by Pia K. Hansen

Every morning, the streets are crowded with cars and buses full of people going to work. Many adults leave behind not only their homes but also their extended families when they head out to make a living. It might be a choice for some, but for most it's a simple fact of life: We need a job so we can make some money and pay our bills. And while we are gone making that all-important buck, we need someone to watch over our children.

In October 2002, the Spokane Regional Health District surveyed nearly 1,200 parents, 70 percent of whom were either working or going to school full time or part time, about their use of child care. That survey found that 35.6 percent of the children who receive care outside of the home do so in a licensed child care center; a little more than 22 percent are cared for by a relative; 18.3 percent are being cared for by a licensed home child care provider and 15.3 percent are being cared for by a friend or an unlicensed home child care.

The need for quality child care is great, yet child care workers remain some of the lowest-paid in our society, often making less and having significantly worse benefits than those who take care of our cars.

And then there's the guilt. While many industrialized nations came to terms with the need for quality child care back in the '60s and '70s, the discussion about whether child care outside of the home can hurt children rages on in this country.

"A lot of guilt is being put on people who use childcare, but we have such a mobile society today, we may or may not have friends or family who can step in and take care of our children," says Dr. Fran Sherwood, program director of the interdisciplinary children's studies program at Eastern Washington University. "Just by being at home with your child, you may or may not do a good job."

Sherwood says many studies have shown that adults who had a good pre-school opportunity end up more successful in family life and in the education and jobs they held later in life. It's the quality of the care children receive in the preschool years that determines whether child care has a negative impact on the individual child.

Yet defining quality is becoming increasingly difficult in a culture that tends to objectify children, rather than recognize them as individuals with rights, says Sherwood.

"One variable that indicates the quality of the program is the education of the care giver. We have minimal requirements for care givers. Some only get 20 hours of training and they are working with the most important commodity of our society -- our children," says Sherwood. "We have to look at very young children as their own agents, not as objects. Because children are small, we think we can talk down to them and order them around, but we forget that even thought they think differently, they feel the same as we do."

Getting what you pay for -- The Health District's parent survey showed that 71 percent of parents chose their current child care provider because it was available during the hours they needed. Of the 12 reasons parents listed for choosing a specific child care provider, none listed the actual quality of the care provided as their main reason for enrolling.

"Parents choose child care based on their own needs rather than the kids' needs," says Sherwood. "They look at if it's close to work, if it's on their way or close to their home." Sherwood adds that she completely understands that many parents -- especially those who live in poverty -- don't have a choice when it comes to selecting a care provider.

"But what I don't understand is why we can't model our child care system after some of the countries, like the Scandinavian countries for instance, who have already figured it out a long time ago," says Sherwood. "I don't like models, but still, maybe we could learn something from these countries. As a culture, we all too often seem to think we know everything."

But government-subsidized child care, which is the norm in Scandinavia, is expensive, and the many cuts in an already shrinking state budget makes it increasingly difficult to get funding for child care out of Olympia.

"The government has just taken away all the subsidies for the providers," says Sherwood. These subsidies were given to providers who stayed open 24 hours a day, or who took care of the children of low-income parents who couldn't pay the full rate. "Once again, we are making decisions that children are not as important -- our money is simply not with our youngest citizens."

State funding? -- Today hundreds of parents in Spokane are doing their very best to find a good child-care setting for their children, just like hundreds of providers -- some stretched to their absolute limits -- are doing the best they can to take care of our children.

"Access to quality child care has not improved in any way the last couple of years," says Karen Seitz, coordinator for the Spokane Regional Child Care Initiative, which is run through the Health Improvement Partnership. "Quality care is very expensive, and our families can't afford it. That's not true just for low-income families -- it goes for middle-income families as well."

It's estimated that the cost of full-time child care for the first four years of a child's life is more than twice the cost of tuition at the University of Washington.

Together with similar organizations in Seattle and King County, the Regional Child Care Initiative is participating in a project called the Northwest Finance Circle, which is trying to come up with a different funding model for child care, among other things.

"We are looking at how the higher education system is financed because that system seems to work in a way that parents can afford it and it's turning out a high-quality product," says Seitz. "We are trying to tweak it so it will work for the child-care industry as well."

She knows it's going to be hard to get any state funding for a new system, but just like Sherwood, she hopes for a change in people's perspective.

"The community as a whole benefits from quality child care," says Seitz. "For every dollar invested in child care, seven dollars are saved later on juvenile detention, special education and other social services." And she says quality child care solves an acute babysitting problem. It also prepares children better for school.

"We are so concerned about our K-12 school system and the testing we are doing," says Seitz. "We should assist children better and give them opportunities to learn from when they are 0-5 so they don't get left behind when they start school."

Sherwood would like to see local businesses step up to the plate as well, and provide on-site child care centers.

"If your child care facility is on-site, at work, you can go there and nurse your baby or have lunch with your toddler, or just pop in," she says. "If that could happen at or near your business I think we would have a lot more happy parents and children."

Picking a provider -- Everyone seems to agree on one thing: There are many great child-care providers out there. All parents need to do is ask the right questions and take time to shop around early on, before they have an urgent need for child care.

"A good child-care arrangement is an extension of the family," says Sherwood. "Look at the provider. Can he or she provide for the whole child? Look at the environment the child is in. Watch the care givers and how they are interacting with the children -- they shouldn't just let them play."

Any care giver should be licensed through the state. That guarantees a minimum of training of 20 hours dealing with childhood development, as well as knowledge of CPR, first aid and health and hygiene issues.

"No, that's not a lot -- I think dog groomers are required to have more training," says Stacy Loudermilk, senior director of early childhood programs at the YMCA. "When it comes to choosing a provider, I would first ask friends where they take their kids and then drive by and visit the facility you are considering."

While visiting, look for lots of duplicates of toys -- toddlers don't know how to share that well -- and look at how the care givers talk to the children.

"They should talk to the children in a way that helps them understand what's going on," says Loudermilk. "Some toddlers bite, and if that happens, the biter shouldn't just be punished. The care giver should say, 'Look at Johnny. He is crying. What you did hurt him.' "

She adds that it's very important that children are being read to on a regular basis, and that activities are age-appropriate.

"You don't want to see toddlers put together a craft project that looks like something a kindergartner should do," says Loudermilk. "And you want to see the staff, on the floor, interacting with the children as opposed to standing over them, supervising them. They should take obvious delight in being with the children, cuddle with them and giggle with them. That is so important."

Once you find the right match, forget the guilt.

"There have been a lot of studies done on child care's effect on children, and it's certain that in a quality program, wonderful things can happen," says Sherwood. "There are some very good examples of what is good teaching and what is good child care. And we must change our perspective of children. We must remember to look at them not as objects but as individuals -- those are some basic values that we need change if we want to do better for our children overall."

Publication date: 03/20/03

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