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Jenna e. Ziman
One Minute You're Changing Diapers, â€¦
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Senate Hearings Missed the Real â€¦
Rob richie and steven Hill
The Human Rights Charade
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Christopher d. Cook
Slippin' & Slidin'
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A Progressive Approach to Caring for Children and Community
Is more institutionalized day care the answer?
Feministsparticularly white liberal feministshave long considered quality day care to be a key factor in our ability to balance work and family life. Now, suddenly, day care is getting some mainstream support; legislators of all stripes, the President and Hillary Clinton, as well as some major corporations are behind it. What happened? What changed? Is it a progressive victory?
Although mostly middle and upper class women still face pressure to stay home with their children, there has been a decided shift toward day care from both conservative and liberal elements in government and from the corporate world. Needless to say, the change is not motivated by concern for gender equality. It is not even really about what is best for children, though it is framed that way. It is about a growing awareness that working parents are more productive when they have fewer childcare worries and that childrenthe next generation of workerswill be more productive if they have received their training from an early age. These are the reasons clearly articulated by the heads of government and corporations. Trotting out studies that prove a mere truism, i.e., the first months and years of a childs life are key to their development, they offer a feel-good backdrop for what is actually a productivity squeeze. The reasons left unarticulated but are powerful motivators in the day care policy change are: (1) as a justification for welfare reform which is sending thousands of poor women into menial jobs and their children into substandard care; (2) part of a recognition that in order to produce not only better workers, but better consumers, there is no place for the community and familial ties that exist outside the marketplace.
Granted the burden of raising children and nurturing family and community ties has fallen unfairly on women. Gender inequality has left women dependent on men and the State, and/or doubly burdened by the need to provide an income as well as nurture the family. Feminists are correct to identify childcare helpboth from men and society in generalas a key factor in the breakdown of patriarchy. Granted also that there is nothing sacred about community and family life. They are social constructs and can reinforce repressive roles just as the marketplace can. However, there needs to be more democratic debate about what happens to children. We need to hear from diverse communities about their childcare needs. At present, Clinton is consulting the Secretary of Defense about how the military runs its very "successful" day care operation (Boston Globe, 10/2/97), and the Child Care Action Campaign, a national nonprofit organization, is encouraging businesses to partner with agencies in their area to invest in childcare. (Parade Magazine, September 21, 1997.) Those in power should not be allowed to determine what happens to children. Their policies and proposals will reflect their needs and concerns and the logic of their institutions. The outcome may have short-term benefits for some women and some children, but feminists and progressives at a grassroots level and from diverse communities should be debating and strategizing ways to take care of children.
Day Care As Wal-Martification
Being a mom in late 20th century America is hard work. Not only do many of us have to produce an income to make ends meetor, just as importantly, desire to work to have a balanced lifewe are also held responsible for every twist and turn of our childrens psyches and behavior. Between the combined efforts of Sigmund Freud and Benjamin Spock, most people seem to believe that mothers are at fault for just about all of societys ills, quite a feat given that we have had close to zero access to power, privilege, and resources. Meanwhile, the job description is close to impossible. As Mary Kay Blakely says, "Mothers are somehow expected to exceed all human limits... You go to work when youre sick, maybe even clinically depressed, because motherhood is perhaps the only unpaid position where failure to show up can result in arrest" (American Mom, Motherhood, Politics, and Humble Pie).
As difficult as it may be to be a full-time mother, imagine that after doing your unpaid work in the home, you then take your children to a day care center and go out and do your underpaid work in the labor forceoften in the dirtiest, most dangerous, least acknowledged jobs. Then, immediately after finishing your underpaid job you pick up your children from day care and resume your unpaid job, all the while keeping the following statistics in mind: "15 percent of children cared for by people other than their parents are in "childcare centers of such poor quality that their health or development is threatened." Infants are more likely to get poor care than older children; a 1993 study of childcare centers found that 40 percent of facilities serving infants were of such poor quality as to be possibly injurious. "The CFC [Center for the Future of Children] concludes that 70 percent of childcare is mediocre" (The Nation, "Childcare brain drain?" Ann Barnet and Richard Barnet, May 12, 1997).
If you are a welfare mother now required to work for your benefits, you may have had to leave your child with a "provisional" child care provider whose only qualification is that s/he has no criminal record. Or perhaps you have used your child care voucher to leave your child in a family day care that once had a six-child maximum but now, due to "relaxed standards," has "taken in thirty-four" (as happened recently in Wisconsin, according to the Progressive, October 1997).
Of course women should not be held responsible for every minute of our childrens care. Nor should we, for any reason, feel compelled to put them in substandard care. Nor should we be limited to these two choices: 24 hours of Mom-duty vs. 10 hours of who knows what. Leaving children in a place where the care is "possibly injurious" or even "mediocre" is nothing less than violence against families and children. But calling for more day care slotseven the high quality varietyis not the ultimate progressive answer to childraising. While it may alleviate a short-term burden for families, day care that is mandated by the needs of the marketplace is damaging to small children and weakens community ties. Many day care centers disconnect children from daily family and community life and train small children in the ideologies and regimens of schools, factories, and offices.
Whats Wrong With Day Care?
Those of you who have visited a quality day care center are probably wondering what Im talking about. In fact, you may know a child who finds it a wonderfully enticing placeeverything is scaled to her height; there are different play "stations" where she can entertain herself; she can curl up on the rug in the reading corner; she can open the trunk full of dress-up clothes; play pretend; or pull out any number of games and toys that are placed on shelves at the appropriate height. She has a hook for her coat and a cubby for her lunch boxboth brightly labeled with her name. The room is decorated with educational colorful images, perhaps the letters of the alphabet, pictures of other children, and barnyard animals. She has the opportunity to listen to music, sing and dance, and play outside. Perhaps there is attention to diversity. They celebrate Hanukkah and Kwanzaa as well as Christmas. This particular child is lucky; she has teachers who, although woefully underpaid, sincerely like their work and care about the child.
There is not one particular feature of this package that makes day care centers problematic, nor is the whole package necessarily a problem in every instance. But in the context of late 20th century America, given the needs of our economy, the socializing force of educational institutions, and the pressures on families and communities, we should seriously evaluate the role of day care centers in shaping daily life and as part of a progressive agenda.
Here is another take on the lessons our day care center child may absorb: Her learning and play, her growth and development, need to be structured and facilitated by professionals. There are no mentors for her, nor are there any young ones that she can in turn help usher through the months and years. She will not get a sense of her intrinsic worth as a member of a community that has a reason for being and a set of daily tasks that have varying degrees of meaningfulness, and that incorporates her at whatever developmental stage she might be, provides a variety of models for her, and invests her with a sense of the rhythms of everyday life. Instead, she gets the rather profound message that her role is to be entertained (educated, enriched, etc.) until someone picks her up and takes her home for some quality time. The lesson is an early one in consumption: She may be missing out on finding meaning in organic relationships but she can always come into the day care to consume some stimulation and entertainment instead.
Furthermore, she learns about class position and hierarchy. Rather than absorb the needs and values and cultural norms of her community, she integrates herself into an institutionlearning to please the caregivers, compete with her peers for attention, divvy her day into structured activities, accept the rules and guidance of the authority figures, and mark time by her movement from the infant room to the toddler room and on to the pre-school room. Just as the U.S. educational system produces young adults schooled to take their place among the powerful, or in the office, the factory, the service sector, or the permanent underclass, so early childhood education will help produce the workers we need. Yes, some day cares promote cognitive development, teach positive social skills, and empower young minds, but you can be sure that class position is a key determinant of who learns what.
Does this mean good day care is impossible? No. Even mediocre day care can offer a respite to young children who come from dysfunctional or oppressive families. Some of the social skills kids learn in day care might balance the authoritarian, mostly patriarchal, nature of the family. There are studies that show children in day care have more tolerance and understanding of diversity and a less rigid sense of gender roles. Under certain conditions, a high quality pre-school experience has been shown to truly make the difference in an underprivileged childs educational experience. And for parents, particularly mothers, dependable affordable day care can facilitate an improved quality of lifeone that allows women pursuits outside the home and that gives children a more active female role model. For some, day care can literally mean a step out of poverty.
Many toddlers and pre-schoolers who are thriving in their family and community lives might enjoy and benefit from a few hours a week in something like a day care center. Weve all seen childrens faces light up when they enter a child-friendly room. They rush from toy to toy and delight in the plastic food that they can cook in the child-sized oven. But do they want to do this all day every day? Not necessarily. I see kids who are motivated to do what the grown-ups or older kids are doing. They observe us, model themselves after us, and join in the best they can. They want to get their hands in the soapy dishwater, follow the big kids around the neighborhood, and pound their hands on the computer keyboard.
Even if kids appeared to truly enjoy being in day care, is that the model of human activity and relationships we would want for them?
In a typical day care center, kids do not have the opportunity to join in any adult activities. Any onsite adults have nothing to do but care for them, observe them, direct their play, break up squabbles, etc. Suddenly, unself-conscious play and experimentation is managed and scheduled by childcare experts who, for the sake of their own sanity and the smooth functioning of the day care center, need the children to meet fairly rigid expectations. I agree with John Holt (in Freedom and Beyond) when he bemoans the trendy thinking that says children lack the "careful and loving attention of people who have been specially trained to attend to them and have nothing to do but attend to them." Its as if "growing up were a process that could not happen unless we made it happen. Not so. What children need and want are more chances to see us adults when we are about our adult business, whatever that may be, and more time in which we leave them strictly alone."
Of course, integrating kids into family and community life has quite a few expectations as well. In the course of observing adults us going about our business, they will be schlepped around on errands, taken to job sites, asked to play quietly at the office, expected to get along in different homes where there are different values and activities, and required to chart their own course when it comes to playing, creating friendships, and just passing the time. In a home- or community-based setting, there are lots of expectations, just as in a day care. But there are some key differences. One is, kids who spend less time in day care are, from the beginning, integrated into our lives, participating in the culture we are part of and thus preserving it, and perceiving that they are a meaningful part of everyday life. This is important in a society that wants to protect cultural diversity, and give children and families something to identify with besides the acts of making money and then spending it. Two, some activities are proscribed, but not much is prescribed. John Holt argues that a child experiences much more freedom and self-direction when she is told what she cant do as opposed to what she can do. Thus, saying to a child, "You cant play with the knives, the Drano, or yesterdays compost" but leaving her the rest of the kitchen means shes been given a wide berth. In a day care center setting, the play is much more prescribed. Its time to jump on the trampoline, take a nap, stand in line, read a book, etc. Three, in a home-based setting, kids and parents or caregivers are more likely to participate in community.
Four, lest anyone think I have painted too rosy a picture, its hard work. The tedium is sometimes intolerable. Chattering with a toddler for too many hours in a row can be unfulfilling and truly draining. We need breaks from our children and vice-versa. We (and our children) need multiple opportunities throughout the day to bond with and relate to others, and adults need time to work. Furthermore, being part of community life can be fraught with difficulty. Child- rearing and community building are undervalued invisible jobs that women do. Society needs to recognize and value womens work and men need to share the load.
Building an extended web of family, household members, friends and babysitters is not necessarily easy, possible or even desirable for everyone. But I believe it is something progressives should support at least as much as day care. By working the care of our children into our daily lives, we build and strengthen networks that otherwise would not have been there. As a social change activist, I think it is important to bring children into strong, diverse, democratic communities that are a form of resistance to bureaucratic service providers and market values.
In an Australian pre-school study called The Mt. Druitt Project, families participated in either center-based or home-based care for their pre-school age children. The latter experienced an unexpected benefit: "the parents who participated in the home-based program established a network to organize other social, educational, and welfare activities independent of the project." By keeping their children in a home-based environment, parents and siblings presumably interacted much more around the care of the pre-schoolers. They forged bonds and built communityin their effort to educate their children, and these bonds flowed into other aspects of their lives. The families whose children were sent off to center-based care did not develop these networks.
Some day careparticularly when it is locally owned, operated out of the home, and/or collectively constructed by adults and childrencan foster community, build networks among children and relatives, and offer a safe space that more or less leaves the kids "strictly alone." Many day care providers, whether they are running their business out of their home or working for a national day care chain, care deeply about their work. But even the most dedicated day care worker cannnot replace social responsibility for children. When progressives lobby for childcare, we should conceive of ways that government and workplace policy can be changed to foster networks and communities that will provide continuity and support to children and families.
Looking to History
Once upon a time feminists made the jump from abortion rightsthe limited ability to terminate a pregnancyto reproductive freedomthe broader ability to have children if you want them, health care when you need it, and control over your body vis a vis the medical establishment and reproduction. By taking into account the needs, desires, and problems facing women of color, poor women, and lesbians, feminism moved from protecting the legal right to an abortion to a much more pro-active visionary agenda that gave women a chance to articulate how they wanted to be in the world as sexual subjects and mothers. Now, another leap is in order. We need to define how we want to raise our children. We need to say what we mean by good day care, and then we need to make sure it is available to those who want it. We also need safe nurturing communities that help us raise our children. This is not a call for women to become full-time homemakers. Men need to play an equal role in the lives of their children and communities. No one should be confined to an isolated home. Nor should anyone suffer the straitjacket of menial work that consumes all our energies. Reproductive freedom is about producing and reproducing ourselves, our children, our families and our communities outside the market sphere. It is about really being able to choose how we want to raise our children. It is about having healthy functional families and communities that are meaningful because all participate in nurturing, mentoring, learning, producing, working and playing, and that welcome children into this process.
In their book, A Tradition That Has No Name, Mary Field Belenky, et al., investigate how unempowered people "help each other move out of the silence, claim the power of their minds, exercise their leadership, and come to have a real say in the way their lives, families, and communities are being run." The authors look to the African American tradition of developing leadership from grassroots sources and nurturing community and "homeplaces" outside the reach of the white status quo. In her book, Yearning, African American cultural critic bell hooks says: "Historically, African-American people believed that the construction of a homeplace, however fragile and tenuous (the slave hut, the wooden shack), had a radical political dimension. Despite the brutal reality of racial apartheid, of domination, ones homeplace was the one site where one could freely confront the issue of humanization, where one could resist. Black women resisted by making homes where all black people could strive to be subjects, not objects, where we could be affirmed in our minds and hearts despite poverty, hardship, and deprivation, where we could restore to ourselves the dignity denied us on the outside in the public world."
In Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins calls these women "community othermothers," and Charles Payne, in Ive Got the Light of Freedom, calls those who nurture community "leaders in the developmental tradition." In Double Stitch: Black Women Write About Mothers and Daughters, Collins suggests that black womens role as community othermothers encouraged black womens social activism. Their feelings of responsibility toward all their communitys children gave rise to a "more generalized ethic of care." Without romanticizing the hardship that gave rise to the need to create private safe space, we can draw lessons from a tradition that nurtured community and valued it as a site of resistance, a place that could preserve values not found in the mainstream.
Parade magazine recently reported that "48% of the 9.9 million children under age 5 who need day care are looked after by relatives ... Preschoolers from poor families are 50% more likely to be cared for by relatives than those whose families live above the poverty line." The article implies that the situation is obviously in need of repair. But can we be certain of that? Is the child posted in front of the TV all day? Is he ignored by a depressed exploited mother? Is he forging bonds with grandparents, relatives, siblings, and neighbors who care about him and are invested in his well-being for no other reason than that he is one of them? We should look at whats really going on in those families, and we should be open to hearing what those families want. We should look at how diverse communities reinforce ties and we should consider the possibility that the care of children is an important community builder, one that roots children and families in traditions outside consumer-driven, white middle-class America.
In his acceptance speech of the 1991 New York State Teacher of the Year Award, John Taylor Gatto lists the seven most important lessons of schoolteaching: confusion, class position, indifference, emotional and intellectual dependency, conditional self-esteem, and surveillance. After 26 years of teaching, Gatto has come to believe that "institutional schoolteaching is destructive to children" and that the seven lessons he is entrusted with passing along are "prime training for permanent underclasses, people deprived forever of finding their own special genius."
Ira Shor, Henry Giroux, Paulo Freire, John Holt, and many others have contributed to a rich progressive critique of educational systems, the relationship between the development of capitalism and public education, the ways that schools train our young people in the whys and wherefores of a consumer culture and workaday world that requires an uncritical respect for authority, ability to tolerate boredom, and acquiescence to fragmented uncreative work. Now that pre-school age children are being ushered into educational institutions at an earlier age and faster rate than ever before, its time for progressives to take notice. What do we want for our small children? How do we want to care for them? What sorts of families and communities do we hope they will have access to?
What We Should Be Working For
True choices about how to be in a family.
We need a system of social supports and benefits that would allow parents to take paid leave from their jobs to be with their small children if they wanted.
Work schedules should be flexible and should allow parents to take care of family needs. Rather than provide emergency nanny services and birthday cakes on short notice, work culture should support parents efforts to parent their children. To fully achieve this, we have to remind ourselves that a big part of parenting is simply being around. Moms and Dads are not service delivery systems, easily replaced by emergency nannies, cake-makers, and other stand-ins. We cannot meet childrens needs by purchasing services for them. Although many services are helpful and necessary and should be affordable to all, they are a far cry from the radical restructuring of work and community life that we really need to support families and children, and to allow communities to reproduce themselves outside the corporate sphere.
Community life needs to be structured in such a way that values all community members, fosters networks of support and care, and welcomes children as part of the pleasure and responsibility of the entire community.
Make a range of quality day care options available.
What makes a "quality" day care should be widely debated by different communitiesnot the government, not corporate America, and not just the white middle class. We need to hear from all the families and communities that have been raising children for centuries using extended family networks and community resources. Rather than disrupt those organic networks, we should support them. A range of good choices should be available.
We need to critically evaluate the way that a corporate bureaucratic mentality has seeped into not only the educational system, but also the day care system, and we need to propose alternative structures and institutions for families and children.
We need a reinvigorated feminist agenda that continues to expose and amend gender inequality in families.
Men still only do a fraction of the total household chores. In two-parent heterosexual families, forget the emergency nanny service, get Dad to stay home with the sick kid.
Lets continue to raise consciousness about the way mens public lives are valued more than womens. Lets demand that social policy and work rules see men as active parents and incorporate their needs.
We need parental leave, not maternity leave. We need extra days off for Moms and Dads to stay home because the children are sick or just to spend time in the community.
We need comparable worth so that families do not have to decide it is more economical to send Dad into the work force and leave Mom at home.
We need social benefits that make it possible for single parents to raise their children outside of poverty.
We need to abolish the tax breaks and other institutional supports for straight marriage and nuclear families.
Cynthia Peters, formerly a member of the South End Press collective, is a freelance writer.