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American Child Care: Poor Quality at a Sky-High Price

It’s official. Working moms now have one more thing to worry about. In March 2007, the New York Times ran a story titled: “Poor Behavior Is Linked to Time in Day Care.” The article outlines a study that concludes even one year in a day care setting can result in disruptive—or even aggressive—behavior in your child for years to come.  

The alarmist title of this article surely had working moms across America shiver.  Luckily, researchers of this large study state that the unruly behavior, found in the 1,300 children assessed by teachers, was within the normal range for healthy children. The researchers from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development-funded study also point out that parents’ guidance and their genes are the biggest contributers to a child’s behavior. Interestingly, it also states that poor behavior—from bullying classmates to interrupting class—continues until the sixth grade.

Hmm. That’s a mixed bag. I’d chock it up as good news since another finding is that the quality of child care didn’t affect the outcome. Across the board, children who attended day care settings—regardless of their standard of care—were unruly in classrooms later.

This is truly upsetting news as not everyone can afford to hire a nanny or to quit their job. Both parents work in seventy percent of American families and according to the Children’s Defense Fund, 2.3 million American children under age five are in day care centers. To add insult to injury, day care is still expensive. Various expert assessments put day care costs from $4,000–$13,000 a year, per child. It certainly makes moms (and dads) angry to think that they may be spending up to twenty-five percent of their income for sub-par care that will result in a future mired with poor progress reports from middle-school teachers.

What’s the solution? For many of us, all we can do is make an effort to find a day care center with a good reputation, a philosophy of child-rearing that we agree with, a low teacher-to-student ratio, and hopefully a low turnover rate among staff. This last goal is quite challenging. Sadly, day care workers “are paid less than parking lot attendants,” says Joan Blades, co-founder of Momsrising.org, a nonprofit organization that aims to empower people across the country to band together to influence, and ultimately pass, family-friendly legislation.  

“Child care is so substandard in the United States…. Child care centers can’t afford to invest in training and there is high turnover because the workers have to feed their families. And, ironically, parents still can’t afford it!” reiterates Blades.

In a phone interview last week, Blades outlined tragic statistics that show how having a child in America is the leading cause of “a poverty spill” for families. Trying to pay for child care has stretched family budgets so severely that a USA Today article last year reported some families spend more than thirty percent of their incomes on child care alone. For some, that results in dramatic decisions for the family—such as leaving a job, selling a house, or moving to another state with cheaper housing and child care costs.

Just three years ago, I made my own personal sacrifice. For working moms, it isn’t anything new, we all understand and accept these as just what women do in America. When living in Los Angeles, I was offered an amazing job as a journalism instructor at an LA university with the caveat of mentoring the university newspaper. I was completely excited about the opportunity and was told I would be able to continue freelance endeavors as I didn’t want to give up writing for certain magazines. I had mentally decided to take the job until I visited the campus day care facility.

Insert sound of a record rip here.

I wasn’t prepared to leave my then fifteen-month-old son in an over-crowded center, regardless of its good reputation. One of my friends had been on its waiting list for six months and couldn’t believe I didn’t approve. But, I spent three hours at the center and felt differently. I found myself sitting in the hot sun while 30+ toddlers were playing with water hoses and running around water tables under a make-shift tent in a parking lot area outside the center. Teachers were gossiping to one another and not interacting with the children very much. One was on her cell phone. I saw one child sitting in the bright sun just staring in the distance. I put a hat on him and then walked away. And do you know what? That center would have eaten almost half—yes half—of my salary. (Clearly, journalists don’t earn a lot and Los Angeles has some of the highest child care costs in the country, but still!)

I think back on that decision every now and again, as I love working with kids and most likely would have enjoyed teaching Journalism 101 basics and inspiring budding writers on campus. But, in the end, I went home, kept freelancing for the magazines I wrote for at the time, and kept my part-time nanny, who only worked twenty hours a week for me. I spent the rest of my week swinging from one emotion to the next—between trying to quell a temper tantrum when answering a phone call or stopping tears from spilling over when I became overwhelmed with love by something my son would say or do.

It was a good choice. But it was a hard one to make even so. And I was lucky I could choose. Most of us don’t have that option.

Ultimately, the quality of child care in America has to be addressed.

The statistics are frightening:

“A third of kids entering kindergarten have inadequate language skills as their parents are working two or three jobs and not home. 40,000 kindergartners are home alone in the evening. Fourteen million kids are unsupervised after school … After-school programs—there are a fraction of them to meet the demand. We need to invest in the programs that pay back,” Blades says.

One thing we can all do is get involved. I know what you’re thinking—did she say that? Some of you are juggling careers and raising two or three children and the idea of writing your congressman is not as high on your to-do list as grocery shopping and the laundry. But, surprisingly, it’s not as hard as it seems. MomsRising has many campaigns that often just take a digital signature. For instance, the organization has outlined model legislation for excellent, affordable child care that has passed in at least one state.

To read my entire interview with MomsRising cofounder Joan Blades, which covers topics from paid maternity leave to the possibility of paternity leave in our country, click here.

In the end, until teachers and child care workers are paid more, quality of child care centers won’t improve that much. And quality has to count, don’t you think? Something tells me that it must, regardless of the 2007 study. Here’s hoping that more studies will be funded that incorporate ways to discern the quality of care and how that level of quality affects a child’s development.  

 

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