I am the mother of a two-year-old. This means I spend a not-insignificant amount of time making small talk with other parents. These conversations are minefields—for many common parenting topics are also controversial: from sushi consumption during pregnancy to vaccinations and developmental milestones. One misplaced casual comment about how you’re pretty sure this whole peanut allergy thing is overblown can turn you into a playground pariah.
Luckily, there is one thing that everyone can agree on: Day care sucks. In most big cities, demand wildly outstrips supply. Waiting lists are comically long—nearly everyone at the park where I’m a regular will confess to putting their fetuses into the queues at several day care centers and preschools. And with the second and third kid, moms start to make the dreaded “does my salary cover the costs of child care?” calculation.
And most of the moms and dads I’m chatting with enjoy huge advantages, while parents who are struggling to make ends meet face a far bleaker landscape.
Complaining is always a good way to make friends, and I’ve made my share of buddies in these ritualized day care whines, but I remain tactfully quiet when it comes to talk of solutions. As parents of toddlers know better than anyone: When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And here in D.C. there’s a strong urge to try to spend and legislate this problem into submission.
The latest round of reformist chatter has been sparked by Jonathan Cohn’s story in The New Republic “The Hell of American Day Care,” which opens with the grisly story of in-home day care proprietor Jessica Tata, who left several infants and toddlers alone in her home while she went shopping. She also left something cooking on the stove. The house burned down and several children were killed. Cohn draws a bunch of policy conclusions from this sad story and the limited amount of academic research available on the industry, including the need for more oversight, more regulation, and more money.
Washington tends to treat that trifecta as a no-brainer, but more spending, regulation, and oversight are not unambiguous goods. In an industry that is already failing to attract enough good providers, more regulations are unlikely to nudge the supply in the right direction. And when the government provides services—especially entitlements that creep into the middle class—it has a way of squelching promising private competitors.
Full disclosure: I am the product of two great in-home day cares. The second setup is the one I remember best: Every day after school I roamed the smallish house of a Virginia blueblood nicknamed Newbie, who lived a couple of blocks from my elementary school. She ran a day care, at least in part so that her hearing-impaired daughter would have an easier time making friends. A small pack of girls (and a boy named Bucky) played hours of dress-up, leafed through a large library of coffee table books, and picked cherries from a lone front-yard tree. We must have occasionally done some homework. During the summers we hit the pool and learned to sew, quilt, and knit—Newbie had a B.S. from Northwestern and had done graduate work in costume design. The shower curtain rod in her small upstairs bathroom was often festooned with scraps of antique lace, the trappings of her work in fabric restoration and textile conservation.
Universal, federally run day care sounds appealing to parents overwhelmed by too many choices—and those suffering from a lack of enough good ones. But a robust federal program of the kind so often touted as the ideal in Washington would crowd out the Newbies, replacing her shabby oriental rugs and spontaneous instruction in the womanly arts (all of which I failed to master) with linoleum and standardized curriculum. In-home day cares might not vanish altogether, but their continued existence would be contingent on dissatisfaction with the public offerings, the same way private and parochial schools hold on, despite a vast and expensive K-12 entitlement.
While advocates of universal day care tend to cite the French and German systems as models, they might do well to look closer to home. In addition to the well-documented failures of the public primary school system, there’s the Head Start program, which is targeted at low-income and at-risk kids—the kids who may have a tougher time finding Newbies in their communities. While the debate rages over the efficacy of preschool in general, the government’s own study of Head Start found that most of the gains shown by kids in the program vanished after they were a year or two into their elementary school careers. America has not shown itself to be particularly adept at implementing large-scale education programs in recent decades, and there’s no particular reason to feel more optimistic about day care.
But what about better regulation, licensing, and other oversight measures? Who could object to that?
My first in-home day care, of which I have spotty memories, provides at least a partial answer to that question. A woman named Millie, whom I recall primarily as a blurry face surrounded by a wild mane of dark hair, ran the place out of her basement. One of her specialties was homemade Play-Doh and she had a sandbox in her backyard. Millie was a godsend for my mom, who was heading back to work part-time after staying home with her young kids for a few years, in part because Millie was willing to accommodate non-standard schedules. The only flies in the ointment were Millie’s neighbors. Perhaps they didn’t like the hustle and bustle of a house full of kids. Maybe early morning drop-off was disruptive on their quiet street. So they waited and they watched. On occasion, Millie would cut one of her maxed-out clients some slack, allowing a kid to come earlier or stay later than the formal schedule dictated. This meant that she was over her allowed quota of kids when an inspector, called in by the irate neighbors, showed up. Millie’s day care was unceremoniously shut down, leaving my parents scrambling for coverage and (very likely) leaving Millie’s family financially in the lurch.
Regulations, even the most well-intentioned, are not without cost. The same rules that try (and sometime fail) to keep unscrupulous players from storing stacks of babies in a utility closet can be used by grumpy neighbors (or competitors) to force a useful and beloved community institute to shut down without warning.
I don’t say any of this on the playground, of course. I just smile and yell “Five more minutes until we head home for dinner” to my daughter. But the Newbies and Millies should be just as much a part of the great day care debate as the Jessica Tatas.