Today’s piece comes to us from Daniel Cole who lives and works in Australia as a early childhood educator. His perspective shines light on what it’s like to do strenuous childcare work, and how managers and disconnected executives worsen the load by making ridiculous guidelines and demands, while pinning providers on a scale that doesn’t truly measure their experience and value. He aims to get other educators on board with imagining what it would be like to autonomously run childhood centers, and what can be done to organize in that direction.
No Glory in Glorified Babysitting
by Daniel Cole
I am a man working in childcare, which is, to be blunt, a women’s field. Along with the ridiculously low pay, this comes with a few ideas. One is that we are glorified babysitters so of course the pay is going to be low. The other is that the low wages must be okay because we love it and we get “paid in smiles and hugs” anyways. Women are “naturally” nurturing and would love nothing else than look after a room of young children all day. Smarter people than me have written about this ideology behind “women’s work.” In many ways I think many of us take a strong pride in knowing children and early childhood development so well. On the other hand I think we are quick to internalize the idea of being glorified babysitters and can think less of ourselves for it. The stigma surrounding these ideas shows how little value our society places on young children.
I have worked in childcare for about nine years now. I’ve worked with infants to five year olds and every year in between. At times, the job is harder than I think others can realize, and at other times, it is probably better than most other jobs out there. For over a year now, I’ve been working in a 0-3 years old room, and in the past 3 months, I’ve enjoyed seeing the uninhibited joy of eight 1-3 year olds dancing to disco, experiencing the satisfaction of seeing a child steadily learn to negotiate and cooperate with their peers, and feeling the love of a child running to give me a hug when they see me in the morning. Though I could write a stand-alone piece about a fire alarm going off in a room of sleeping children (after taking more than 2 hours to get them to sleep) and needing to evacuate, I don’t think it’s necessary to offer up a list of horror stories. What really makes the job hard is the impact you have on children’s lives, and the responsibility that you carry knowing that every interaction with them is important. I do think children are very resilient, but every time I run out of patience and become a bit cross with a kid, I feel like shit. All work under capitalism is shit, and it’s a constant attack on our bodies and souls, but the feeling of giving a child anything less than what they deserve is a particularly distinct flavor of beat-down that is hard to nurse on the commute home.
Even if I haven’t ran out of patience, it is physically and mentally taxing to look after a room of little humans who need my constant care, support, attention, time, patience, and education. Before my lunch break on an average day, I will have changed six to ten diapers, helped several older children use the toilet (probably help one of them change out of wet clothes and into dry clothes if they had an accident), prepared, served and cleaned up a morning snack, worked out 3-5 potential conflicts over toys, sat with children in a sandbox, put on a few shoes (hopefully not Converse with the flappy canvas and long laces!), cleaned up paint spilled on the ground, read a book or two, changed another diaper while talking an older child through dressing themselves and getting another child off from the meal table, and wrote a few observations down on children’s interests and activities so far that day. During all of this I am listening to and talking with multiple children, trying to treat their voices as important and helping them practice and stretch their vocabulary. When parents or other adults see us even for 15 minutes or so in the full swing of a transition from lunch to eventually nap time, we get lots of “I don’t know how you do this!” “I got tired even watching you!” and the like. I feel like there’s a respect for the “cat-herding” aspects of the job, but it never seems to carry over to respect for childcare workers ideas or voices about what the field should or could evolve into.
If you are reading this, I probably don’t need to tell you how important “caring” or reproductive labor is. Whether paid or unpaid, taking care of each other is a basic part of our relationships, survival and humanity. Capitalism adds another layer to this, as all of this basic work for our collective survival also has to serve the purpose of raising the next generation of workers. I also probably don’t need to get into the basic facts that the workers, disproportionately women and women of color, who take care of the very young (or old or disabled), are not paid very much or respected at all. Stigma exists around shady childcare centers where children are neglected and outright abused. These things happen, but the blame is almost always put on the lowest paid workers, not the bosses or sick dysfunctional system that understaffs and overworks the few employees on the bottom of the food chain. It’s on childcare workers (and CNAs and home care aides) to shoulder the weight of this adverse system. There is no expectation for the bosses or the wealthy to make room for a system that is actually conducive for what we know all children deserve.
What would this “industry” look like if we had power on the job and if this work could be organized to provide the best possible care for children? For myself, I wish there was less time on writing observations, or taking pictures, or emailing parents, or cutesy art projects, or basically 80% of things that take one staff member out of the room and make things busier for the rest. I need more time to be able to slow down and be fully present with my children. My relationships with the kids in my care are what my job is all about and I want to give as much of my physical and emotional energy as possible to helping them learn to respect themselves and others. A lot of this is modeling appropriate behavior in basically everything I do in front of them. Any parents reading this with children in childcare: where would you want my energy going?
I feel I do my best at my job when I am in a good headspace, and what the kids I care for need most is having a loving, trusting relationship with somebody who is really present mentally and emotionally for them, and is a good role model when dealing with conflict and how to treat others. There are other responsibilities for sure, but this is indispensable. As long as capitalism is still around and most families need to make use of childcare, I would like to work in a place that recognizes that first and foremost.
I only have so much patience and energy to give each week. At my old center where I worked with a coworker I’ll call “E”, we had a number of informal workgroup practices in place to give us time to decompress throughout the day. My coworkers and I would make sure we took longer breaks when needed, or handled personal matters or just simply had downtime while the kids were sleeping. This of course was directly in spite of official job duties and expectations. You can’t tell anyone in childcare that having time to decompress in the middle of the day doesn’t help with dealing better with a room of young children. Anybody who hasn’t worked in childcare who wants to criticize me or my coworkers for checking our phones during a naptime in the baby room can get lost. I don’t want to hear it.
The first five years of our lives are a period of immense learning and development. How we are cared for and educated during this time will affect us through the rest of our lives. The brain of a young child is growing at an immense rate and the way they are treated and cared for at this time affects their physical, social and emotional development tremendously. Politicians are slowly coming around to realizing all of this, and there is a lot of talk about the need for high standards, excellence and professionalism in the field. This call comes on high from a mix of academic researchers, nonprofit swivel heads, and government bureaucrats. Some people think professionalizing the field and calling it Early Childhood Education will earn us more respect. I am a bit skeptical that it is so simple to run away from the Glorified Babysitter label most people have of us.
In all of this rush for higher standards and professionalization, I have seen very little respect or trust for the people who actually do the work. It’s seen as a field of uneducated women that needs fixing and uplifting by these special experts, most of whom I would bet have not helped with a naptime in a room of 14 three-to-five year olds, or settled 2 babies to sleep while feeding another. Maybe a handful of women will climb out of the trenches into one of these expert roles, but I don’t see many concerted efforts to raise their former colleagues’ wages. We should have the absolute highest standards for how young children are cared for and educated. There are bad childcare centers out there and it is a problem – but I do not have faith in the ruling class, bosses, bureaucrats and administrators to do anything to fix this in a way I care about, especially in regards to children from working class families.
In Washington State they used No Child Left Behind money to build a new database and website we send our personal details to (for unexplained but Important Reasons). We had to resubmit this information two more times at different dates, leaving the room and our children each time because their website broke. They ended up using this database to put us all on a “career lattice” that was basically a ranking from 0-16 of how advanced a provider is. Since this whole ranking was based solely on education, my coworker E, who has worked in childcare for 20+ years and is absolutely one of the best educators I know, was ranked at the very bottom of the lattice. The government basically implied E was bringing nothing to the table, and quite logically she said this made her want to find a different type of job. There are countless women like E out there, people without college degrees but who have extensive knowledge, passion, experience and just plain talent for childcare. The government can spend millions of dollars on new plans, bureaucrats’ salaries, task force reports and websites that don’t work, but it’s clearly not going to respect the experience and ideas of a black woman who has actually been doing this work for years. The government obviously has no interest in paying decent wages either.
As opposed to food service or retail jobs where many people are experimenting with and rebuilding a radical labor movement, childcare and other caring labor is not only socially useful, its importance is paramount! It’s exciting to think of the opportunities of childcare workers (or CNAs or home care aides, etc.) organizing alongside the people and families they serve, making demands on the private childcare companies, non-profit organizations or local governments. I can imagine children, childcare workers and parents together staging “Baby Sit Ins” in the bosses’ or politicians’ offices until they meet our demands for free, high quality childcare, better wages, respect for childcare workers, and much more!
I hope other childcare workers (and CNAs and homecare aides and other care workers) will read this and share their thoughts. I hope some parents with children in childcare also read this and share their thoughts as well. As childcare workers we might not think much of ourselves. It’s understandable being paid so little and respected even less. Maybe we can collectively discuss and tear down the sexist stigma of being glorified babysitters. Again, what is so shameful or “low status” about helping bring up the next generation of human beings in our communities? Maybe we can learn to fully appreciate the importance of what we do and eventually accept the leading role we can help play in transforming our field, and consequently the whole world.