How the Childcare Economy Undervalues Children

We’ve talked about daycare and how it is bad for children.  So why do I care how other mothers choose to raise their children?  Today I want to talk a little about how the treatment of childcare as a commodity rather than a calling has devalued children and impacted the way even stay-at-home moms look at their motherhood.

If you’re surrounded by working mom friends, as I am, you usually find yourself at toddler birthday parties standing a little off to the side as they discuss daycare situations.  Yes, I know that most working moms like to think that they’re picking the daycare based on who is nicest to their children, but when I hear them talking to each other, it’s always about the price.  Comparing notes, figuring fees, suggesting the other move her kids to X school because it’s $100/less a month.  And as Anna has pointed out, the cheapest daycares are horrible places to be.  Yet money is the determining factor, because kids are resilient.  It’s always amazing to me when I discuss preschool with working moms that they know so little about what their children are doing there all day.  I asked a working mom friend what curriculum they used at her son’s Christian preschool, and she had no idea, but she could tell me how much it cost a week!  I remember talking to another working mom about our decision to homeschool my son after doing preschool at home and that I knew his temperament was such that the classical model would really work with him.  The other mom looked at me and said, “Wow, I can’t believe you know that about your kid.  I would have no idea what learning style fits mine.”  I knew because I’d spent the last 5 years studying my son; she had no idea because her daughter had spent the last 4 years in daycare 60 hours a week.  I know these are just anecdotes, and there are probably many moms who are much more tuned in to what their kids do in childcare all day, but the reality is that when daycare costs more than college, parents who choose to put their children there rather than raise them themselves have to find a balance of positive environment and affordability.  For all but the wealthiest moms, cheapness has to factor in, or they couldn’t afford to work.  Or I hear dads explain why their wives are taking on new jobs just as the baby is born: “She’s going to make more than the two of us combined do right now!”  When you make life decisions based on earning potential, you’re going to end up making childcare decisions based on a financial bottom line, too.

Sadly, since daycare prices seem to be the baseline, the moderately more tolerable alternative of hiring a nanny suffers from the same childcare-as-commodity mindset. Recently a friend of mine, seasoned homeschooling mother of three grown children and grandmother of several, was asked by a couple in her church to nanny their new baby while the mom went back to work.  Although my friend is a firm supporter of stay-at-home motherhood, she considered taking the job to supplement her husband’s income…until she found out that they wanted to pay her five dollars an hour.  Not only was that offer insulting (my friend makes four times that much doing ESL tutoring, a part-time job she loves), but it was illegal, a fact this Christian couple ignored in their efforts to save money.  We can talk elsewhere about the minimum wage in general, but as long as it is in place, it is our duty to be good citizens and uphold the law of the land.  What kind of example is this couple setting for their daughter?  Oh honey, you were not worth paying an expert to care for you, so we found someone else willing to break the law and watch you for less. The woman who ended up becoming the nanny was a stay-at-home mom who clearly had bought into this mindset that her time and expertise were not worth even a legal level of remuneration.

What’s most tragic for me is watching the generation of stay-at-home moms who knew better buying in to their daughter’s desire for free or cheap childcare, totally ignoring the value of the work they themselves did in raising children.  A grandma I know recently told me that her daughter had had to move her son to daycare because the sweet little lady from church who had been his nanny was charging ten dollars an hour!  I looked at her quizzically and said, “The teenagers around me charge $15/hr for one-off work.  That’s a really good deal for an experienced caregiver who is not only watching your grandson, but probably giving him a spiritual grounding, too.”  Oh, the grandma insisted, but usually when you have more hours, you get some sort of discount, like $40 a day or something.  It’s not fair to charge that much 40 hours a week because they can’t afford it!  I thought, but did not say, Does your daughter think her employer deserves a discount for her services since she works for them full-time and not just a couple hours a week?  Does she think it is unfair to ask to be paid what her work is worth for every hour that she works for them?  The mom in question got her degree in math and does statistical analysis for her employer, so she’s good at crunching numbers.  She and her husband  love Jesus and want to serve Him–in fact, their wedding was one of the most inspiring I have attended.  But when it comes to who is caring for their children 40+ hours a week, they’ve decided that the bottom line is financial, not spiritual.  They don’t want the most qualified non-family member raising their son; they want the best bang for their buck.  What saddened me the most about the whole scenario was that the grandma in question had been a stay-at-home mom!  Where between my friend’s upbringing and becoming a mother herself did she and her mother reject the values that made her the woman she is today?  How did they decide that the next generation did not deserve the same degree of care?  Why was the grandma going along with her daughter to undervalue the worth of a Christian homemaker willing to put the rest of her life on hold to raise her grandson?  How tragic that this amazing woman was willing to sell her own vocation of 18 years short rather than communicate to her daughter that the work of raising a child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord is priceless.

It’s no wonder that once we think child-raising is something we can buy and sell, those of us who do it for love, not money, will not be respected.  When my upper-middle-class working mom friends shop around for the cheapest daycare option or cheat their nannies out of a fair wage, their actions affect not only their children, but the whole culture as well.  And a culture that values money above children is doomed.

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2 Responses to How the Childcare Economy Undervalues Children

  1. Anitra says:

    The thing I’m seeing is that peers of mine who DID grow up in two-parent-working households DO realize how valuable mom/caregiver’s time is; so they’re more likely to cut back on hours worked or flex their schedules so that it’s primarily parents caring for their kids, instead of underpaid nannies or daycares. It changes a bit once the kids get old enough for school, but at least in those early years, these parents move heaven and earth to get the best care for their kids.

    It’s the ones who grew up with a stay-at-home mom who tend to take that for granted and look for the “cheapest” option instead. Because many of them were never taught how valuable that work is.

  2. Emily says:

    Anitra, that’s a really interesting observation. Growing up, almost all my friends’ moms were at home full-time (all had college degrees and the majority had advanced degrees), but only half of us (and not even all my own siblings) are planning on doing the stay-at-home mom thing with our own kids. I assumed it was a change in cultural expectations and the pressure to use our impressive degrees, but I could see taking one’s childhood for granted in the way you describe. I do have friends who are sacrificing to stay home with their kids because they hated being in daycare growing up, and they are indeed fiercely determined to give their kids what they missed. And 100% of my friends who have worked in daycare or been professional nannies are extremely dedicated to staying home with their small children. My own decision to stay home is an enthusiastic affirmation of my mom’s lifestyle and a reaction against what I saw working in childcare, but I’d be really interested to know what led the rest of our readers to this lifestyle.

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