(WOMENSENEWS)–Today is Take Our Daughters to Work Day, a good time to also remember that on every other work day, most of our daughters and sons are at least partially in the care of others. Parents can only hope that those other caregivers are reliable people who are doing a competent job.
These thoughts are prompted by the media uproar over the latest day care study, which found that some children in long hours of center-based child care emerge with more aggressive, demanding behavior. Whatever the validity of these findings, one obvious point must be made: If we treat the paid caregivers and teachers of young children as if they were unskilled babysitters, it just might not be good for kids.
In this country, almost anyone who spends a significant amount of time with young children is devalued, from at-home mothers to family care providers to teachers in child care centers and nursery schools. (The only exceptions may be the Ph.D. psychologists who study early childhood.) Front-line caregivers are the ultimate cheap labor: If they are mothers, they are unpaid; if they are paid, they earn the lowest wages in the economy. It is sometimes said that the United States lacks a national child care system, but this isn’t true. There is a system, but it is based on the economic exploitation of women.
In keeping with the subsistence wages paid are the minimum qualifications and training required of those who will care for children. Just as any quack or medicine man could once set up shop as a doctor and put their hands on your body, today virtually anyone can be hired as a caregiver and put their hands on your child. In most states, a paid caregiver need have no knowledge of child development, child psychology, learning theory or even a sufficient grasp of English to use 911 effectively.
Higher Income, More Respect in Almost Any Field Other Than Child Care
Fortunately, perhaps, this disgraceful, anachronistic care system is in crisis, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, women have other opportunities today. A young woman starting out in her career can earn a higher income and greater respect in almost any field other than child care. In 1996, almost one-third of all day care center workers were paid the minimum wage–then $4.25 an hour. Early childhood teachers typically earn only half of what the average public school teacher earns, although their work is at least as challenging–and important.
A new study, “Then and Now: Changes in Child Care Staffing, 1994-2000,” has found that the wages of the majority of teachers in a sample survey of 75 child care centers in California actually decreased in real terms between 1996 and 2000, a period in which salaries of K-12 teachers were increasing. The study was produced by the Center for the Child Care Workforce, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit committed to improving child care quality by upgrading the compensation, working conditions and training of child care teachers and family care providers.
Educators of young children often earn less than parking attendants, janitors, blackjack dealers and cashiers at fast food restaurants. While reporting for my book, “The Price of Motherhood,” I learned of a day care teacher near Boston who had been named one of the most outstanding child care workers in the country. Two years later, she left the profession and became a waitress, in order to make more money. She had been earning an annual salary of $18,000 after eight years of teaching.
Her defection is typical. The miserable wages translate into high staff turnover. Annual turnover rates of 30 percent or more are common at centers around the country. This can be devastating to children, who as all parents know, crave stability, familiarity and routine.
The recent study that found that some children who spend long hours in day care were more likely to be aggressive than other children did not reveal how many caregivers those children had and whether their caregivers were lost in turnovers of disaffected staff.
“That’s what I’d like to know,” comments one of the authors of the study, Marcy Whitebook of the University of California at Berkeley, “because we know that if children have unstable relationships, they really suffer in their social development.”
Teachers With Degrees in Child Development Replaced by Unskilled Novices
The teachers who are leaving the child care profession are also better trained, on average, than those who are taking their place. Kathy Modigliani of Wheelock College, who has studied child care for years, believes that the combination of low pay and fast growth in the industry is changing the profile of the typical early childhood educator. Older teachers with college degrees in child development are being replaced by people who may not have any specialized training or experience.
“Then and Now,” the new child care staffing study produced by the Center for the Child Care Workforce, discovered that nearly half of those who left the profession between 1996 and 2000 had completed a bachelor’s degree, compared to only one-third of new teachers.
According to Modigliani, we are seeing an ominous shift toward Kentucky Fried Child Care, a slap-dash fast food approach to complex issues of child development and individual needs.
“We’re heading for big trouble,” she told me. “Of all of the things that threaten our society, this is right up there at the top.”
Roughly half of all infants and toddlers in the United States are now in some form of paid care. If there are legitimate problems with child care as it exists in this country, the solution is not to demand that mothers go home. The solution is to demand better child care. And that means treating early childhood education like the highly skilled, utterly vital profession that it is.
As it happens, the U.S. government has managed to create an impressive, professional child care system, with well-paid, well-trained care providers whose services are subsidized for parents. But this system is exclusively for members of the military. All American children should be able to attend such a system, but that’s another story.
Ann Crittenden is the author of the recently published “Price of Motherhood.”
For more information, visit:
“The Price of Motherhood”:
“Then and Now: Changes in Child Care Staffing, 1994-2000”:
(Note: the report is embargoed until April 29, 2001.)