A mother's year-long look at child care

It is a heart-tugging scene at any child-care center - the morning ritual of kisses and hugs, waves and I-love-you's that signal a parent's departure. But after the final goodbye each day, most parents can only wonder: What goes on after I leave?

Harriet Brown, a mother and freelance journalist in Madison, Wis., decided to find out.

She spent a year at her two daughters' child-care center, Red Caboose, observing the moment-by-moment events that shape young children's days. She talked to teachers and families, investigated the center's fragile finances, and watched the child-care union and parents struggle to negotiate a contract.

Then she turned her behind-the-scenes experience into a book, "The Good-Bye Window: A Year in the Life of a Day-Care Center" (University of Wisconsin Press).

What Ms. Brown found offers heartening evidence that good child care can provide a secure, happy environment that nurtures, stimulates, and educates. But her findings also serve as a cautionary note about the dangers of public and political indifference.

"Too many parents don't know what good child care looks like," Brown says. An ideal center includes well-paid, well-trained teachers, low staff turnover, good teacher-child ratios, small group sizes, and ambience - a warm feeling of community.

But quality costs. Child-care centers face a huge challenge: how to pay teachers adequate wages and still keep rates affordable for parents. Teachers at Red Caboose earn a base wage of $8.90 - much higher than average. Several teachers have stayed more than 20 years and the director more than 15 years, helping to make the center a model of stability.

Even so, Brown, like many parents, admits she worried at times whether her children were getting "good enough" care. Guilt and need, she finds, make a "potent mixture."

"I still feel that it's the very rare mother - and let's face it, that's who we're talking about - who doesn't feel torn up by the whole issue," she says.

Attitudes toward child care have become more accepting since 1971, when President Nixon vetoed a child-care bill on grounds that it would lead to the "Sovietization" of the American family. But, Brown says, "The fact that we don't have a national system of child care, like France, has a lot to do with the fact that we have always seen child care as a necessary evil, a service to poor working parents, a charity issue, as opposed to something positive."

Demographics underscore the need for quality. In 1995, about 7 million children were enrolled in day-care centers. Another 4 million were in other forms of care.

"There's still so much bad care out there," says Brown, who is currently editing a section on child care for Parenting magazine. "I'm reading letters people have written about child-care experiences. They're every parent's worst nightmare. I've read so many letters from people whose kids have been through four or five unhappy situations. Then they find one that is better."

The latest threat to child care comes from welfare reform. In Wisconsin, a program called Wisconsin Works, or W-2, requires parents to work when infants are 12 weeks old. Families receiving county child-care funding must pay a higher share of the cost of care. That, Brown says, will force poor parents to abandon licensed centers like Red Caboose, which prides itself on its economic and ethnic diversity, and find low-cost, unlicensed providers. That could threaten the future of some licensed centers.

"Cheap care is poor care," Brown warns. "What affects poor children will affect all children."

She also laments the shortage of infant care. And although a slight surplus of slots exists for preschoolers, she says, "That doesn't mean all of that care is very good."

Calling child care "a very difficult subject - difficult emotionally, difficult logistically," Brown emphasizes the need for attitudinal changes.

"If you look at the words people say, as a society it would appear that we care deeply about our children, and we support their development and growth. But if you look at where the money goes, that's anything but true."

She traces part of the problem to Washington. "Who's making the laws in this country?" she asks rhetorically. "Who's in Congress? It's basically a bunch of white men. They don't have a clue about what is involved in caring for children and educating them. Let's get some more women in Congress."

She also encourages child-care workers to become vocal. Although unionizing is not easy, she calls unions "a good thing in terms of trying to give some kind of collective voice and economic clout to child-care providers."

Brown urges parents to educate themselves about quality care, and to question prospective providers. What is most needed, she says, is parental action. "If even half the working parents in this country rose up, forced the debate on child care into headlines and political back rooms, change would follow."

To frame issues and needs, Brown advises parents and others to "talk, talk, talk." She adds, "Social change comes very, very slowly, as a result of a lot of people talking and then ultimately doing something about it. Talk is where you start."

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