Low Pay, No Respect, High Satisfaction
Readers chime in as Emily Yoffe discusses the reality of day care work.
Maryland: I have a 4-month-old son, and I work from home as a consultant. As he gets older, though, I'll need some kind of child care. I wish I lived in Europe with top-quality subsidized day care, instead of in the U.S. with heavily subsidized corporations and enormous tax breaks for the very wealthy. However ... I have found in the past four months that while I love my child dearly, the bulk of the tasks involved in caring for him are entirely menial, requiring not one jot of education or training—just common sense, endurance and love. I can feel my brain rot just reading the description of your days. I'm not sure even higher pay would entice any professional people into the job, although it might reduce turnover. Thoughts?
Emily Yoffe: Yes, much of caring for small children is made up of menial and repetitive tasks. But the amazing thing is seeing how quickly these kids change. A 5 month old is an entirely different being from a 15 month old. Providing the right mix of nurture, encouragement, and independence is not a brain rot task. Also, when you're dealing with many children, you are going to have those who have special needs. But common sense, endurance and love are the hallmark qualities of a good day care worker. And you're right, those aren't necessarily the qualities of highly educated professionals.
Chicago: Did you get a chance to talk to the parents of the children you cared for? My experience has been that this is one of the hardest but most important tasks for child care workers to do, but they get very little training about how to work with or communicate with parents.
Emily Yoffe: I didn't. I did talk to some of the workers about their relationship with the parents. Most said the parents were wonderful, but some were extremely frustrated with parents who weren't giving the kids at home the kind of patient, encouraging care they got at the center. I agree, this is an important and delicate area and one that probably doesn't get enough attention.
Durham, N.C.: Your experience reminded me of the scene in Paris, je t'aime where a poor immigrant stays away from her own baby all day to take care of a rich family's infant. It's sickening that taking care of children during their most impressionable years is considered such a low-skill (and therefore low-wage) activity. What can be done? Is universal preschool the answer? It seems like that's just expanding the age of public school not for the benefit of the children, but for the accommodation of our economic system, wherein both parents have to spend eight hours a day away from their kids.
Emily Yoffe: Many of the women working in day care are mothers of young children themselves. One I spoke to doesn't get home until 6:30, so she has a network of friends and relatives watching her daughter while she cares for other people's children. I don't know if universal preschool is the answer, but it is not on the political agenda now. But in this country in the 1970s about 25 percent of 4 year olds were being taken care of outside their home, today 60 percent are.
Defensive working moms?: Um, they are because they have to be, with constant accusations of "outsourcing" our child-rearing. Your "digs" may not have been intended, but I suspect otherwise even with some of the comments now (i.e. if you "have to" make child care arrangements this is a good compromise). Yes, some of us have to have two incomes.
Emily Yoffe: It seems that the point you're making is that the raw economics of being able to keep your house and feed your family requires many mothers to go to back to work months, or even weeks after their children are born. You are making my point: that in an ideal world this wouldn't be a necessity, and some women would prefer to take more time off of work. I'm not making a dig, I'm understanding this can be a wrenching decision for some, with no perfect choices.
Boulder, Colo.: Thanks for this article—you truly went in with open eyes. The opportunity to socialize human beings at such an early age was my passion when I was in this field. Do you agree that, when done right, a day care classroom can create human beings with great social skills that will get them through, later in life, along with the potential for people getting along better?
Emily Yoffe: I sent my daughter to pre-school for part of the day starting when she was 2, and I think it was absolutely great for her. But the long-term studies on the preschool effect present mixed data. In general spending part of the day with other kids does seem to confer benefits, but spending all day every day can be somewhat detrimental. Many studies of poor kids in high quality day care show that they are cognitively and socially ahead of a control group of kids who didn't go, but the effect fades as the children move through elementary school. But this may be due to the fact that the schools they go to are inadequate
Arlington, Va.: The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) recently increases the educational standards for day care workers, requiring—among other things—that most head teachers have bachelor's degrees. Honestly, I think this is the wrong approach. I'd much rather have a sensible grandmother-type taking care of the infants, and save the degrees for preschool teachers. In any event, a bachelor's does not equal fabulous teacher. At my daughter's daycare center, her worst three teachers had bachelor's, and could not control the classes she was in. Her best teachers have included those with degrees and those without.
Emily Yoffe: You raise a very good point. We can be so credential mad that we lose sight of the real skills required here. A warm, patient, empathic person with no college degree can be a fabulous day care teacher.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks everyone for your provocative questions. As promised, no solutions as to what to do about getting our kids high-quality, affordable care.
Emily Yoffe writes Slate's "Human Guinea Pig" and "Dear Prudence" columns. Her articles have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, O the Oprah Magazine, Texas Monthly, the Washington Post, and other publications. She is the author of What the Dog Did: Tales From a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner.