enough to make sure he didn't hurt her.
At home, when his mother and brothers were sitting around and not expecting it, Timmy would often run and jump on their backs, wrapping his arms tight around their necks to show how much he loved them. He was just hugging them. But where his mom was about five foot ten and solidly built, I am five foot three--and considerably less sturdy.
One day I was sitting cross-legged on the floor feeding a bottle to a six-month-old and singing the alphabet with a couple of other kids. I was completely unprepared when Timmy leapt at my back to give me a neck hug. The only way I could avoid hurting the baby was to twist and fall sideways with the force of Timmy's impact.
I hurt my neck and shoulder, and I pulled muscles in my right hip and right thigh. I limped painfully for weeks afterward.
Another time I was carrying dishes into the kitchen after clearing up the remains of the children's lunch. From behind me, Timmy took a flying tackle at my legs, sending me (and the dishes and leftover food) flying forward. That time I only ended up with a badly sprained left wrist--and a huge mess to clean up.
If Timmy had been raised entirely at home, his mother and brothers would have gradually modified their play as he got bigger and stronger, so that he would learn not to accidentally hurt them.
But he was big enough to hurt us long before his wildness seemed anything but cute to the much larger, sturdier members of his own family. What is cute roughness to a gigantic eighteen-year-old man can be deadly force to the toddlers and infants that a child like Timmy must interact with for hours each day when he is in daycare.
Furthermore, at home Timmy was the only child, and he was being watched by three adults. In my daycare he was one of six childen, and I was the only adult on duty. Under those circumstances, it is much harder to watch out for the dangers posed by a large, physically rambunctious child.
The fact that Timmy was so well loved and got so much attention at home showed in his charming personality. But I don't see how his personality and self-image could help but suffer damage over time if he continued in the same vein after he left my care. He would not have many friends who would dare to play with him, and adults (parents of other kids, daycare workers, teachers) would probably have given him a lot of negative feedback over the danger he posed to other children and even to many adults.
Besides, he was a nice little guy. It really troubled him when he accidentally hurt someone--and he was always accidentally hurting someone.
Here's the story of another child, "Anna." Anna was two and a half years old, and also very large for her age. Her father had been a scholarship player on a college football team, so he was a big man, and her mother was five foot eight and built like an Amazon.
Whenever the parents took Anna to the playground, she would race up the wooden ramp to a platform about five feet above the ground, while Mommy or Daddy zoomed to the other side of the platform to catch her as she leapt from it, shrieking and giggling in delight.
Because her father was sometimes able to visit us for a bit during the day and join us at the playground, I witnessed this game on a couple of occasions. I immediately began to pressure him into modifying it, if only to save his daughter's life.
Again, games that work just fine at home may pose a real danger in a daycare setting. As Anna raced up the ramp, her athletic twenty-something parents were able to zip around to be in place to catch her when she jumped.
But I was in my late forties, and nowhere near as fast as they. Furthermore, I had five other children, including one infant, with me, so I wasn't free to abandon them in an instant to run and catch Anna as she jumped from the platform.
And let me remind you, I am fairly small. Her large, strong parents could comfortably catch this forty-pound missile as she launched herself at top speed from a five-foot height. For me and my forty-eight-year-old back, catching her from such a height was considerably more of a strain--especially since she was so fast that I barely had time to get to where I could catch her, much less position myself to do so in a way that would minimize harm to myself.
Anna was a smart, cooperative child. I explained to her why she couldn't do that when she was with me and the other kids, and she clearly understood. But she was very young, and kids at that age can't always control the impulse of the moment, especially when they are excited. And to a young child, a trip to the playground is always exciting.
So even after I explained why she couldn't run up there and jump off, she found it hard to control her excitement when we first got to the park. She'd be off and running before I could stop her.
I had to resort to strapping Anna into the stroller and carrying the baby on my back whenever we went to the park. That way, I could keep Anna from racing up to the platform before I could make sure all the other children were safely situated. Then, when I took her out of the stroller, I would hold her hand and lead her to a swing or a slide, so she would get involved right away in something safer. After the initial rush of excitement had worn off she was able to repress her impulse to fly, so I just needed to keep her under control for the first few minutes after we got to the playground.
But do you see the potential for tragedy here? The parents had not thought about how their games with Anna might endanger her in a situation where she was one of many children being supervised by only one adult.
It's not that I disapprove of wild rough-and-tumble games with kids. Both the parents and the children delight in such games. I delight in such games. Very few sounds are as precious as the shrieking giggles of a child engaged in such wild play with loving adults.
But if we are going to stick kids in daycare all day, where they must interact with other children--some quite small and fragile--and where one adult must monitor and protect several children at a time, the parents and older siblings need to modify the way they play with their little ones at home.
They must not train them to play in a fashion that creates the risk of serious harm, whether to themselves or to their playmates and their daycare provider!