The idea of “group care” for infants is pretty uncomfortable, right? I mean, I hope it’s uncomfortable for you. It’s uncomfortable for me and I make my living by providing it. Even before I ever imagined that I would be doing this job, I engaged in philosophical debates regarding its (lack of) merits. Several years ago, one of my co-workers at the preschool where I taught reaffirmed my belief that infants should never be in group care. She told me stories about seeing them in the infant program at the place where she used to work and how someone was always crying and they never really got what they needed because the only thing they really needed was their parents. We climbed up onto our high horses, hastily constructed in our child development classes, and talked about how group care would impact their brain development. We shook our heads sadly: those poor babies.
Around the time of our conversation, I had to conduct some observations and evaluations at an infant care center for a class I was taking. I chose the one where my co-worker had once worked not only because I wanted the opportunity to see what she had seen, firsthand, but also because the program in question was the highest rated infant care facility in our city. Its reputation was second to none.
Conducting these observations changed my life. If I had not seen what I saw on those days, I would not be doing what I am doing today. In fact, it is fair to say that one child changed my life. I don’t know his name. He was sixteen months old, chubby, and gregarious. He was one of only two babies in the room the first time I visited the program. The other child was asleep and this toddler was being strongly encouraged to, “Be quiet.” At one point, when the caregiver mentioned the other child who was sleeping, the toddler wanted to take a look at him (clearly recognizing the child’s name and knowing also where the child slept). He went to the gate that separated the play and sleep areas of the room and stood on his tiny tippy toes to take a peek. He was as quiet as a mouse. Quieter, even! But the caregiver quickly grabbed him by one arm, without saying a word, and dragged him towards herself. There is no kinder, more generous way to describe her behavior towards him. She roughly hauled him into her lap, began to rock the rocking chair in which she sat, and said, “I told you to be quiet. Now let’s read a book.” It’s possible that she then read him a story and it’s possible that it was a beautiful booksharing routine, fit for my notes, but I can’t recall and I never wrote a single word about that. Instead, my heart pounding with injustice, I recorded exactly what I had seen.
I spoke to my class about my experience and, in dismay, on the verge of tears, expressed that if this was what “high-quality” care for infants looked like, I wanted no part in it. Not ever. I told my class that it seems easy to say that a program is “high-quality”. For example, the environment offered to children in that center was beautiful. Flawless. (Provided that caregiver was absent.) Their stated philosophy? Inspiring! Their written policies and practices regarding infant care were obviously very carefully crafted by someone(s) who really knew what infants need as individuals and in a group setting. However, there was clearly a severe disconnect between the public image, the written material, and the reality of day-to-day hands-on work with children. In my experience, there often is.
The thing about caregivers is that they’re human beings with flaws and weaknesses and baggage. (Except for one of my assistants. She is practically perfect in every way. She makes Mary Poppins look like a shrew.) In our society, those who work in the field of early care and education frequently work long hours for low wages and have little opportunity or motivation for professional growth. In some areas, this is changing, but it’s truly an uphill climb. Until we decide as a collective that children and families are a top priority, it will continue to be a battle.
Here is something that is unlikely to change: parents will need to work. Having a job, or two jobs, or three or four jobs per household should not and does not prohibit procreation. (I believe that some parents are better parents because they leave their child for a period of time every day.) Consequently, children need a place to go. Children of all ages. There are many reasons that parents choose to place their child in a center-based program rather than a home-based one. From my own life experience, I can share with you a big one: centers are more likely to have accountability. It’s less likely to find a caregiver completely alone, unsupervised, in a center-based program. It’s more likely to find a cohesive philosophy and overall plan for hiring and firing and caregiving practices in general. Many parents love the idea of their child spending the day with other children. Additionally, a center-based program is often more likely to have an opening when a parent needs care. But, really, the reasons that parents may choose this option for their children is irrelevant. The reality is that they do. And, in several specific cases, I’m sure glad that they do because I remain employed in a job that I never thought I would love but that my heart now beats for. It is hard to imagine what my life would be like without these children and families and the whole extended community we have constructed around us.
It turned out, those four and a bit years ago, that one of the other members of my class was part of the organization that was taking over the operations of that childcare center where I had done my observations. The center is a collaborative project between the city and the school district and the organization that had been running it for many years (and had hired the caregiver I had observed in the infant program) had not had their contract renewed. My classmate and her employers were starting fresh. And they were hiring someone to lead the infant and toddler program.
I thought a lot about the little boy I had observed in that infant room. I thought a lot about what I knew about Magda Gerber‘s teachings, Janet Gonzalez-Mena’s inspirational examples of quality caregiving, and my own teaching philosophy. I thought about how much I hated the fact that babies needed to be in full-time care settings. My ego got on board and I started to think about how I would do things. What would I have done with that little boy, for example? Finally, as you have probably concluded, I applied for and interviewed for the job. I got it. I’m doing it. I love it.
I’ll tell you the truth — it is very difficult for some babies to be in a group setting. It is stressful. There are times when it is difficult to be there with them. My entire day is consumed with helping each child to feel that they’re not in “group care” but are simply loved, valued, and cared for as an individual. And they are. They also get to be part of a warm, extended community. (I have written before about their relationships.) There are certain “benefits” to group care, but there are also harsh downsides that should not be ignored or brushed aside. It is especially important that parents who have chosen or are choosing this type of setting for their child be aware of the realities. One example is that their days are too long. Babies in group care don’t get a lunch break or coffee break where they can walk away from their peers and caregivers and get some alone time to regroup when they choose to. Babies in group care have to do more waiting, every single day, than they are comfortable with. Do you know that every one of them knows what time their parents come to get them at the end of the day? They learn this so quickly. They don’t know about the clock, but they know about routines and they can estimate the passage of time in a sophisticated manner. A mom of a toddler asked me one day, in genuine bafflement, “Why do all of the preschoolers go home so early?” They don’t, really, they just go home before the last infants and toddlers. Every day. Many of the infants and toddlers stay with us until closing time. I told her my theory: “They can tell their parents, with their words, how much they’re going to miss them, how much they want to stay at home together, and they can ask them to come early or at a specific time. The babies would tell you the same — sometimes they try! — but they can’t use words to pierce your heart. They’re happy here. We take good care of them. But they always, always want you.” (Maybe it’s a coincidence, but this mom now arrives at least thirty minutes earlier than she used to at the end of the day.)
I’m going to be working on a series of blog posts about group care for infants and toddlers because it has occurred to me, in my own education and wanderings in the world, that there is not enough information available on the subject for caregivers or families. So please send me your burning questions on the subject. You can leave a comment below or send me (Jenn) an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I promise to tell you the truth about the inside of this industry.