Emily Yoffe on the tough reality of day care work.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
June 26 2008 2:24 PM

Low Pay, No Respect, High Satisfaction

Readers chime in as Emily Yoffe discusses the reality of day care work.

Slate columnist Emily Yoffe was online at Washingtonpost.com to take readers' questions about her two-week adventure working at a day care center. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Emily Yoffe: I'm here to discuss my experiences working at a child care center in D.C. I promise I will not solve the problem of how this country gets high-quality, affordable day care.

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No Laughing Matter: Having learned from past experience, I was not eating while reading this Human Guinea Pig column. This one wasn't funny, unlike virtually all of them, but I did enjoy it immensely. It reminded me of how lucky I was to be able to afford high-quality care when my son was 3 months old and I had to return to return to work. For the first 10 months, I visited his class every day at lunch time, initially to breastfeed and then to play with, and be soothed by, the babies for an hour. It was a fantastic experience, made even more so by his calm, wise and delightful teachers. It is astonishing to me how hard those women worked and how little they were paid.

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Emily Yoffe: Thanks so much. At the center where I volunteered, Gap Community Child Care Center in D.C., I was astounded by the patience and competence of these women. We expect so much from them at barely over a minimum wage. I like your point about "being soothed by the babies"—I felt exactly the same way, there is something primal about how good you feel being in a roomful of happy babies.

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Rockville, Md.: Why couldn't you have just written about what it was like to work in a day care without taking little digs at working parents? "This schedule made me think of the lovely, shapeless days of my daughter's babyhood, when I was an at-home mother. ... Because of the long hours the children spend, the workers are a primary civilizing influence. They're the ones who do the heavy wiping in toilet-training these children; they're the ones who teach them to set the table before they eat; they're the ones who remind them committing assault is not the way to get a toy."

Do you really think that the parents of kids who go to daycare don't teach them these things? Instead of just writing from the perspective of the employee, you let your bias creep into your article and made judgments about the value of day care vs. staying at home with your child. You should even the score and talk about some of the good things that the kids got from day care.

Emily Yoffe: I didn't mean it as a dig. When my daughter was 2, I sent her off to pre-school. I was just reflecting on the fact that in order for a day care center to function, it has to be a schedule, and the lovely (and also sometimes maddening) thing about being with a young child without a schedule is that you are free to do things like spend the morning at the sandbox. I think the kids at this center are getting a tremendous amount from the experience. I was astounded to see the 3-year-olds setting the table and cleaning up with only a word from the teacher.

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Houston: Looking into daycare costs in my area, it is around $1,000 a month, with a typical ratio of five children to one adult. So, for each teacher, they are bringing in $5,000 a month. If this money is not going to the teachers, where is it going?

Emily Yoffe: You have to factor in the costs of rent, utilities, administration, etc. But this would be a good question to ask at your center. Is it possible for the teachers to get a raise? The other side is, Would you want to pay more so they get it?

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New York: As the parent of an 18-month-old, I took great interest in your article (I also remember the oil drilling platform one). Looking after just one kid on the weekend is exhausting—I just don't know how people can handle multiple kids all day. We try to be generous at the holidays, but your article reminded me to do more to thank those looking after our child.

Emily Yoffe: You are so right. I really don't know how these women keep the pace and focus that's required day after day. We can't do enough to thank them.

I stayed home for the first year and I had jury duty when my daughter was 10 months, so my husband had to take a day off from work and spend his first 8 hour stretch alone caring for her. He could not get off the floor when I arrived home, he was so exhausted.

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Highland Park, NJ.: As a parent who has gotten an insider's glimpse into the day care world, what changes would you make if you had the power to do so? Specifically, what training and/or certification would you like to see all day care workers have, and what compensation would you like to see day care workers earn?

Emily Yoffe: Wouldn't it be wonderful if their salaries were doubled? The national average is about $18,000 a year—that's not a living wage. But I also have no answer as to how we get there. It's clearly not going to happen without subsidies—the government now underwrites about 1/3 of the cost of day care nationally.

There has sometimes been a push to require day care workers to have college degrees. But some studies have found that a certificate course—which lasts a few months—does a lot to improve the skills of the workers, and may be enough. There's no way to make this a job requiring a college education without vastly increasing the salary—which gets us back to the first conundrum.

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You have to factor in the costs of rent, utilities, administration, etc.: Insurance is very expensive.

Emily Yoffe: Excellent point—liability is on everyone's mind constantly at a day care center. And the center I was at provides health insurance for the teachers, they are unusual in that, but that's another huge expense

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Norristown, Pa.: After graduating from a liberal arts college where I majored in economics, I discovered a passion for working with young children and decided to pursue early childhood education as a career. I've found that however fulfilling the job may be and how hard I work, it simply does not pay my bills, nor does it earn me respect among the parents of children or my peers.

I don't work just to gain respect, but the lack of appreciation and acknowledgement of my efforts certainly lowers my morale. There are few viable options in the field for highly-educated, qualified individuals, and so the majority of the day care workforce remains undereducated ... I'd be interested to know how many day cares in America employ individuals with master's degrees in early childhood education.

Emily Yoffe: Your letter is so depressing, because as hard at the job is, there are incredible rewards. These teachers really shape and civilize and in some cases bring love and stability to the lives of the children. The kids are fun and funny! But you're right, if you want to pursue this as a career it has no money and no prestige.

I would believe very few day care centers have people with masters degrees. At the most elite levels, of course, there are certain prestige centers which parents are willing to do almost anything to get their kids into. Remember the scandal of Jack Grubman, the investment banker who ended up being indicted for a financial scheme, the impetus of which was to get his kids in the right Manhattan preschool?

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Boulder, Colo.: I gave early childhood education 22 years of my life, including center ownership with 29 infants and toddlers. It gave me incredible life skills, continual practice in staying in the moment, great insight concerning parent perspectives ... and after 22 years drained my spirit! Can you believe that people continue this amazing job in spite of the pay, long hours and lack of recognition?

Still, as a public school teacher, I get comments such as "what's it like having a real job now?" Hmm I thought I was in a real job when I was a day care worker, lead teacher, director and center owner. Another common comment: "Wish I could stay on the floor all day and play." So my question is, did you meet any long-stayers, and if so, what insight did they add to your short experience in this field? What makes them stay?

Emily Yoffe: Again—another depressing letter. "Real job" "stay on the floor all day and play," jeez!

Many of the women working at the center were fairly new immigrants to this country and the ones I talked to said this job was a gateway to other things. Even if they wanted to continue working with kids, it would not be at day care; one wanted to get a college degree in psychology. Another was starting evening classes at business school. I spoke to one young American woman who had been at the center for several years. Her mother also worked in day care. She said she liked the job, but since she lacks a college degree, her options for more lucrative employment are not good.

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Arlington, Va.: Wonderful article. It just broke my heart—especially the image of the 10-month-old wanting to be held. I'm mom to a 9-month-old, and at present we're lucky enough to manage a system where her dad stays home part-time and she has a wonderful sitter about 15 hours a week. I'm already worried about what to do when she gets older. It makes me crazy that the most important jobs (child care providers, teachers, social workers) do not get the respect—or pay—that they deserve. And that it's nearly impossible to live (at least in this area) on one income.

Emily Yoffe: You put your finger on one problem with having to put babies into day care. The workers were wonderful! Loving and encouraging and compassionate. But they only have so many hands and they cannot just soothe a fussy baby to the exclusion of the other children. But because I was at a high-quality center, I came away feeling that if you had to make arrangement for someone else to care for your baby, this was a good compromise.

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Boulder, Colo.: I can help with costs! As a previous center owner, (with a five-to-one ratio), wages per hour have hidden costs, such as matching social security funds. Insurance is high. In many cities toys are taxed. There are high utility bills because of high water use, heating/cooling costs ... and the list goes on. If owners could pay more, they would. The profit margin, if any, is extremely low.

Emily Yoffe: Thanks for the insight.

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Re: Working Moms: Why are working moms always so defensive? I didn't see any digs in your article.

Emily Yoffe: Thanks—I really didn't intend any.

Is it the nature of mothers do be defensive about whatever choice we make? Don't the staying at home mothers always feel dissed about not pursuing their careers?

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Silver Spring, Md.: Come on, didn't you ever have a moment when you wanted to cover your ears and scream at the top of your lungs? I have two kids in daycare (ages 3 and 5) and I love my kids, but hanging out all day with other people's kids would drive me insane. It couldn't have been as lovely as you make it out to be.

Emily Yoffe: I mentioned that around 4:30 I was thinking, "Time to plop the kids in front of the television!"

Also having to endlessly sing those little ditties would make me nuts.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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