The issue of daycare is a tricky one. Many parents feel judged when people start talking about the amount of time our children are spending being cared for by others and even more so when the discussion turns to the quality of daycare experienced by far too many children. Furthermore, many parents are adamant that their children’s daycare providers are not considered shared primary caregivers, that that is a role held uniquely by them.
So I have to ask: If these providers aren’t raising our kids, who is?
According to Statistics Canada’s 2010 General Social Survey on Time Use, the amount of time parents are caring for their young children (under four) isn’t as great as one might think. According to StatsCan, parents spend an average of 2 hours 49 minutes of their day taking care of their young children as the main activity, which includes physical care of children, reading to them, talking to them, and anything along those lines. (To put this in perspective, the average amount of time people spend watching TV is 2 hours 52 minutes, but I’m pretty sure the average parent is spending less than that.) However, when you add in doing other things (like household chores, errands, etc.) while also taking care of kids, the time goes up, but to only 4 hours 52 minutes. If we figure kids are sleeping an average of 14 hours in this age group (as it would be variable), that still leaves 4 hours 8 minutes.
This number is also going to be skewed high because the younger children (especially aged 0-1 as parents here have the option of a year’s parental leave) will be spending much more time caring for their child (and as such, countries like the USA, with no real parental leave policy in place, would likely have even lower numbers for this age group as many children start in daycare as young as six weeks). Likely it means that after age 1, many children are spending the majority of their waking hours in the care of someone else. This fact shouldn’t be surprising if we consider parents back at work whose day with their children probably looks like: Wake up, spend an hour with their kids getting them ready and out the door then to daycare then they pick them up after work having only 2-3 or so hours before it’s bedtime.
I say all this with no judgment of parents who utilize daycare because we all (a) do what we have to do, and (b) do so after weighing the risks and benefits for us and our families. In fact, alloparenting is as old as human beings, it just happens that often it’s with family or tribe members who treat our children with the same (or close to the same) love and care as we do. The typical modern version of alloparenting is daycare, but as mentioned before, many parents don’t acknowledge it as such, likely because it makes it seem as if they are “less” important than they (rightly) feel they are. But these personal feelings (insecurities?) about their situation are leading them to ignore a problem facing many families and allowing society to ignore it as well.
What is this problem? So long as we continue to view daycare as secondary care and not a real, viable element of alloparenting, we can continue to ignore the problem of subpar daycare options for children. We continue to allow children to spend a large portion – if not a majority – of their day in overcrowded, inappropriately stimulated situations which provide them with neither the individual care nor the freedom to explore young children need.
Although some parents spend a great deal of time looking for the “right” fit of daycare, many simply have to take what is available and affordable. This means the quality of care is often less than a child would get if cared for by a family member or close friend, a one-on-one nanny, or an au-pair. When we look for individual or shared care for our children (especially if we bring these people into our house), we tend to be a bit more picky about who we choose. The mentality of inviting someone into your home can (even subconsciously) include the idea that you are welcoming them to your family. The expectation is the type of care you would expect from someone that close to you.
In daycare, however, that often isn’t a consideration. Especially not at the societal level. We are so concerned about making parents feel “good” about daycare we have focused on making sure they don’t see daycare for what it is: alloparenting. If someone is just “helping” you, it’s easier to forgive the quality of care as being lesser than because you don’t see their contribution to your child as being nearly as great as it actually is. (In a similar vein, it allows daycares to see child “problems” as stemming only from the home and not the environment they have created, another fallacy.)
It’s time we accept daycare for what it is and the role it plays in our society so that we can find ways to make sure every daycare is at a standard that we would want for our own kids (which includes small staff:child ratios, one-to-one attention, close contact for young children, consistency of care so no high turnovers, no crying-it-out, no corporal punishment, and more that I’m not even thinking of at this moment). Alloparenting, when done right, can be beneficial for children in allowing them to feel safe and secure and loved by people other than their parents (who will always remain the most significant caregivers in their lives, even when they share the role of caregiver with others). But when it’s not done right? It can be associated with a host of childhood problems (see here for more information) that will end up having longer-term consequences for our children, our families, and our society.
Although it’s hard to know how to ensure all kids get appropriate care, you can start by looking to politicians who have child care as a topic on their agenda. If your representative doesn’t, send them something (in fact, I believe a new set letter is on my agenda now) to tell them how important it is that all children have access to high-quality daycare. As for your own kids, if you don’t have family to alloparent, look into nanny-sharing as an option (some post-partum doulas also work as nannies and that’s usually someone you can trust to be loving and caring) as the sharing bit often reduces the cost to something more akin to less expensive daycare. If you have space in your house, look into an au-pair because you really are making someone a part of the family and that’s a wonderful element for your children (and can be cheaper when you’re paying room and board). Find a home or small daycare where the focus is on continuity of care and the caregivers share the same values as you.
Whatever it looks like, we need to make sure all children are getting the care they deserve, and that means things have to start changing.