My four-year old son has been going to daycare since he was about 6 weeks old. He goes to daycare because I am a single mom with a full-time job. But let me be clear about something: Even if I were mega-wealthy, had a full-time housekeeper, a personal chef, a gardener, and could literally sit on my couch eating bon-bons every day (don’t worry, I know that’s not what stay-at-home moms do!), my son would still go to daycare.
There are several reasons for this, but to sum them up in advance, his childhood is better with him going to daycare than it would be otherwise.
First, let me tell you a little about the non-family caregivers in his life. For his first year, he went to a home daycare with four or five other kids. The woman who watched him is named Brenda, and I loved her. Every time I dropped him off and picked him up, we would chat for a few minutes. I knew her family, I knew the other kids and their families (at least well enough for some casual chit-chat if we crossed paths during pick-up or drop-off).
We would still be with her, except that we moved away just before my son’s first birthday. We are still friends on Facebook, so she can see pictures of my son as he gets older. She loved my son, and provided a safe, nurturing environment for him. I believe she had even been a NICU nurse before she retired, so she was probably better able to handle a medical emergency than I was.
For the next three years, he went to a home daycare three days a week and a daycare center two days a week. While I loved Brenda, my son was too young to really have much of an opinion about her, but I know that he loves his current caretaker, Imrana. He talks about her at home, and wants to show her when he gets a new toy, and he runs into her house every day when I drop him off.
His “best friend” is another boy who stays at her house. The daycare center is a little different, with multiple teachers and lot more kids. He was a little shy at first, but now he loves going there. He frequently tells me the names of all of his classmates and, just like with Imrana, is always coming up with things he can’t wait to tell the teachers when he gets to “school.”
And now, having moved one more time (hopefully for the last time!), he goes to preschool five days a week, and will continue there until he starts kindergarten. After a couple weeks of adjustment time, he settled right in and never looked back.
So he’s happy, which makes me happy. But there’s more to it than that. Before the last move, the daycare center sent me a picture (they do that, send pictures to the parents during the day showing the kids’ activities) of my son up to his elbows (and nose and ears) in a giant bin of flour. I laughed out loud and thought, “There’s no way in the world that would happen at my house!” Because, well, surely I don’t have to explain why I’m not turning him loose with a giant bin of flour in my house.
That last year, they made jam from fresh strawberries, finger-painted, went to a Christmas tree farm, and had many other experiences that just would not have happened if he didn’t go to daycare. At the new preschool, he is learning Spanish and sign language, plays outside every day, and is learning numbers and letters while playing with his friends. He comes home singing nursery rhymes that I know I didn’t teach him, and honestly probably wouldn’t even think to teach him. He’s learning how to share, how to interact with other kids and grown-ups, how to handle it when another kid does something not so nice (and also what to do when he’s been not so nice).
Now, I know lots of stay-at-home-parents who would absolutely do all those things. Most of the SAHPs I know plan enriching activities at home and also take their kids out frequently to interact with other kids. A friend recently posted a video on Facebook of her son playing at her kitchen sink with a long bendy tube. Basically, he would run water into one end, then blow into the other end and then laugh hysterically when he ended up with a face full of water. It was adorable, and he was learning about cause and effect, air pressure, probably some other things, and most importantly, having a blast.
So this is not meant at all to bash SAHPs, just to say that I’m not built to be one of them. I love my son more than any other person on the planet, but I, like every other parent out there, have weaknesses. I am short on patience, I hate lots of noise, I’m very introverted, and I watch too much TV. These aspects of my personality aren’t always great for parenting small children, but they don’t disqualify me from being a great mom.
Someone out there is reading this and thinking, “Maybe you should have thought of those things before you decided to become a parent.” But that is just nonsense. Parenthood is not, and should not be, limited to the June Cleavers and Mary Poppinses of the world. My son and I do plenty of fun and enriching activities together. He loves to help me bake cookies, we go to children’s theater shows, and to drop-in play at the library. We play games and have dance parties, and he climbs into my bed on Saturday mornings to watch cartoons together. He has toys and crayons and books to entertain himself at home. All of these things are wonderful, but I’m neither willing nor able to do enough of them to give him the fulfilling childhood I want for him. So I pay for help.
Are there risks in sending your child out of your sight for 8+ hours every day? Of course. But everything we do in this life entails risk. Statistically speaking, driving with a child in the car is one of the riskiest things in the world, but we all do it all the time. We need to stop thinking we can eliminate risk from our children’s lives. We do our best to reduce the risk to a reasonable level. We use carseats and make sure our kids are properly strapped in. We make them wear helmets while riding their bikes. We make sure the daycare is licensed and does background checks on all employees, and pay attention to clues from our kids that might indicate a problem. For me, the very small risk that something bad could happen to my son at preschool is more than balanced out by the benefits he’s experiencing.
I know that I am fortunate to be able to pay for high-quality childcare, and that not everyone has that luxury. And maybe that’s the real problem we should be addressing. There aren’t too many parents putting their kids in daycare; there are too many parents who can’t find or afford good daycare that keeps their children safe while giving them an enriching experience and helping them develop to their full potential before heading off to school.