I ran a home daycare for eighteen years, from the time my children were two years (my son) and six months (my daughter), to the time my daughter graduated from high school.
Ironically, the reason I did so was that I fervently believe that children don't belong in daycare. They should be raised by their families, by the people who care most about them in the world.
In a poignant short story, "I Stand Here Ironing,"** by noted author Tillie Olsen, a mother mentally rehearses her own explanation of why her teenaged daughter seems so troubled and unhappy. One passage in particular struck me when I first read the story, which was before I even had children of my own:
She was a beautiful baby. She blew shining bubbles of sound. She loved motion, loved light, loved color and music and textures. She would lie on the floor in her blue overalls patting the surface so hard in ecstasy her hands and feet would blur. She was a miracle to me, but when she was eight months old I had to leave her daytimes with the woman downstairs to whom she was no miracle at all, for I worked or looked for work . . . (526)
This is an important point, you know. No matter how affectionate and well-meaning your daycare provider may be--and many of us care far more than is justified by our poor wages and impossible working conditions--your child is not her child, and there will always be a difference (sometimes subtle, sometimes not) between the way a daycare provider relates to a child and the way the child's own mother would respond to that child.
Besides, one thing a daycare provider cannot do for your child is convince him that he is the most important thing in the world to his parents. Only the parents can do that--and leaving the child in someone else's care for nine to eleven hours five or six days a week is not the best way to convey that message to him.
One weekend when my own two kids and I were playing at the elementary school playground across the street from my apartment, we encountered a woman with three beautiful young children. The two little girls were about three and four years old, and the little boy was also about three. Even though all of the children were of a type--blond hair, blue eyes, angelic faces, and nicely dressed in neat Oshkosh overalls--I knew immediately that the girls were her daughters, but the little boy was some other woman's son.
The group was playing with a large pan of bubble soap and an oversized wand, the kind that makes gigantic bubbles. To put it more precisely, the woman and her daughters were playing with the bubble soap and wand. The little boy was clearly not welcome in their game.
He never got a turn with the wand, and even when he tried to join the girls in chasing after and popping the huge bubbles, the woman became annoyed with him. He was doing nothing wrong, nothing out of the ordinary, and yet his very presence bothered her. He was an intruder, and simply by being there he was interfering with her time with her own children.
After watching this sad scene for awhile, I struck up a conversation with the woman. I was right. She was the boy's regular babysitter, all day six days a week, and the two little girls were her daughters.
Even as we talked she continued to hector the little boy: "Charlie, don't run!"; "Charlie, get back over here!"; "Charlie, don't pop Amanda's bubbles!"; "Charlie, don't play in the sand!"
Finally, when poor Charlie gave up trying to play and sat down on a wooden ramp, she snapped at him in exasperation, "Well, Charlie, if you're just going to sit there and mope, we might as well go home!"
At this, the two girls became angry and began to snarl at Charlie for ruining their trip to the park. They had been rather mean and obnoxious to him all along, anyway--and why not? Their mother was teaching them at every moment that this was how Charlie should be treated.
All day, six days a week, that little boy was being taught how worthless he was and that he had no right to play, or have fun, or expect to be treated with anything resembling kindness! Can you imagine what an endless hell his life must have seemed to him? Imagine that Charlie was your precious child. Could you leave him in a situation like that?
The fact that the woman could treat Charlie so unkindly right in front of me suggests that her rejection of him was quite unconscious, and quite habitual as well. When I mentioned that I also took care of other people's children, she gave a huge sigh and said, "Isn't it a pain!"
Now, I am not saying that all daycare providers are like that horrible woman--after all, I was a daycare provider myself. But how would you know whether your daycare provider was treating your child unfairly? A woman can be all sweetness and smiles when you're around, and then turn cold the minute you walk out the door.
She would not have to overtly abuse your child to make his life miserable, either. Overt abuse might even be preferable in a sense, because it would be more likely to be found out so that the child could be rescued. But if she just sends him constant signals that he's not welcome, that she wishes he would just go away, and that nothing he does is pleasing to her, she can destroy every bit of pleasure he might take in being alive.
And she might not even mean to be unkind. The typical daycare provider starts far too early in the morning, works way too many hours, and finishes way too late in the evening. The pay is lousy, the hours are outrageous, there are no benefits, and it is pretty much guaranteed that the parents will exploit her in every way they can.
On top of that, the children who are brought to her are unlikely to be properly socialized, since their parents are usually too busy, tired, and self-absorbed to bother with that essential aspect of childrearing. Even with the best will in the world, she might find herself resenting the children she takes care of and not providing them with the level of love and warmth that a small child desperately needs if he is to develop socially and emotionally. And yet, even with the terrible pay and conditions that go along with providing care for other people's children, many people who do so nevertheless do love the children in their care and do treat them well.
But that still isn't good enough. I know. I formed very deep attachments to my daycare kids. Most of them came to me as infants and stayed until they started school full-time. Even then, many continued to come to me before and after school.
And as they got older and no longer needed daycare, they continued to come to me for help with their homework or for counseling and advice. Several young adults and teens here in Lawrence, Kansas, are still coming to me for comfort and direction.
What's wrong with this picture?
They come to me, not to their parents, whenever they want comfort or guidance. They trust me. They can talk to me. They feel I knowthem and love them well enough to always have their best interests at heart.
But they don't feel that way about their parents. The parent-child bond cannot help but be severely attenuated when parent and child are separated during virtually all of the child's waking hours throughout his childhood.
And when the parents are with their child, they are usually too tired or too busy running errands and doing chores to really connect with the child.
Also, because the parents often feel guilty and don't have the ongoing relationship with the kid necessary to exert reasonable authority, they often "bribe" him by buying a lot of toys or by constantly taking him to McDonald's or feeding him candy or other treats.
And the kids are bound to test their parents' authority--just as schoolchildren always test a substitute teacher's authority and resolve. The same children who were so good for me would turn into tantrum-throwing monsters around their parents!
A lot of women who want desperately to stay home with their children are forced by circumstances to work outside the home and to leave their children in someone else's care. My heart breaks for them and their little ones.
But a lot of people who could stay home with their children won't, because it seems more rewarding to them to earn extra money, to wear nice clothes, to have a second car or a bigger house, or to go on trips to places like Disney World, than to enjoy the precious, irretrievable moments of their children's lives.
I think they're nuts!
True, I am very poor because I stayed home with my children. But now that they are grown up, I am so glad that my memories from the last twenty-one years are filled to the brim with them!
**Olsen, Tillie. "I Stand Here Ironing." In The Heath Introduction to Fictin, 6th ed., 525-531. Ed. by John C. Clayton. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 2000.
NOTE: One reader has misunderstood what I am saying in this article. She thinks I am criticizing all parents who put their kids in daycare. I am not. If you would like to read "Do Good Parents Put Their Children in Daycare?"--the article I wrote in response to her comment--click here. I am hoping that the reader who left that comment will also read the response, so that she will understand that I am absolutely not criticizing loving parents who put their children in daycare because they must.