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Little Kids, Big Questions
is a series of 12 podcasts that translates the research of early childhood development into parenting practices that mothers, fathers and other caregivers can tailor to the needs of their own child and family. Click here to listen to or download the podcasts. This podcast series is generously funded by MetLife Foundation.

What I Learned in Day Care

Frank B. Denman
Seattle, Washington

Excerpted from the .  To browse other articles or to subscribe, click here

Nanny v. Day Care
Maddie was five a month ago. Laura just had her third birthday. When Jean and I were still several months away from Maddie's estimated delivery date, we still didn't have our child care plans in place. We had assumed we would want a nanny, and had begun some interviewing. Jean had nonetheless checked out some daycare operations, but the good ones seemed to have impossibly long waiting lists. One, Mother’s Place, wouldn’t even allow her to visit unless we were near the top of the waitlist—and calling six months ahead didn’t begin to get us there.

My idea about a nanny was that our child would have a long-term relationship with some fine person who would in effect become an additional member of the family; in contrast, I assumed that a daycare would be a grimy little cottage industry of minimum-wage, minimum-skill people with a very high turnover. The nanny interviewing, however, was not encouraging. The few incandescently good candidates were about twice as expensive as high-end daycare, and without exception they viewed child care as a way station—something to do for a year or two while preparing for the next stage in their professional lives. The bad ones couldn’t even find our house. We weren't then as panicked as we should have been, because Jean planned to take four months off from work after Maddie's birth, and we had not the slightest idea of just how little sleep we were going to get.

Maddie surprised us by arriving two weeks early while we were spending a weekend in Canada. She got dual citizenship, and we got an immediate introduction to the admirable Canadian health care system. We couldn't have gotten better care at home in Seattle, and we got it even though we walked in unannounced off the street. I'm not advising my Canadian friends to try this in the US.

By the time Maddie was three months old, we still hadn't found a nanny we liked. Then we got a call from Mother's Place. They had an unexpected opening. It could be Maddie's, if we acted immediately. Given our state of sleep deprivation, this had some interesting possibilities. I assumed it would do no more than take the pressure off us, and give us a little more sleep, while we continued to search for a nanny.

Wrong again. As we watched the interaction between Maddie, her caregivers, and the other children, our feelings about the relative merits of nanny v. daycare rotated 180 degrees. We quit looking for a nanny.

The school for beginner parents
The daycare was just a few blocks from Jean's office, so she did most of the deliveries and pickups. I remember the first time I went to pick up Maddie. As I went through the gate, I was full of apprehension. I felt like I was invading a very gender-specific territory where a set of automatic assumptions would work against me. How was I going to prove I wasn't some wandering kidnapper/child-molester?

Because it was almost closing time, the few remaining children were gathered in a single classroom with the two remaining teachers, one of whom greeted me with "Hi, Dad," and asked for some picture ID. As I did the wallet fumble, she assured me that, as far as she personally was concerned, Maddie's response to my entrance had already established my identity, but that they always asked for ID the first time a new parent made a pickup.

The next time I came for Maddie, it was earlier, and she was still in the baby area, so busy interacting with teachers and other babies that she didn't notice my arrival. I'd never seen her in this kind of situation, so I retreated into the wallpaper and just watched for awhile.

I've tried to make this a habit, because I learn something every time I hang out at daycare.

Bananas: Maddie had been eating solid foods for several months. We meticulously cut up everything, including bananas, into tiny bite size pieces. Then Jean dropped by daycare one day at noon and found Maddie sitting at a table happily peeling and eating a whole banana. She'd been doing that all the while.

Table clean-up: I wandered into the daycare just as a meal was ending, and was astonished to see one-year old Maddie and her cohorts clearing the table and carrying their debris to the trash. They had all been seated in little chairs around the table. At home, we had Maddie in a highchair, and she was tossing so much food overboard that we had a plastic tarp on the floor.

Use your words: In the interests of efficiency, Jean and I got very good at reading the girls' body language; if we could anticipate their wants, we could all go to bed earlier. But at school, I saw the teachers resisting body language. "Use your words," was a constant refrain.

Pre-field-trip drill: Jean arrived at the daycare as the teachers were preparing Maddie's class for a field trip by asking questions. "OK, kids, what's the name of our school? What are we going to do when we cross a street?" It wouldn't have occurred to me teach this, and it certainly wouldn't have occurred to me that asking questions would be a more powerful teaching method than giving answers.

Putting things away: Every activity at daycare ends with the kids putting things back where they belong. I thought this was pretty astonishing, given our inability to get the girls to put anything away. I expressed my amazement to Kate, one of the three teachers for the four and five-year olds. She was a grade school teacher before teaching at Mother's Place. She's in her 30s and has a child of her own at the daycare. "We reward them with cookies," she said, "and we watch like hawks to spot the kids who are only pretending to pickup and the kids who disappear into the bathroom for the duration. No cookies for the pretenders and disappearers. That always comes as a big shock. 'Hey, how come I'm not getting a cookie?'"

Mom and Dad finally get to sleep
Laura woke us up at least two or three times every night until she was two years old. Getting her back to sleep was no trivial project; she wanted to be held and walked and given bottles. If I walked her long enough, she'd fall asleep in my arms—only to wake as soon as I put her back in her crib. We tried Ferber and it didn't work.

This would have gone on for years if Jean and I hadn't given ourselves a weekend vacation. We booked one of our favorite teachers to look after the girls. Sara is a wise, funny, sixtyish black woman who has raised kids and grandkids and serves as the moral center of the baby and pre-toddler areas. She told us when we got back that Laura had slept through the night. And, unless she is sick, Laura has slept through most nights since. How did Sara do it? "I just went in and told Laura to hush up—that I wasn't going to stand for any of these shenanigans. You just have to be firm."

Street attack
Kevin is a droll and likable caregiver in his late twenties who acquired fluent Japanese in the course of several years teaching English in Japan. Laura, our second child, is a jock. To get into her crib, she climbs up the side, balances her tummy on the rail, and then dives headfirst to the mattress. (I think this is cool but it gives Jean the willies.) When Laura gets excited, she expresses it by impulsive hitting and shoving. Kevin thinks she's going to be the first female NFL linebacker.

I remember a moment in my first year of college when I said something to a friend about an escapade that had ended in me getting spanked. My friend was nonplused. He had never been spanked and nobody he knew had ever been spanked. I was equally nonplused, never having known anybody who hadn't been spanked.

I'm in my middle fifties now, and have had lots of years to reflect on what kind of parent I want to be. I admire lots of things about my father, but to the extent that my father would get mad and kick the pets and spank the kids when his authority was challenged, I don't want to be the parent my father was. Yet, it is scary to discover how much I am hardwired to be like my father. When the girls defy repeated direct requests, I can feel my body wanting to assert authority. When Laura won't stop tormenting Maddie and I have grab her arms and pull her off of Maddie, my hands want to squeeze enough to hurt her.

Jean, like me, is in the class of folks who got spanked while growing up (How often? Lots of times. Why? For having a smart mouth), but I think she's ripped out the hardwiring to a much greater extent than I have. Even when she's maximally stressed, I never have any sense of a violent undercurrent.

I talked about issues of parent/child authority once with a friend whose kids I greatly admire. His belief was that kids need to assert their independence and that it is neither necessary nor desirable for the parent to win every battle. On the life and death issues, e.g., running into the street, you have to win by any means necessary; on the others, you can afford to lose.

One evening, as Jean and the girls were heading from daycare through the parking lot to the car, Laura broke loose and—ignoring commands to stop—set out at a dead run for the street. Jean dropped everything, sprinted after her on wings of mortal fear, and intercepted right at the edge of the sidewalk. Right there, right on the spot, she gave Laura the only spanking that our kids have ever had. Then, still shaken, she gathered up Laura and turned back toward the car. Kevin was standing there watching. "Jean," he said, "are you okay?"

Kids miss school
Last year we scheduled a summer vacation of eight days, planning to spend the first five at the beach and the last three at home. When we got back from the beach and contemplated the various things we could do during the remaining three days of our vacation, the girls chose to spend part of every day at school. They missed their friends and teachers.

Every child should have it so good.

Good daycare is expensive. The monthly bill for our two kids is as big as our house payment. But that's what it costs to keep good staff. Several of our daughters' teachers have degrees in early childhood education, several have taught in public school systems, most have been at Mother's Place for several years—a few for six and seven years.

I do not believe that either Jean or I, as a stay-at-home parent, could have provided our girls with as rich a learning experience as they have had at their daycare. Nor could we have provided as rich a social experience. The kids I see who spend the day at home with a nanny or parent are interacting on a daily basis with fewer children and fewer adults than the daycare kids.

Let me share a fantasy with you. Suppose we were to decide that every child, including, especially, children in impoverished and fragmented families, deserved the kind of start that our kids are getting. Let’s assume there are 10 million kids under age five. If we budget $10,000 per kid per year, we need just a modest $100 billion, which is about half the current US defense budget. Think about it.

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