Every parent should read this month’s New Republic story “The Hell of American Day Care” by Jonathan Cohn. The article highlights the appalling lack of oversight at home child care centers and even licensed facilities, where workers need only a high school diploma or GED, and many make only $20,000 a year — less than janitors.
“In the United States, despite the fact that work and family life has changed profoundly in recent decades, we lack anything resembling an actual child care system,” Cohn writes. “Excellent day cares are available, of course, if you have the money to pay for them and the luck to secure a spot. But the overall quality is wildly uneven and barely monitored, and at the lower end, it’s Dickensian.”
During his discussion this week with Terry Gross, host of NPR’s Fresh Air, Cohn highlighted some of the major problems, namely that parents need day cares to work, to make a living. And those who don’t work a regular 9-to-5 job, or those at the low end of the pay scale, can’t afford the outrageous tuition.
“We’re not thinking about, ‘Wow, we have this need out there. We need trained professionals to help fill it,’” Cohn said. “We’re thinking, ‘Oh yeah, someone’s got to watch the kids. Let’s pay ’em like babysitters.”
Day care is brutal in Dallas. I am still on newborn waiting lists, and my son is 15 months old. The tuition is outrageous, even for a center across the street from a homeless shelter, and the alternatives are few.
As a former child care teacher, a journalist who reported about an at-home day care death and, now, a parent of a child in day care, I, like so many parents, fear something will happen to my child under someone else’s supervision.
The fear and guilt we feel about leaving our children in someone else’s care is real, but there are things we can do to protect our kids. Here are 10 tips for selecting — and surviving — day care in Dallas.
No field trips
Unless I can supervise, my son doesn’t go to the zoo or any place without me. Too often, teachers don’t do the proper head count or partnering. I did with my students, but many child care workers do not. I will take him out when I spend time with him.
Choose video monitoring
I have chosen to send my son to a school that provides video monitoring. I can see him at all times, as the system at my son’s school offers an app for my iPhone. Don’t be afraid to tell the teacher, “I saw how you comforted him when he fell. Thank you.” Or, “I saw that he was left crying for a while. Why was that?”
Check the inspection reports
Licensed centers are inspected annually; you can see the reports online. One of the centers in Dallas I looked at sounded good, but an incident in one of the reports documented an unexplained shoulder dislocation in which the child care worker was suspected. It happened a few years ago, but that was enough for me to say no. Almost no center is perfect; even the center my son attends had a minor violation. Paperwork was missing, but that was cleared after the paperwork was properly documented.
Drop by unexpectedly
Child care workers know parents’ routines, so change yours up. Sometimes I’m early; sometimes I’m late. This allows me to see my child at different times and with different people.
Respect your child’s cues
My son cannot speak yet, so it is difficult for me to know when something is wrong. But a few months ago he was having outbursts and crying a lot at school. I took him to a pediatrician, who suggested he be moved at his day care. Indeed, a new worker had moved into his room. Even though he could not speak, I suspected he did not like her. She did nothing wrong that I saw, but I still respected his behavior and requested he be moved to another room. My center gladly complied, and he hasn’t had issues since.
Look for longevity
There is a high turnover for child care workers, primarily because the pay is so low. But the one thing that made me stay with my center was the longevity of the workers. Many lead teachers had been with the center for more than 10 years. The school was established 30 years ago. That says something.
Make communication a priority
Communicate with your child (as best you can) and the teachers. Ask your child about his or her day. What did they do? Who cared for them?
I’m not chummy with my son’s teachers the way some parents are, but that’s because I prefer to keep a watchful distance. I am not a friend but a parent paying for a service, and I want to make sure my son is cared for. Ask for explanations about bumps or bruises. Centers have to give you an injury report, and if they cannot explain a scrape, speak to a director. But ask your child what happened too.
Pay the money
I pay a fortune for child care, but money can buy some peace of mind. If you can’t afford a good center, a safe place, a reliable person, really ask yourself if taking off work for a few short years, maybe cutting back to do so, is doable. I couldn’t work knowing my son wasn’t safe. It has been a sacrifice — I have chosen not to work from 8 am-5 pm because I don’t want my son in child care all day — but knowing my son is in a safe place has made working easier for me.
Take care of the teachers
At first I was disturbed by my son’s school’s request to offer tips, not cards, during Teacher Appreciation week. I already pay crazy tuition. But keeping a good staff means paying them. They don’t make much money, so tips help. I tip during the holidays too.
Go with your gut
As a parent, you have to rely on your intuition. When I first walked into my son’s school, I wished it were newer and shinier. But I immediately sensed the teachers loved the children. I brought my mom to look at the center too. I brought my spouse. I suggest you do the same.
In the desperate search for a day care spot in Dallas, we often overlook issues just to get our kid in a school. Don’t. The children at my son’s school are happy, clean and talkative. The teachers comfort my son, and he hugs them in return. That says a lot to me. It also says a lot when he does not want to go to a teacher. Babies have good instincts.
My heart goes out to parents can’t afford the place they want to send their child. But know that even on the lower end, there are caring and good people. But you should always do your homework and what is best for your child — not what is the most convenient for you.
This was originally published on Chick Talk Dallas, a blog for ordinary and extraordinary women founded by author Joanna Cattanach.