Dads Against the Divorce Industry

DA*DI is devoted to reinstating the societal valuation of Marriage and the traditional, nuclear American Family, with particular emphasis on the essential role of FATHERS.

DA*DI offers contemporary reports and commentary on culture; its aberrations and its heroes.

You Are Not My Kid's Mom

By Diane Fisher

Women are "working increasingly long hours without the supports such as reliable, affordable child care that could help counterbalance those work demands." So opined a recent Washington Post news story, but really the sentence could have appeared almost anywhere. It's one of the dogmas of modern life that mothers would be able to work "increasingly long hours"--without detriment to themselves or their children--if only the government would just get on the stick and provide better day care. It's a dogma, but it's not true. There is simply no evading the vast difference between parents and providers, between even the highest-quality care and a real home.

Whenever day-care centers are criticized, day-care advocates respond, "Well, that's because they're low-quality. That's why we're asking for more funding!" But the problems of day care go far beyond the matter of "quality." It is simply unethical of daycare advocates to dismiss serious concerns such as the reasonable age for children to begin full-time day-care or the importance of a mother staying with babies as much as possible during those critical first three years, or the risks of ten-hour day-care days for any child under five.

But they do dismiss these concerns, and usually there is nobody to contradict them. Academics, pediatricians, and other experts have learned to keep a prudent silence about the risks of day care, and so it is the day-care advocates--and only the advocates--we hear from on our television screens and in our parenting magazines.

Many of these advocates will in private candidly concede a gap between their personal values, or "what they choose for their own children," and what they endorse professionally. But in public, you hear only the most unblinking industry loyalty. One supervisor of a national chain of centers, who would only speak off the record, said, "I would never publicly say anything negative about day care."

Well, that's business. But is the public aware that day care is a business? Parents are encouraged to perceive day-care spokesmen as true child advocates, who can be trusted to evaluate the effects of day care on children objectively. Parents are led to believe that day-care providers have taken some kind of day-care Hippocratic oath, like physicians. In fact, day-care professionals will be the first to tell you that they are market-driven. When asked how centers decide on the hours of service provided--whether there is not such a thing as too many hours of day care-one director commented, "we have to provide what the market demands." Several admitted that this often presented conflict between what was best for the child, what the parents wanted, and what pleased the corporate day-care headquarters.

Other day-care providers choose to bridge the gap between the interests of children and the desires of adults by stoutly denying that any such gap exists. In discussing infants in full-time care, a young day-care supervisor, with a degree in early childhood education, assured me, "They all benefit from the socialization, no matter how young they are." This particular chain accepts infants as young as six weeks. She added, a little ominously it seemed to me, that it was best to start children as "young as possible" so they're "used to it." "Children who start later," she concluded, "have greater trouble adjusting."

Parents who use institutional day care sometimes justify their decision by repeating this claim that children need the socialization and stimulation ordinary parents can't provide. But they ought not to delude themselves about how much stimulation a child can get when one young teacher must struggle to entertain eight toddlers. I once observed a teacher brightly quizzing squirming, climbing three-year-olds about the "animals of the rainforest." One of them, Jake, was engrossed watching fish swimming in the aquarium tank. "Jake?" the teacher asked cheerily, "Can you think of a rain-forest animal?" Jake continued his reverie. A mother might talk to Jake about the fish, or let him watch them, or do something else to adapt herself to her child. But it's impossible for an entire group to switch activities just because one child is in the mood for "aquarium time." The children nap when the schedule says nap, snack when the schedule says snack, are stimulated when the schedule calls for them to be stimulated. How else could one cope with them all? The needs of the group, of the certified program posted on the wall, must dominate.

Which is how it happens that a visitor to an infant center can see well-meaning teachers of three- and four- month-old babies counting and naming animals in books, months--years even--before these children could possibly benefit from such an exercise. Infants need attachment and love, gentle long sequences of playing and responding back and forth, not counting and labeling. But how would one post that curriculum on the wall?

Readers who are mothers should reflect on how you knew when it was time to change a diaper. Busy caregivers change diapers according to bulletin board schedules. How much connection and interaction with the children can these caregivers have, no matter how well-paid, how well-educated, or how well-motivated they may be? It's not their fault. They are moving from task to task throughout the day, and their quality-assurance record depends upon it. But the kind of attention babies need to thrive--that they can never deliver, no matter what the paperwork says.

For instance, I take my rambunctious two-year-old to preschool story-time at the local library, along with many other mothers and children. Our children sit in our laps. We help them follow the song, guide stubby fingers, and soothe them when they crank up too fast. We ask at story-time's end, "Shall we stop to get some books about spring? Shall we ask Sarah if she'd like to play? Are you too tired for the park?" The decisions at least in part depend upon the child. A group of children from a "quality" day-care center also come on an "outing" to the library story-time. The children line up on the floor, sitting on their coats. The providers tote the babies in carriers. The preschoolers do the motions and sing the songs by themselves, sometimes glancing back at the providers for a reassuring smile. At the end, they line up again, put their coats on, and proceed back to the day-care van to return to the center for lunch. Are these two groups having equal experiences?

At story-time it is easy to see that neither group of children is having significant interactions with their peers. Pre-schoolers are interested in and enjoy other children, but it is adults to whom they still look for learning and emotional security. Experts agree it is not until eighteen months and older that children engage in any true interactive play. Even two-year-olds are able to tolerate real peer interaction for only limited periods before they become overstimulated.

And that's just what you see in under-three day care. The children only sporadically play with each other. They mill about individually, climbing over each other like puppies to get to a toy or to the adult. Children learn to see the world through the eyes of an adult they love. Claims that infants can be socialized by other infants, that preschoolers can bond with their peers for ten hours a day, should be tossed where they belong: in the garbage. A senior day-care worker confided to me that, "babies have no business in day care."

There is also a falsely upbeat style and tone to day care that is grating. Providers habitually smile and talk in positive, animated tones. Lights are always bright. Toys and bodies spill everywhere. Toddlers may be delighted for an hour, even two, but the day wears on and on. The pace of an individual child's day, the sorrow or wonder, all delicacy of feeling and reflection, is lost in the steamroller of the curriculum-driven day. Story after story, rhyme after rhyme, line up, run outside, potty, snack…through it all, one senses most of these children are quite alone. They may be happy, resilient, and adaptable...but still alone. They must long for a gentle moment, for just a second of eye-to-eye soulful connection, but how can these besieged caregivers provide that?

The workers are here on overlapping shifts from six in the morning to six at night or even longer. The best centers take pride in their one-to-four ratio of providers to children, but this ratio still means that infants interact with several caregivers during the day. The mystery of an individual child's unfolding inner experience, the miracle of time with an adult who loves you is replaced with the relentless cheerfulness that has led so many of us to hate Barney.

America suffers a growing national epidemic of parental absence and disconnection. "Quality" in day care cannot solve the problem. It does not even address it. One consistent finding in the much-cited, ongoing National Institutes of Health (NIH) study has been that even the best day care cannot compensate for too much parental absence. How much separation, then, is too much? Don't expect the day-care providers to answer that question. Parents who overuse day care, remember, are their best customers. An embattled veteran provider says, "If we were open longer, some of these parents would drop them off longer." Another described children who were left at six in the morning "with a Nutri-Grain bar or bag of Cheerios in their hands for breakfast," and not picked up until 6:00 P.M. when the center closed.

Day-care advocates deny that they have any influence upon parents' conduct. ("We don't encourage day-care consumption. We merely provide options.") And yet our culture now leads young parents to assume that they can put newborns in full-time care and that it will benefit their babies. We have a White House conference urging more and better day care. Where is the White House conference on the Nutri-Grain breakfast, or the ten-hour days, or the six-week-olds in full-time care?

And how do ordinary parents know when their children are suffering? When children are compliant, follow rules, interact well with peers, and express very little at home, we conclude the child is doing fine. The most recent installment of the NIH study reported that children in center-based care were less likely to have "behavior problems." This was widely interpreted as great news. One provider I interviewed recalled a four-year-old girl who would regularly meet her rushed mother at the center's door after a long day of separation, not with a hug or a sigh, but with a cool gaze and, "Well! Let's go to McDonald's!" What an independent, forward thinker! But where we once cherished our children's love, dependency, and innocence, we now value their premature self-sufficiency and detachment.

How will we balance the marketplace and children's needs? For the past two decades, we have not balanced them at all: Work must come first, children second. With what consequences? We won't really know until the first generation of day-care babies become adults themselves. By then it may be too late. As Dr. Stanley Greenspan, the George Washingon University professor who until recently served as director of the Clinical Infant Development program at the NIH, puts it, "We are still in a position to actively choose which direction to go in. [But] if we wait too long to choose our direction, future generations may well lack the self-reflectiveness necessary to be aware of what is missing and to determine what collective actions are necessary."

Whatever happened to rocking chairs, whispered songs, soft blankets, and dim lights? Are we just arguing aesthetics? Or is this the Brave New World? One day I observed a caregiver cradling a baby horizontally at her waist, swinging her gently in an attempt to induce sleep. The overhead fluorescent fixtures, the cacophony of other toddlers, the swaddling in a blanket discarded a moment ago by someone else--somehow it didn't seem conducive to slumber. As she stood rocking in the midst of the bright noisy room, the caregiver looked at me ruefully and said, "She's fighting it!" And well she should.

Diane Fisher is a clinical psychologist and mother of three.

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