For the last eight years we’ve had a constant family expense that is about to come to an end: day care. Two children starting at three months of age, up until Kindergarten cost just about $50,000 over the eight year period. The oldest was done a few years ago (I’m not including cost of summer camps or after school activities), the youngest will be done in a couple weeks.
When we first started sending the oldest to day care, I was a bit uncertain if this was best. The conventional wisdom is that it’s better for the children to be at home, with a mother or a father. Boy, was I wrong!
Don’t get me wrong — we have fun with the kids, and I enjoy playing and teaching them things. But isolating individual children with one parent is, I believe, unnatural. Think about it. Through most of human history communities survived through hard work by men and women. Children were raised by families, but when work was being done they were most often playing together being watched by women whose job it was to care for children in the community. Other women had to sew, cook, or whatever it was that women did in that particular tribe or culture. Life for humans in much of history was communal, people didn’t isolate themselves into nuclear family units. Since we don’t have extended family in the area, staying home with either of us would have been isolating.
When I pick up Dana (youngest son) he’s usually got mud all over him (in summer), laughing, running around with his friends there, not really wanting to leave. There is no way I could provide him that much fun — not only do I have to work, clean house, and take care of errands, but I’m not a five year old. He’s socializing, dealing with peers, and learning.
To be sure, I did plan to remove him earlier this summer to selfishly do more stuff with the boys. Our geothermal installation required me to pick up extra income (I’ve got another blog post on that coming soon) so I am teaching two on line courses and doing a program review. I hope by early August to be done and then have a few weeks of family time before school starts.
It does matter what kind of child care facility you choose. We’re lucky to be at a university with an outstanding Early Childhood Education program and a nationally certified day care center. Not only are they on campus (so I can stop by or see the kids outside playing) but there are so many student workers (many earning credit) that the kids get lots of attention. We decided that a center rather than a private home was best (it better offers a true communal setting), and were careful in choosing where to send them.
Both kids learned to walk early (9 months) in part because they saw other kids walking and were trying to keep up. They’ve had science experiments, hikes to a pond, a little work shop with hammer, nails and woods (and safety goggles), and loads of books. They’ve raised catepillars into butterflies, caught frogs, dressed up in customs, played little musical instruments, had field trips to the library, and built cities with blocks and toy cars. Days were filled with social play, mud, sand, and lots of laughter. In winter they played in the snow, pulled each other on sleds, and built snowmen and snow castles. Neither child went in with difficulty or expressed a desire not to go — it was fun.
With Dana starting kindergarten in September that era — and that expense — will be gone. But it was worth it. There is no way I could have given them the quality of experience and learning they received, even if I’d quit my job and stayed home. Not everyone can afford such an expense — that averages out to about $6,000 a year, but at its peak it was around $8,000 when both were going. Some parents can’t stand the idea of other people “raising” their children. We made a point to have quality evenings and weekends, and I feel as close a relationship to my sons as I can imagine anyone feeling. While understandable, the fear that others will “raise” the kids is unwarranted.
So parents out there — don’t feel pressure to quit your job or think you’re somehow doing something wrong if you have to send your children to day care. Take time to pick out a good one — stop by and be involved — and make sure the non-work time gets filled with quality interactions. But day care is the natural way children were raised, it’s how they learn to interact with others, problem solve, and develop autonomous identities. It’s not that parents can’t do this on their own — with siblings, an extended family and lots of friends, it’s certainly possible. But as I reflect on the last eight years and recall that I had a bit of guilt and uncertainty when we had to send the kids to day care, I realize in retrospect that I was way off base. It was good for our careers to keep working, good for the kids to learn and grow, and definitely worth the cost!