In talking about childcare, and in particular childcare settings for the youngest children, it is very common for people to lament what parents are “missing” during the hours their child is away from them. They talk about the milestones that may be achieved during childcare hours: rolling over, sitting up, crawling, walking, first words. A common question amongst professionals in the field is, Do you tell the parents? if a child takes their first steps under your watch? Will this crush parents completely, this reminder that their child is in fact growing and changing in myriad ways every day, every hour, every minute?
This goes hand-in-hand with the idea that childcare professionals have taken on the “burden” of “raising” other people’s children. That children in care spend more time with adults other than their own parents and that this is a tragedy for both children and parents. Those children remain suspended in care settings waiting for the return of their parents so they can resume living their real lives in a family unit.
There is the unscientific thinking that this is the reason for all the ills of society -- that this generation of children supposedly raised by adults outside their own family unit is particularly disrespectful and troubled. That parents are not truly “parents” if their child is apart from them during a work week.
As early childhood professionals, we propose a view from a different angle.
We are passionate about our work with children and families. We wake up in the morning excited to get to work: to see our young friends, to implement a piece of curriculum that we’re particularly curious about, to spend time doing what we love. To do this work, we send our own children off to school or camp. We leave our partners and pets. We take a break from the other loves in our lives to pursue our career and our passion. It does not seem outside the realm of possibility, then, that the families in our program have a passion for their own work. That perhaps even a mom or a dad would have an interest outside of their love and devotion to their child. That perhaps this is not a flaw in the circle of family life, but a possibility for enrichment.
Imagine, if you will, the possibility that parents can be parents as well as taking on any number of other roles. That many parents are better parents when they are working parents because the best parents are whole humans, with a wide, rich life.
Over time, the lives of many people in our society have become increasingly insular. Some lament the loss of true neighborhoods, where children flowed from house to house as they roamed freely in their play. Where adults called to one another over fences and knew the routines and habits of those on their street. Where friendships between families who had little in common other than proximity and lifestyle would last decades.
“It takes a village,” we say, but where do we find this true sense of community today? We propose the notion that high-quality childcare programs are instrumental in supporting the kind of village that values both children and parents. That in valuing and respecting parents as whole people, we must also make space to respect the work and interests they pursue outside of their family. We acknowledge that it is healthy for parents to work, to exercise, to socialize, and to be apart from their children for periods of time. We open ourselves up to the idea that perhaps it is healthy too for young children to know that they live in a world of caring -- where they can be loved and attended to by their moms, their dads, their grandparents, and also their extended community of caregivers and peers. That they can be seen and known by so many.
Erikson’s first stage of psychosocial development is described as “trust versus mistrust.” Infants must learn that the world around them is safe. That their needs will be met. That they can explore without fear or danger more and more as they grow. It seems to us that introducing caregivers and helpers all around them creates an image for the child of a world that is warm, responsive, and reliable.
Even in the best of times, caregivers and parents can feel that they are somehow at odds. There are underlying feelings of guilt, feelings of resentment, and an ongoing competition of sorts with the children in the middle. We must strive to set this aside and see one another as allies in collectively raising resilient children.
Imagine the healthy society that thrives when adults can dedicate themselves to their work without concern for their child, knowing that they are safe and cared for. Where children can grow up seeing the adults around them modeling balanced work ethics -- that hard work and love of family are not mutually exclusive things. Imagine the confidence that children can develop when their families are not under the stress of guilt and resentment.
A universal truth is that parents know things about their child that no one else can see or know in that way. High-quality caregivers have a relationship with each child in their care that is also unique, and within that relationship, the child is seen and known in a distinct way. Each child lives many roles, as does each adult.
Adopting a positive view of an extended circle of caregiving means also adopting a view of children as individuals with lives worthy of respect. It means embracing the idea that children are only as fully known to us as any other whole person. This means that children, even very young children, have their private thoughts and passions and motivations and relationships unknowable from the outside. A child can be at home with their family and can also be at home in the world. That this is, in fact, a wonderful thing. This is not other people “raising” your child, but instead a network of caregiving that has countless benefits for all involved.
Do parents sometimes sit at work and think of what they are “missing” when their infant is in childcare? Of course they do. Because while working, parents are still parents. In the kind of world that we strive to create, however, caregivers and parents are connected and mutually respected for their unique roles. Children grow to understand that their parents carry a picture of them in their minds (and hearts), while they each go about their work. Caregivers and parents alike acknowledge that when a child does something for the “first time” in their eyes, it is just that -- the first time we each are fortunate enough to witness the magic of human development.
We propose thinking of what an honor it is to be a part of this thriving network that surrounds healthy children.