Yep. Child Care is Expensive.

Ooo, I love it, just love it whenever a new article about the high cost of child care comes out. This one by Alissa Quart covers the usual territory. Parents who use child care are stumped, and rightfully so, as to why they should work full-time and be away from their children, and then hand over most of that pay to someone else to watch said children.

With the biggest complaint being the cost and scarcity of care, the next question is why are we paying this much money for sub-par care? And then comes the litany of horror stories, which this article dutifully serves up.

That’s the part that always makes my skin crawl. Every time you hear “this woman locked the kids in one room for six hours” it makes us all look bad. The vast majority of child care providers (at least all the ones I’ve known in over ten years of doing this job) are dedicated, loving, incredibly hard-working women who would do anything for their kids. They are, in fact, required to go above and beyond by state regulations that have them putting in many unpaid extra hours after their long day with the kids is over. But I digress.

An obvious answer to the question “Why do I keep working?” is that few people can afford to take themselves out of their career path. You step away and you’re out. This is a big decision, especially for someone who now has a home, cars, and a child to provide for. Moms who keep their full-time jobs are doing it for the good of their family, but they often get knocked for leaving their little ones.

Stay-at-home moms give up as much as working moms do by being away from their babies. They are walking away from a good career and all the benefits of it, the experience they’ve been building, and possibly everything they’d been preparing for up until that point. (That’s the power your child has over you, but that’s another story.)

Every family chooses what’s best for them and we all need to stop vilifying each other. But while we’re at it, let’s stop vilifying the child care providers.

The reason child care is scarce is because it’s an incredibly difficult job. Home child care providers are on their own with very little support. We work long hours, have incredibly stressful work environments, and a physically and mentally demanding job. But we are expected to be saintly at all times. We can’t make mistakes. So people burn out, and those who want to make a decent wage often go find another job.

It’s true, parents give us a huge chunk of their income. But we have no benefits, no paid time off, no sick time, and personally I just cover my bills. I can’t even get into the doctor for an appointment for myself or my children. I accrue nothing. There is no safety net. And the job is over-regulated by state agencies who don’t give the support necessary to cover their requirements.

Another thing that people often overlook is that when you work in child care, there is no upward mobility. You may become a director if you work in a center, but the stress of that job isn’t commensurate with the pay (again, very low, and “Director” at a child care center has far less cachet than “Director” at a company).

We often turn to the proposal of federally-funded child care, as Ms. Quart does in her article. But this idea usually makes people go ballistic. My taxes are not going to pay for your child!

Why doesn’t anybody get this enraged about their taxes paying for endless war, destruction, and general misuse around the world? It confounds me when people get angrier about taking care of babies and toddlers at home than they do about killing children in other countries.

But I digress.

Ms. Quart actually does a good job of hitting all the major points in the debate over child care, and I often found myself agreeing with her. But her conclusion touches on my single biggest problem with the way we view child care: that parents have “a discomfort with center-based day care and even the term ‘day care,’ preferring terms like ‘educational enrichment’ and, yes, preschool.”

This is the trend that makes all child care providers crazy. We know children. We know what they need. They don’t need early educational enrichment. We see what the school systems do to kids once they get there. They are over-tested, over-stressed, have no recess or down time, and then are blamed for bad behavior, which is a normal human child’s response to extreme pressure.

Providers know that we are the last bastion of protecting babies and toddlers’ freedom. What babies need is love, consistency, sleep, and fun. They do not need curriculum, and early enrichment will not help their future success. In fact, studies show that over-stimulation at early ages causes children to withdraw and perceive themselves negatively, while those in child-centered classrooms thrive.

Child care providers give kids what they need in so many more ways than “enrichment.” Nurturing and building a strong foundation of self-esteem leads to enrichment. We teach them ABCs and 123s, and that is an appropriate amount of knowledge for a toddler. The rest of what they need will come later.

Articles like this will always pop up every few months because of our country’s anti-woman, anti-family policies. The sweeping reforms often suggested by their authors aren’t backed up with enough political capital to ever happen. Child care is expensive, but not always as bad as they make out in the articles. It will continue to be hard to find as long as high quality is demanded but no support systems for providers exist. And the discussion is incomplete until you include and respect the voices of providers who actually do the job and have the wisdom needed to change the system.

Parents who have had to pay for child care are immensely relieved when their kids are old enough to attend public schools for free – which, egad – are supported by taxpayer dollars. So when the push gets big enough, when enough people demand subsidized child care, perhaps we’ll see a change. But a system that doesn’t value families, that pushes individual success above all else, that fights against health care and elder care and any kind of perceived “handout,” will never willingly embrace this idea on its own.

Why UPK is a Bad Idea

Everyone’s all abuzz about President Obama’s mention of universal preschool (UPK) in his state of the union address. I’m totally against it, and it’s shocking all the people who know me as a dedicated early childhood professional.

But Amy, don’t you love the little children? Don’t you think they deserve the best start they can get? As an early childhood educator (ECE), don’t you agree this is a long time coming and should be a natural next step?

As an early childhood educator, I know what happens when government gets involved in education. It’s not pretty.

But before I begin on early education, let’s look at our track record with our existing school system. Which, globally, ranks somewhere in the middle. Just average, in the richest and most powerful nation on earth.

There are a million reasons for this, but I’ll just go on my family’s experience. Like the rest of the nation, my kids are getting a mediocre education. They’re being standardized-tested to death. They don’t have recess so they can have more test prep time. We’ve only been able to keep a music program because the music teacher is also the gym teacher. And THAT’S because my town is down fourteen teachers this year. I’m not talking luxuries here. We haven’t asked for an iPad for every student. We. Need. Teachers.

That’s not an outrageous expectation, is it?

So let’s apply this winning formula to preschool. In the decade I’ve been in this field, the more that “education” creeps into the picture, the less real care for children remains. That’s why I don’t like education reform in the manner it’s done today. Because as an ECE, I know what kids really need to learn, and it’s usually the opposite of what education reformers think it is.

When the regulations come down, they require child care providers to have degrees. I have seen my field be quietly but systematically stripped of some of the wisest, kindest, most sympathetic and caring teachers because they didn’t have college degrees.

These are the women who taught and helped me when I entered the field. I am living proof: you can NOT learn what you need to know to work with children in a college classroom full of adults. As my kindergarten teacher aunt said, “Amy, they’ll eat you alive.” She was right, and I had to learn the hard way, almost not making it past my third year. I had a master’s in education but was totally unprepared to work with children.

Some people are convinced that accreditation is the best route for ensuring quality programs. My kids went to the best preschool I’ve seen in my experience. But the director was forced to close after becoming nationally licensed, only to find out that the amount of work required to maintain that status cost too much to run her business.

Our closest relative to UPK, Head Start, is failing, with 100,000 children being cut out of the program this year. When the budgets come down and my child care friends are shocked at the programs we’re losing, I always remind them: Women and children first!

Add to all this the simple problem of staffing. A child care center is expected to provide nine to ten hours of care for an eight-hour working day. The pilot UPK program now being run in Massachusetts requires the same full-day, full-year services.

Think for a minute about how long schools are staffed. Half of a year, for six hours a day. And we are barely keeping them alive as it is.

So we would be asking our preschools to be something between a child care and a school, but so much more. Where will the staff come from? Child care worker is still one of the lowest-paid professions in the country, making less than minimum wage in some areas.

On top of her normal child care duties (which is enough work to kill an ox), a Head Start provider must do hours of paperwork, plan individual curriculum for each child, perform assessments and plan goals, meet with parents on a monthly basis, and have a state employee review her curriculum and facility every other month. For all this extra effort she earns an extra $8.40 per day. This is shameful.

I don’t even have the space to get into curriculum changes and the impact on programs – and the children they serve – here. I still have some semblance of control over my little world, and I’m holding onto it for dear life.

The fact that I can even let my kids swing is in jeopardy, as I’m barely allowed to keep my grandfathered-pre-new-regulations swingset. I won’t be surprised if they make me remove it after the next round of changes. And then I’ll tell the kids, whose best interests have been served, that the swings are just too dangerous and scary.

We, as a country, have never had the money to back up government mandates. Period. So our schools, preschools, and Head Starts struggle under the burden of unfunded regulations that can’t possibly be maintained. How is any of this, in any way, good for the little children? In fact, I do love them. That’s why I try to protect them from a system that puts their real, true educational needs last.

Many people have pointed out that we can only move forward with a first step, and Obama simply took the first step. That’s great. Of course kids deserve a real education and more than just pipe dreams being used as filler in political speeches. I hope that this will be done the right way someday. But let’s fix the educational system we have now before we drag our four-year-olds into the debacle.

No Teasing, No Taunting

I teach early childhood classes where we talk about the difference between girls’ and boys’ bullying behavior. Boys typically attack physically and get lots of timeouts for that. But girls attack verbally, and we have to treat their attacks just as if someone has been hit.

I’ve been dealing with a little mean girl stuff around here lately, but it’s giving me the “wonderful teachable moments” that my friend Lynne is always talking about. I’m almost grateful for the run-ins that happen because then I get to teach a child how to make a healthy choice to protect herself.

For example I have a girl who I call my little boss. She’s only imitating my behavior, which a lot of girls do, but she likes to be in charge of everyone. She was telling Miss C what to do when Miss C yelled at her and started to cry (I so get that feeling).

The boss said, “I don’t want to play with you. Right, Miss C?”

I said, “Ms. Boss, she’s really mad right now because of how you’re treating her. She doesn’t want to talk about it. You need to leave her alone.”

Miss C looked at me and stopped crying. It was like she suddenly realized she didn’t have to play out the Boss’s puppet show. She could choose not to engage, and when she knew that the cloud lifted. This is one of the most powerful moments I get to enjoy on the job.

It reminded me of one of my clients whose daughter had gone on to preschool. She was having trouble with a child who was mean and she didn’t want to play with that child. But the teacher told her she had to because of the “we’re all friends here” rule.

I told the mom, “You tell your daughter she never has to play with anyone she doesn’t want to!”

I understand the intention of a rule like that because it’s trying to dictate good behavior, but it isn’t something you can control. It’s like saying “Be nice.” How do you regulate that?

And why would you ever want to force kids to play with someone who is hurting them? I suggested that mom tell her daughter to WALK AWAY, and that it’s OK to tell people exactly how they’re making you feel. You never make a child play with anyone, that’s just crazy talk.

I often try another response with the kids, which is no response at all. We recently had an interesting conversation with a friend who is a psychiatric social worker. She said that sometimes people will physically attack her. I asked all the kids present (there were four – I am never not surrounded by kids) to listen up and hear what her response is.

She said first you try not to respond too much. Then you put up a hand and say, “You’re getting a little too close to me now,” but you have to learn how to stay calm and project strength.

She even said that she’s been hit, and it doesn’t scare her anymore because once it happens, you know what it feels like and you survive. Now that’s tough.

The kids were interested and I was glad we had a chance to talk about survival tactics. Older Son said “I have a good way to deal with bullies. I just look at them and go, ‘Really?'”

We talked about how much easier it is for adults to handle the onslaught than kids. And how even adults have to deal with bullies. It’s pretty cool when you find life lessons in unexpected places.

So, in summation: no response, calm response, be strong, walk away, you don’t have to play with a bully, and you will get through this if you use your head. Just another day at the office.

This One’s for My FCC Ladies

I was having a great little chat with Famous Carol the other day about the state of family child care. She subs for several other women and shares my worry that home day care providers are a dying breed.

Between us we know several home day cares in the area that are closing. Maybe more parents are choosing centers. But it might be that for some people the workload is starting to outweigh the rewards. Carol pointed out how sad it is that we’re becoming more and more institutionalized.

It really hit me hard when she said, “It used to be like dropping your kids off at Grandma’s house for the day.”

That just sounded so sweet, and I would love to have that kind of house. It’s getting harder to maintain that family atmosphere with all the requirements we have to meet. I have to admit that I barely skate by as it is, especially since I just started a four-month-old who needs to be held a lot (as all babies do).

So I got into my usual funk of comparing myself to other providers and coming up short. Carol told me to stop being hard on myself (she knows this is what I do). She tells me if the kids are happy I’m doing a great job. Well, they’re happy a lot of the time…

But then the very next day a funny thing happened. My after-schooler went to girl scouts, two kids stayed home sick, and another got picked up early with a fever. I was left with just three girls for the afternoon and quickly realized I had a lot of time on my hands.

As we came home from the school pickup (I still had my own son to get, don’t forget about him) I said, “Instead of me making a snack for you guys, how about we bake our own together?” YEAH!!! They ran in the kitchen. “Amy remember when it was Miss A’s birthday and we make cupcakes?” “Remember I got the egg on my hand and I cried?” “Do we still have the halloween holders?” (Cupcake wrappers. Yeah, it’s been a while since we baked.)

And in a strange twist, Older helped us while Younger played video games. It was delightful for me, first to see him bonding with the kids instead of being annoyed at them (his usual state), but also because I don’t think he’s made muffins with me since he was about five years old.

So when I don’t have a four-month-old plus five other kids plus an after-schooler plus my own two kids, I am really damn good. And it’s not that hard.

Today I was down to one at the end of the day with half an hour before her dad came to pick her up. I asked if she would be scared if I vaccuumed. She said yes but I tried it. She covered her ears and watched me. I said, “Do you want to try it?” An old trick to get kids over being scared of the monster.

She jumped at the chance. Of course it’s too heavy for her to push so I took the hose off and showed her how to magically suck up the cracker crumbs and popcorn pieces. She was delighted.

While she sucked up the snack detritus from under the table, I used the dustpan on the hardwood floor. We knelt side by side and she giggled hysterically every time the vaccuum hose sucked up her dress. It suddenly felt a little old-fashioned to me and I thought, this is like grandma’s house.

Until she thought it would be fun to see if the vaccuum would suck up her sock. That thing was whipped off her foot and up the hose faster than I could even blurt out one word in response.

It was kinda funny.

Then it was more like Grandpa’s shop than Grandma’s kitchen, and the boys were back to see me doing surgery on the vaccuum, and then they all played jumprope with the hose (which I had to remove), and Older showed me how they learned about waves in science class by sending jolts of different size and speed down the length of it, and Miss M had a chance to use the screwdriver, and I had to stick my fingers into the bag to fish out the sock. (Gross.)

But we got it straightened out. And the whole scene was something I don’t think you’d see in a center. Hang in there family child care providers – the children of the world need us.

When a Crying Baby Makes You So Angry You Might Hurt Them

A reader sent in one of the most heartfelt and brutally honest comments I’ve had, and I needed to respond right away.

One of the most popular posts on this blog has always been Don’t Feel Bad When Your Crying Baby Makes You Crazy. This is clearly a universal problem: people really do struggle when a baby is crying.

The reader, a man, said how much he loves his one-year-old daughter and that she rarely cries, but when she does, he gets so angry that he has to leave the room and punch furniture. He is afraid that he will scare and possibly hurt her with his anger.

First I want to reassure him that he’s doing the right thing. Go away, get rid of your anger, and come back when you can deal with the child. It’s far more upsetting for them to see you lose it in front of them or, clearly, to take your anger out on them. Your anger makes the moment more intense. The goal is to remain calm, and therefore calm the baby.

This is the hardest challenge of parenting – this is where you really have to dig deep, and I’m not just being facetious. You have to grow and change, which is really hard. You have to push yourself to find a place where you can be calm even when all hell is breaking loose around you.

If you lose control of your anger you can very easily hurt a little one, and it is terrifying for parents to think they have this capacity. Because no one talks about anger when it comes to little ones. We see the rosy pictures and the quiet moments and the joy joy joy we’re supposed to be feeling, when really we’re exhausted, emotional, scared, and sometimes just can’t handle the drastic (and irreversible) life changes we’ve just been through. Babies open up a whole new world we can’t possibly understand until we’re there, at 3AM with a screaming child, and we’ve got a major presentation at 9:00.

First let’s try to explain why all of this is happening. We get so noticeably upset by our baby’s cry because it is designed by nature to get your blood pumping – to get you to respond to its distress. It’s a survival instinct that we’re both physically wired for and there’s nothing we can do to change it.

But I also think that today we have immense pressure to never let our babies cry. All the gurus tell us to do everything we can to soothe our baby and stop the crying right away. But sometimes you simply can’t. And as the reader described, he then feels guilty because he can’t stop her crying and because his own emotional reaction feels out of control. Then the whole situation escalates quickly.

Sometimes being forced to stop crying is not the best thing for a child. Babies feel stress too, and they need a way to let it out. When we run in and force them to calm down we’re saying don’t cry – it’s not good for you. That emotion you have is bad and we need to stop it. A baby feels what they feel, they can’t analyze it.

Put her in a safe place and walk away. You both need a timeout, and that’s OK (and sometimes the safest thing to do). In fact I will often tell my day care kids, “Amy needs a timeout!” and run and hide in the kitchen. We can only take care of our kids if we take care of ourselves first. (This rule applies forever, at any age, in all situations.)

A little bit of crying has never hurt or permanently scarred a baby. It lets them deal with their own big emotions and learn how to self-soothe. There are times in life when Mom and Dad simply don’t know how to stop the pain. We can’t always fix everything, and it’s OK for a child to feel sad. Crying is a release.

Let’s face it, we are not a culture that deals well with ugly emotions. We don’t know what to do with our anger so we bottle it up until it explodes at the wrong time. It scares us, and that’s a healthy thing, but that also leads us to hide it away. When we’re sad we try everything to stop the crying, to hold that feeling in, rather than letting it out. Sometimes your body just can’t do that, even though we try to put our societal norms on it and say we’re too civilized for this ugliness. It’s not true. We need to be able to face it and then let it go, and teach our kids how to do that as well.

Therefore, I would like to introduce you to my friend Nubs. The boys named him that because he doesn’t have arms (or maybe something dirty but I chose not to delve any further). When we got him I thought it would be a hoot – but basically a joke – that I would be able to take my anger out on him. One day I half-heartedly punched his face. In a few minutes my hands hurt so badly that I had to go back to the store and get sparring gloves. When I’m not punching Nubs, I pat him on the head and thank him for taking my abuse, because honestly, there are some days when he saves our lives.

One of the most important things I do with my day care kids is teaching them how to deal with anger. There are many books out there on the topic, and one of their favorites is If You’re Angry and You Know It. I developed a song chart they can pick from and we sing, “If you’re angry and you know it growl it out!” Grrrrrrr, with lots of roars and gritted teeth from the crowd.

The reader asks if he should seek professional help and I would say I don’t think you’re at that point right now. The baby’s cries will get less intense as she gets older (and in case they don’t, remember that the best thing you can do with a tantrum is WALK AWAY – ignore it and don’t feed it, whatever you do).

But I’m glad that you realize that if it doesn’t get better, and you find yourself raging at your child, that you will need to ask for help. You are on the right track, and you’ve tapped into something very strong – the way our kids can push our buttons until we rage. As they grow it might not be crying, but other very sneaky ways they know to get us going.

It’s OK to show our kids that we’re angry. It’s an honest emotion and sometimes they push us to it. They have a part in the dance and need to learn why misbehaving is wrong. It’s part of growing up, and parents teaching their kids right from wrong.

Still I had the hardest time with this because of those messages – life is beautiful, never ugly, our children are precious, never let anything scar or hurt them, and NEVER tell them “No.” My son was a wild three-year-old and I battled him. One day I screamed so loud that it scared even me. I called my friend Pam and cried. I told her I don’t know what I’m doing but I know it’s wrong. I’m afraid I hurt my child.

She said, “Amy, what is he doing right now?” I looked out the window and said, “He’s running up and down the driveway with his Power Rangers cape on.” Pam asked, “Did you crush his spirit?” I had to admit that I didn’t. And what a relief that was. And accept the knowledge that our kids are far more resilient than we give them credit for. I waited until I collected myself and went and gave him a big hug. But I remembered that the next time he was getting me upset, I would let him know before I became a screaming monster.

I’m not much of a yeller now. I’m direct and honest, and address issues before they get out of control. I’m firm but loving. It’s been the hardest process of my life to learn how to handle my emotions, and the kids, and their emotions, in a healthy and productive way.

There is a quote that comes to mind every time I feel my anger rising at my kids. When I remember that they are the most precious and important thing in my life, and that I am the God of their world. That my response is literally going to shape their lives and teach them the emotional strength for how to get through the toughest times:

“Your defining act of love for your child will not be the 2:00 AM feedings, the sleepless, fretful night spent beside him in the hospital, or the second job you took to pay for college. Your zenith will occur in the face of a withering blast of frightening rage from your child, in allowing no rage from yourself in response. Your finest moment may well be your darkest. And you will be a parent.” (Michael J. Bradley)