Saturday, March 21, 2009

Childcare Across the Ages

Mamalion left a comment on my last post that really got me thinking about the many different ways childhood has played out over centuries and across cultures, and how our time and its choices is different.

Her comment: I think what gets lost in this discussion is that 2 parents working full time
is the historic norm. Granted, those parents were usually working at or
close to home, but loving attention to your child's needs falls away
when you're truly slaving over a hot stove all day. There are lots of
studies that show contemporary parents spend way more time interacting
with their children than people did even 25 years ago. There are
tradeoffs to every situation, and we never know what the full impact of
our decisions will be.
The best parenting decision is the one that brings the greatest contentment
and security to the family, not any one individual in it.

Me again: She's right -- there is little precendent for the luxury of a
parent being able to dedicate a good portion of her (or his) time to
childrearing alone. When I start to think about the many different economic
situations I even know about -- and I'm no historian -- there are parents
who both work out of the home producing goods for subsistance or market,
there are parents who even now have no choice but to bring their children along on dangerous
jobs (click on "india cotton" at that site to see some moving photographs),
there are slave babies sleeping on the side of the field, children who are
unsupervised or supervised only by other children from a very young age,
babies and toddlers getting burned or smoked out on their mothers' backs
while their mothers cook over open fires, frontier mothers trying
desperately to hold down farming and household duties while children run
the risk of death due to insufficient supervision. There are also
children watched and instructed every minute by British nannies,
children under the watchful eye of an entire tribe, children in daycare
centers good and bad, children with stay-at-home moms who
make it their career to stimulate them every minute, children with stay-at-home
moms who watch television and smoke pot all day, children with all manner of
babysitters. There are children -- very much so today -- whose parents must
leave them
with relatives to work in other countries.

What is different about our time and place? Mainly, that we have choices. And
that's where the guilt and judgement comes in, isn't it? Yet, speaking openly about the
choices we've made and the information we have is the best way I see for us
to keep on making those choices while minimizing regrets.

I think the number of hours that children spend separated from their
families, on such a broad scale, and at such a young age, may be
unprecendented. Sure, in the distant past you may have had a 7-year-old
sent away as an apprentice, but a 3-year-old was probably going to be
with family except in the direst of circumstances. At the same time,
parents' investment in and active time spent
paying attention to children has actually increased
-- I think that's the
study Mamalion referred to.

Yet, there are questions about whether "quality time" can make up for the quantity of time a
parent is available to children.

Personally, after a lot of reading and thought on this topic, I'm proud to say that I don't focus on my kids much during our days together. That's right, they don't get my full attention for much of the day, and I don't feel guilty about that. I think it's the best thing for all of us.

Sure, we do a few things together each day -- read books, play a couple games. And we
talk together incessantly, usually when we are on our way somewhere or doing
some housework together or whatever. But other than that, they play with
one another or pursue their own interests, I try to be productive while
keeping one eye or ear on them. Oh, and I try to involve them in
my work whenever possible -- if I changed anything, it would be to do
this last more.

This may seem counterintuitive; that I put such a high value on children
being with someone who loves them but I don't think that someone needs to
focus on the children for the majority of the day. But as Mamalion
points out, this is the way it has been, to one degree or another,
throughout history: parents work, children watch or help. I
think it's good for children to learn that life does not revolve around
them, to learn to perform household tasks, and to learn independence.
Personally, I place higher value on learning those things at
a young age than I place on knowing one's ABCs and how to behave in an
institutional setting -- if they show up to nursery school or kindergarten not knowing those things, they'll catch on quickly enough.

One of the sad things, to me, about modern life is that it is practically
impossible for anyone to have their children with them while they do
economically productive work. But that's just the way it is. Many jobs in
our time and place require a lot of mental concentration, and that's
actually a nice thing; yet you can't get a full day of mentally taxing
work in while supervising and interacting with a small child. At least I
can't.

And yeah, we're lucky that we don't have to try having our children along
with us for other jobs. I'm glad I'm not bringing my kids to a factory or
having them get stepped on while I milk the cows, or even worse,
setting up an 8-year-old child to work the line next to me.

8 comments:

Kori said...

I think constant mothering = smothering, at least at our house. I have found that both my kid and I are much happier with a healthy bit of space for our own work and play during the day, and believe me, I know when EJ needs more attention through her words and her behavior. Developing that balance has been such an important one for me---healthy space is not neglect, but the pressure to be "on task" with kids 24/7 can certainly lead a mom to feel that way.

All that said, with my job situation likely to change in the next 12 months time, and me eager to launch into a new career with a master's degree in tow, I worry about the loss of time with my daughter. Sure, I can't entertain her every second, and some days, I'm at "pulling my hair out" stage by 3:00 p.m. and leaving fun little messages on my husband's voicemail encouraging him not to even think about working late, but still---to be separated for so long every day?

Gulp.

BTW: One off-shoot of my master's research is that I'm really learning how to better analyze scientific studies for their validity. Man, oh man, I wish I had had this skill when EJ was breastfeeding. While a lot of the studies point to interesting correlations, many use either faulty logic or poor methodology to claim causalities that don't actually exist. This came up in the comments of your last post, and it just made me think about how we all read studies and are pleased to find validation of our ideas, but it is best when that validation is actually, well, valid.

Have a great vacation!

Anonymous said...

I'm the one who said that two working parents doesn't work. I think that what I meant was that two working parents, absent from their kids for 8-10 hours a day, doesn't work. As a SAH/working M, I couldn't agree more about giving kids their own space to self entertain, etc. I think I spend a couple of hours a day playing with and reading to my daughter, but there is alot of "to dos" and work getting done. Even park and library outings are almost always combined with household errands. My husband and I tend to look at the family as a whole as important, not child centric. If anything, I think the relationship between mom and dad is most important.

I've always felt that proximity is what creates healthy and happy families and kids. When your kids only get access to parents a few short hours a day and weekends, a lot is being missed.

My grandfather grew up as child #12 on a farm in central California where he was home schooled and worked and played all day in the fields...side by side with his folks and sibs. There may have been a dearth of supervision but there was an abundance of availability. He had a close family. Alternately, a good friend of mine and her husband work full time jobs and have their toddler in daycare. They seem like three individuals living together--roommates.

Anonymous said...

OK one more and then I'll leave it alone. Yes, it is true that there are families out there who's small children are in full time day care and who can manage the strain of it all, and perhaps even thrive. In my limited observation, they are the exception. And I have a hard time believing that a parent's assertion that they would be miserable spending more time with their kids does not have a negative impact on their kids at some point in their lives. Like, I love you and I chose to create you, but I can only really stand in you in very limited quantity. Don't worry, it's not you, it's me! I suppose then in that case, the parent is acting correctly by placing their kids elsewhere.

Yea yea, to each their own. I know we all love our kids.

Jeevita said...

Just wanted to say I've really enjoyed reading the past couple of posts and the discussion that followed. Although I stay at home with my son I don't really spend every waking minute trying to mentally stimulate him and I used to feel a bit guilty about that, till now. :-)
You also made a good point about learning independence versus the ABCs. I get nervous when I see people who are way too focused on preschool readiness and school readiness and such.

CW said...

Anonymous, though I'm sure there are some few parents out there who have difficulty relating to their kids, especially at certain ages or stages, and thus struggle with large doses of time with them, I think what those parents who say they would go crazy if they were home with them all day are getting at is not the _presence_ of the child(ren), but the _lack_ of other other kinds of stimulation, such as daily adult conversation or the challenges of another kind of vocation/career.

I don't think many parents are saying they would be miserable spending time with their kids; rather, they are saying they would be miserable spending time ONLY with their kids. Or that they would be miserable WITHOUT . . . whatever other stimulation they might get from an outside job or outside activities or whatnot.

And these needs for outside stimulation, I'm sure, vary as much as the parents themselves do. Since individual parents' needs in this respect are, well, individual, so too will be their solution to how to juggle those needs with how they can best provide for their particular child(ren), whose needs are also individual.

So the fact that some parents achieve that balance by working outside the home or otherwise not being the sole daytime caregiver of their children doesn't mean that they don't like to be around their children.

You're right that children may not understand this at a very young age. How could they REALLY understand, for example, that sometimes Mommies and Daddies have to do things just the two of them, or that sometimes we all have to be by ourselves for a little while. But if they are secure in the love they receive when Mommy and Daddy come home from date night, or Mommy or Daddy come home from work, or whatever a particular family has to do to keep themselves sane and all of their relationships strong, I don't think they'll be too damaged. And then, they will eventually grow up to understand and tend to their own needs for balancing family time with social time with alone time.

Parents can't really CHOOSE their own needs any more than children can. If parents deny those needs (financial, mental, social, what have you) in the name of giving all of themselves all the time to their children . . . those parents burn out or become unhappy or lose their sense of self or lose their other relationships . . . and in the long run this serves no one, not even the children.

Mind you, I'm not talking about the parents indulging their every little whim or doing every little thing they want or used to enjoy before they had kids. I agree that kids required sacrifice. But raising kids well also requires, IMHO, self-knowledge. Parents need to be aware of our own needs (as distinguished from minor wants or whims) and take care of those, for the long-term good of our families and our kids.

If you, or any parent gets all her needs (for financial security, for intellectual stimulation, for healthy socialization, for health and self-care) met while spending most of every day with the kids, great! Fantastic. You're getting your needs met and enjoying plenty of time with your kids. But not every parent/family has the same needs, and not every child has the same needs (for attention, care, consistency, presence, interaction, alone time, etc.) so I think it's difficult for anyone to say what "doesn't work" for any particular family.

Perhaps you mean that it is "less than ideal" for many or even most. Many or most might agree. But "ideal" is just not an option for everyone. Most people make it work the best they can. And, if parents are loving and involved and nurture their relationships with their kids in whatever way and with whatever time they can, I think those kids turn out ok.

Michelle said...

My "needs" for intellectual stimulation and socialization are most definately not met by staying at home all day with a six month old (and 8 year old when she is not in school.) That doesn't mean it is not enjoyable, or a postive thing for both me and my kids. And all my "needs" were not met when I worked full time as an attorney, either. I never thought that life was about getting all your needs met - who actually has that at all times?

When I hear moms say "I'd go crazy (or be "miserable") if I were home all day with my kids", I think: You'd go crazy spending your day with your OWN kids, who you love, yet you pay someone who doesn't love them to spend the day with them, and expect them to get great care?

Another thing I hear frequently in the SAHM/WOHM debate is "I think my children are much better off being stimulated and playing at day care than being at home all day bored or running errands with me." I couldn't disagree more and think there is value in boredom. A full 8+ hour day of structured activity for a little kid sounds like torture to me(coming from someone who valued quiet alone time even as a small child.) And I could write a book about the things kids learn at the grocery store - running errands with your mom is not a bad thing.

Sorry to ramble. Another interesting post.

Kori said...

After reading the comments, the question that comes to my mind is, "Do we believe we can have all our needs met as mothers? As parents?"

I think that, before I had kids, I underestimated how hard the balance would be. I never imagined where and how I would sacrifice. Sure I was grappling with the same kinds of "am I being fulfilled" questions when I was childless, but things have heightened considerably since our daughter was born.

That said, I have found myself increasingly tired of my own assumption (post-birth) that I simply cannot have all my needs met, end of discussion. There are certainly some crucial needs that I have let go (exercise, time for recreation, connection with friends, etc.) at times, to the detriment of myself and my whole family (daughter and husband included.)

Which brings me to the deeper question I find myself asking all the time---"How can I personally and our society as a whole create a culture that supports balanced lives for everyone?"

I don't ask this in a Pollyanna fashion, I ask this with real, tactical, strategic interest. Surely, there will always be trade-offs and sacrifices, but if we choose to scratch deeper into this ideal, we can really explore things like:

a) Why can't there be more part-time work opportunities with appropriate childcare (especially in today's economy---has no one watched "9 to 5?")

b) Why don't we have better family leave, with universal safeguards?

c) How can we form inexpensive childcare coalitions that actual support family structures, potentially mimicking the expanded family structures of old (think co-ops, swaps, etc.)?

d) How do we support healthy recreation and rest, helping people take vacations, spend time as families, de-stress, etc., whether they work outside or inside the home?

I could go on for awhile, but the last day of our vacation awaits, and following my own advise, I'm not going to squander the time with my hubby and kiddo in the sunshine.

Jeevita said...

Can't help agreeing with CW. Even though we can't always get all our needs met all the time, why not try to at least get some of them met some of the time?