“Note the language,” continues Williams. “Why are child-care providers ‘strangers’? When you leave a child at school, no one ever thinks of asking, ‘How does it feel to leave your child with strangers’? If teachers are not strangers, why are caregivers?”
Williams raises an important point. We do the same thing when we talk about “other people raising our children” or about “leaving our children in daycare all day” or about “outsourcing child care” as if we didn’t do exactly the same thing when our children enter school.
So what’s the difference between schools and other care providers?
- Children are generally older (at least five) when they begin school, though this is not necessarily true in other countries, where children begin school at age three or four.
- Schools are funded by taxpayer money while care providers are funded by tuition.
- Almost all children attend school. Only some children attend preschool or daycare.
- There is a great variation in child care quality in private care. This is also true of schools, though they are much more heavily regulated by the state.
- Though neither teachers nor care providers are paid well as a group, teachers make more money.
Here’s the big difference between private care and public school: Social convention.
If it’s wrong to leave your three-year-old in someone else’s care, why does it become right when she’s six? If you lived in Canada where junior kindergarten is part of the public school system or in France where school begins at three, would it be wrong to enroll your child then? If that’s OK, what makes it wrong to enroll a two-year-old if that child is advanced for his age? Where do we draw the line of guilt?
The boundaries we draw are often social. We put our kids in school at age five because that’s when the law says we should. We pay for schools out of taxpayer dollars because that’s how the system is set up. We expect parents to educate children, and if they keep them home, those parents have to prove that their children’s education meets certain standards.
Two hundred years ago, children were expected to work on the farm, not necessarily to be in school. Those were the original stay-at-home parents. Yet today, if a parent kept her child home from school to make her learn to cook or sew, we’d accuse that parent of neglect.
Of course, younger children need more care and attention. And many parents want to give that care and attention themselves. I think that’s a great thing, and that parents who stay home to take care of their kids do important work. For many families, it’s the best situation.
But let’s stop basing our decisions on socially constructed ideas of guilt. Every family situation is different. Calling other caregivers “strangers” implies a lack of attention or caring. I think most preschool teachers, babysitters, and caregivers care as deeply for the children in their care as public school teachers do, and I know many working mothers whose kids turned out to be amazing people.
They say it takes a village. So if one woman wants to or has to take advantage of her village and another doesn’t, it doesn’t mean that either she or her caregiver has a cold, unfeeling heart. We need to rethink the language we use so we don’t accuse another unfairly, sometimes even without intending to.