A tale of two daycares
What we learned from two different daycares, and what it means for parents.
One morning, as I dropped my infant son Fishy off at daycare, his teacher and I engaged in the normal chitchat, and then she stopped and sighed. “Well, you might get a call from DCS.”
I don’t remember answering, but I remember being shocked—why would the Department of Child Services (DCS) call us? We were good parents. Our kid was clothed, fed, and happy. He had eczema, but the doctor said she wasn’t concerned and that it would clear up. The daycare teacher quickly explained that DCS had done a routine evaluation, and they had found some problems. The most immediate problem was that parents didn’t sign their children in and out legibly on the paper by the classroom door.
The school was in trouble, not us. But it made me question whether there were other problems at the school that we weren’t hearing about. Were there oversights that just weren’t caught? I had worked in restaurants, and the kitchen can run daily with health code violations that then get hid away when the health inspector comes calling. Were we experiencing the same problem with our daycare?
On a surface level, I want to explain the problems away: We chose a low-priced daycare because it was close to our house and saved us money. We decided that convenience was more important than educational value, especially while Fishy was very young. When children are young, they don’t need much more than food, sleep, and love. He was getting all of those things at this daycare. We were excited about the racial and economic diversity that Fishy would encounter in this neighborhood daycare.
And the fact that this daycare could run at all without significant government support was impressive. They didn’t have any fancy apps where teachers tracked diaper changes, activities, and feedings. We couldn’t log on to the website to watch videos of our kid playing. My husband and I joked about asking for a couple months free care if we could build them a functioning website where we could look up the school calendar and handbook.
But the lack of fancy apps point to a deeper issue.
The state of childcare in the US reflects how the entire education system is messed up. If you have more money, you have more and better education options. We see this pretty clearly at the university level, where acceptance to prestigious schools is hardly based on merit. The kids with the most money get the most opportunities to participate in extracurriculars that then improve their application profile. Or the legacy kids whose parents give the university a lot of money have a leg-up on their classmates.
The system trickles down through the high schools, middle and elementary schools, and even into daycare. Private high schools, funded by $10,000 a year tuitions, have the ability to provide smaller classrooms, more individual technology, and better coaches for extracurricular activities. The same is true for middle schools, elementary schools, preschools, and daycare. The parents who have more money can pay more for daycare, and those daycare facilities have more resources to put toward paying teachers and providing quality programs for the children.
Our first daycare
When we found a daycare for Fishy, I was six months pregnant with him. We were worried that we wouldn’t find a place that could take him on when I went back to work 12 weeks after his birth, so we signed up with the first place that had a spot. That happened to be the daycare down the road that just opened.
We thought we got a great deal. The price of enrollment was $185 a week, which was at least half of what we were expecting to pay for some of the other places where we remained in waitlist purgatory. They had a spot, and we needed daycare.
Fishy did okay there. He was safe, fed, and cared for. He probably spent more time in an infant swing and less time sleeping in an actual crib than I would’ve liked, but this didn’t seem to affect his sleeping habits at home, so I let it go. We came to the teachers at one point with a eat-wake-sleep schedule suggested in the Babywise books. The teachers looked at us funny and nodded along. I don’t think they followed our directions, but it didn’t seem to impact our schedules at home, so we didn’t complain much.
The teachers handed us a sheet of paper every day that logged Fishy’s poops, how many bottles he ate and how many ounces were in each of those bottles. Again, this was great, we had a record of his basic bodily functions.
Our first doubts
But as he grew and became more active, we had very little insight into what was happening during the day. Just after his first birthday, Fishy was moved up into a toddler classroom. He wasn’t quite walking yet, but he was crawling really well. It was at this point that I started to have a bad feeling about the quality of the education.
When we brought Fishy in every morning, his new teachers would greet him and sit him down on a carpet with other children who were watching Dora the Explorer on TV. I don’t know how long they watched TV in the morning, how often they went outside, or whether the kids did any sort of art in that class.
The toys that were in the outside areas never moved and those courtyards were filled with leaves year-round. No art was sent home. They did send home sheets of paper that continued to track the food he ate and had a list of activities, but it was clear that they made one and photocopied an entire stack from it. Every day was the same: “sing songs, play games, buggy ride.”
My husband Max and I would laugh at the activity sheets—mostly because we were uncomfortable with the situation but we didn’t have much recourse. Should we have questioned the teachers? Should we have brought it up with the administration? Maybe. But although the sheets indicated a lack of creativity, there wasn’t anything that was wrong about what they were doing. It felt like we were getting daycare, but not much of an education.
In her book Cribsheet, Emily Oster mentions that prior to 18 months, studies haven’t been able to find much discernible difference between educational gains. But Fishy wasn’t walking at a year old. He wasn’t much interested in crayons or coloring at home. He read books with us every night and knew how to turn the pages, but there weren’t many books in the classrooms at school. Oster’s findings may be true, but given all of the other pressures of being an amazing parent at every turn, I started to question how good this place was for Fishy.
The pandemic changed things
When the pandemic hit the US in mid-March 2020, our daycare shut down because many families lost their jobs and had to pull their kids out of daycare. Max and I sourced other childcare for a few weeks before we moved to a different part of town. Then we found a new daycare closer to our new neighborhood, but the price per week doubled. We were lucky enough to find a school that could take Fishy and would have a space in an infant room come September when the still-unborn Sweet Pea would also need to go into care.
Back at our first school, I had been unsure about the necessity of things like phone apps that let you check in on your kids or whether the school was following a strict curriculum. Were you just paying for the teachers to do busy work on a phone and not watch your kids? Was it contributing to the helicopter parent phenomenon? Was it safe for my kids’ data privacy? Were we paying more to support surface items that didn’t really matter to the quality of care that we received?
I don’t necessarily have answers to those questions, but our new school puts my mind at ease about the quality of care. Some of that is due to the fancy app, which lists learning standards that the class is focusing on each week, and provides a place for the teachers to show me pictures of the kids as they play outside, do arts and crafts, and sing songs throughout the day. And some of my ease comes from the feeling that I get when I walk into the school and the teachers listen to our needs and are attentive to our instructions. We have not yet received a call from DCS to tell us the school wasn’t following protocols, and our kids have brought home fewer illnesses and more artwork than at the previous school.
What does this mean for parents?
Parents who put their children into lower priced childcare centers don’t necessarily do it because they have a choice, but our society teaches us that you pay for what you get, or you get what you pay for.
So to some extent, parents who can afford more but choose to send their children to lower-cost childcare options have to make a choice between convenience and price. We felt like we could put up with the “inconveniences” of a school with lower standards because our first school was less than a quarter mile from our house and we were saving thousands of dollars a year. Those were choices that we made because we had an end in sight. Our reservations didn’t start adding up until we were already looking for a new house.
Parents who cannot afford to send their children to higher-priced options don’t even get to give themselves the excuse of convenience, because they often only have one choice: take the childcare you can afford, or quit working to take care of your kids—a choice that isn’t a choice at all. These parents can stop paying for child care when the child goes to kindergarten, but that will mean they lose five years of one parent’s income.
The uncomfortable truth here is that we have to provide public, quality child care to every family, no matter their income level.
A system of public child care has potentially deep consequences for our society. Children could be guaranteed a minimum standard of care in early childhood that would improve pre-K and elementary outcomes across the board. With a dedicated early childhood system with its own regulatory board, DCS could focus on improving outcomes for individual children in tough situations instead of chasing down parent signatures.
The outcomes of a government-backed childcare system for mothers and families could provide an overall boost to the economy. By offering universal child care to parents, they are freed to work and contribute to the economy—if they so choose. Women wouldn’t have to lose five or more of her most pivotal career-building years to child-rearing for lack of reliable and quality childcare.
And to be clear: Universal and government-funded childcare is different from compulsory child care. Similarly to the public vs. private school debate, just because childcare is available to everyone doesn’t mean everyone will have to use it. No one forces you to send your child to the local elementary school—if you can provide another means for your child to get an education. If you choose to pay for the expensive private school or homeschool your child, you’re welcome to do so. But there is a standard level of care given to elementary-aged children. That same standard should be extended to children of all ages.