I stared at the live feed from my son’s preschool classroom, aghast and furious: My then-three-year-old was writhing on the carpet, clutching his belly as a teacher stepped around him. The image was pixelated, but I saw his face crying the gulping, open-mouthed cries that only show up when he’s in real pain. My son, it was later revealed, had been given a cupcake brought in for a classmate’s birthday. Except he’s allergic to peanuts and eggs — a fact noted in three separate places in his classroom — and while most daycares disallow anything containing nuts, provisions against other allergens typically don’t exist. The teacher hadn’t bothered to check if the cupcakes contained eggs, despite training that teaches the staff to do so.
Now my kid was having a dire reaction (we were later told he’d vomited several times) but was receiving zero treatment, despite having both an EpiPen and pediatrician-certified care plan on file. My husband sped us across town so we could retrieve our boy as I stayed glued to the camera app, taking enraged screenshots in violation of center rules, the lawsuit we’d file already firming up in my head.
When your daycare messes up — whether royally, as in our case, or mildly, as in most cases — it can be hard to know how much of a stink to raise, how to go about it, or whether you’re risking blowback at the place where your kid spends most of their time. If a teacher has transgressed, do you go straight to the source or take it up with the center’s director? If it’s the director who errs, with whom do you lodge a complaint? If you make a scene, will it color how these teachers view — or treat — your child? Then, the all-important question: When is something serious enough to merit finding a new daycare?
The path you choose will vary greatly based on the nature of the error, the disposition of the teacher, and the general vibe you get from the daycare. But here are a few questions to ask yourself (preferably before you go on a rampage).
Is this the first time this has happened, or is this mistake feeling familiar?
The unanimous agreement among the parents I spoke to for this piece: Everyone makes mistakes, but multiple mistakes are a red flag. If you’ve previously noted something that made you uncomfortable and held your tongue, now is the time to acknowledge that this may be a pattern. But even then, the question is whether that pattern is seriously messed up or merely annoying. If your child’s teacher has misplaced your kid’s backup clothes more than once, that’s a bummer worth gently mentioning. But if you’ve seen a teacher frostily tell a distraught kid to “stop crying” more than once, that’s something worth acting on.
Are there fellow daycare parents with whom you can compare notes?
A close friend and classmate of our son’s had once passed out on that very same carpet from heat exhaustion after playing outside in the summer heat. We asked his parents if they felt the center had been negligent in any way. Had he been given water? Yes. When he complained of feeling ill, had they offered him care? Yes. The incident had frightened them, but in no way had they felt that the center had been in the wrong. This was helpful — it wasn’t that a culture of wanton disregard for kids was plaguing this daycare; it was that one teacher evidently had really, really bad judgment.
Did you see the transgression occur?
As much as it pained me to witness my toddler’s agony, I’m glad I did — if he’d merely told me later that he’d “cried at school,” I wouldn’t have known the extent of those tears or that they were largely ignored. Additionally, seeing the mess-up go down is helpful because, of course, it can be hard to know how much of what a small child tells you is accurate—not because they’re liars, but because they can fail to grasp nuance or context.
So, if your child tells you that their teacher yelled at them, experts suggest approaching this information in a spirit of investigation. Assume your child is telling the truth but dig a layer deeper: Ask if they can show you how it sounded when the teacher yelled. (What felt like a yell to a kid might have been little more than a frustrated exclamation.) Ask what happened just before the teacher yelled, or if the teacher has yelled before. Get a sense of the story, then consider asking the teacher for their version. Finally, ask yourself: Has this teacher ever given you a reason to be nervous about their interactions with the kids? If not, that’s a strong indicator that this was a one-time thing, if it even was a thing, and that while you should absolutely file this away in case it’s someday relevant, it may be OK to let this incident go.
A useful anecdote: A friend’s 2 ½ -year-old, “Jenny,” recently came home from school with a big bruise on her leg. Jenny explained that she’d bumped it on the play apparatus outside; her teacher had accidentally walked too close to it while holding her, smacking Jenny’s shin against the structure. Jenny said the teacher had told her not to tell her parents — that it could be a secret. Naturally, my friend flipped. She asked the teacher about it, and, stunned, she explained that she’d asked Jenny if she should call her mom about the bump since the injury had made her cry, and Jenny had said no. The “secret” part apparently resulted from the event going through a kooky transformation in Jenny’s little-kid brain. My friend was relieved — and glad she’d brought it up.
Did the error involve shaming, insulting, or hurting your child?
This, of course, is the mother (so to speak) of all questions — the one that may well obviate all others on this list. If someone at your kid’s daycare has behaved with true malice or neglect, not raising hell about it borders on negligence itself. After being hurt or bullied by a teacher, there’s little hope of a kid ever feeling safe with that teacher again, and little question that you’re asking for future grief by sticking around. Now is the time to move on—and consider alerting the authorities, based on the nature of the incident, or at the very least registering your displeasure with the daycare’s leadership if it’s a chain or franchise. You can also go to childcare.gov/health-and-safety-reporting to learn how best to report a violation in your state.
Now for the ultimate caveat...
Every daycare screwup is different, and the calculus that determines your response will factor in dozens of circumstances. In other words, there’s a twist ending to my story. My sensitive and risk-averse child had taken months to acclimate to daycare, an emotional process I wasn’t keen on forcing him to repeat. The teacher who ignored him that day was not his usual teacher but, instead, someone filling in who would not be returning. The teacher he did spend his days with loved him enormously, and he adored her right back.
I was reassured when I confronted the center’s director — “Do you understand that this is a matter of life and death?” I’d said, thrusting my forbidden screenshot into her face — that she was as horrified as I was, and she committed then and there to addressing the issue. The center covered our son’s ER bill, apologized profusely, and retrained its staff. In the end, we kept him enrolled there. The cost of taking things any further felt too steep for us and for him, and I’m happy to report that nothing like this has occurred since.
Would you have made the same choice? Maybe not. These things are tough to navigate, and everyone is different. The best advice I can give is this: If it feels wrong, speak up. If it still feels wrong after you’ve spoken up, get out of there. If the error was innocent, be magnanimous. If it was cruel, run. In short, keep doing what you do all the time as a parent: trusting your instincts and protecting your kid.