A Progressive Approach to Caring for Children and Community

Cynthia Peters


Feminists—particularly white
liberal feminists—have long considered quality day care
to be a key factor in our ability to balance work and family
life. Now, suddenly, day care is getting some mainstream
support; legislators of all stripes, the President and
Hillary Clinton, as well as some major corporations are
behind it. What happened? What changed? Is it a progressive

Although mostly middle and upper class
women still face pressure to stay home with their children,
there has been a decided shift toward day care from both
conservative and liberal elements in government and from the
corporate world. Needless to say, the change is not motivated
by concern for gender equality. It is not even really about
what is best for children, though it is framed that way. It
is about a growing awareness that working parents are more
productive when they have fewer childcare worries and that
children—the next generation of workers—will be
more productive if they have received their training from an
early age. These are the reasons clearly articulated by the
heads of government and corporations. Trotting out studies
that prove a mere truism, i.e., the first months and years of
a child’s life are key to their development, they offer
a feel-good backdrop for what is actually a productivity
squeeze. The reasons left unarticulated but are powerful
motivators in the day care policy change are: (1) as a
justification for welfare reform which is sending thousands
of poor women into menial jobs and their children into
substandard care; (2) part of a recognition that in order to
produce not only better workers, but better consumers, there
is no place for the community and familial ties that exist
outside the marketplace.

Granted the burden of raising children
and nurturing family and community ties has fallen unfairly
on women. Gender inequality has left women dependent on men
and the State, and/or doubly burdened by the need to provide
an income as well as nurture the family. Feminists are
correct to identify childcare help—both from men and
society in general—as a key factor in the breakdown of
patriarchy. Granted also that there is nothing sacred about
community and family life. They are social constructs and can
reinforce repressive roles just as the marketplace can.
However, there needs to be more democratic debate about what
happens to children. We need to hear from diverse communities
about their childcare needs. At present, Clinton is
consulting the Secretary of Defense about how the military
runs its very "successful" day care operation (Boston
, 10/2/97), and the Child Care Action Campaign, a
national nonprofit organization, is encouraging businesses to
partner with agencies in their area to invest in childcare. (Parade
September 21, 1997.) Those in power should not
be allowed to determine what happens to children. Their
policies and proposals will reflect their needs and concerns
and the logic of their institutions. The outcome may have
short-term benefits for some women and some children, but
feminists and progressives at a grassroots level and from
diverse communities should be debating and strategizing ways
to take care of children.


Day Care As

Being a mom in late 20th century
America is hard work. Not only do many of us have to produce
an income to make ends meet—or, just as importantly,
desire to work to have a balanced life—we are also held
responsible for every twist and turn of our children’s
psyches and behavior. Between the combined efforts of Sigmund
Freud and Benjamin Spock, most people seem to believe that
mothers are at fault for just about all of society’s
ills, quite a feat given that we have had close to zero
access to power, privilege, and resources. Meanwhile, the job
description is close to impossible. As Mary Kay Blakely says,
"Mothers are somehow expected to exceed all human
limits… You go to work when you’re sick, maybe even
clinically depressed, because motherhood is perhaps the only
unpaid position where failure to show up can result in
arrest" (American Mom, Motherhood, Politics, and
Humble Pie

As difficult as it may be to be a
full-time mother, imagine that after doing your unpaid work
in the home, you then take your children to a day care center
and go out and do your underpaid work in the labor
force—often in the dirtiest, most dangerous, least
acknowledged jobs. Then, immediately after finishing your
underpaid job you pick up your children from day care and
resume your unpaid job, all the while keeping the following
statistics in mind: "15 percent of children cared for by
people other than their parents are in "childcare
centers of such poor quality that their health or development
is threatened." Infants are more likely to get poor care
than older children; a 1993 study of childcare centers found
that 40 percent of facilities serving infants were of such
poor quality as to be possibly injurious. "The CFC
[Center for the Future of Children] concludes that 70 percent
of childcare is mediocre" (The Nation,
"Childcare brain drain?" Ann Barnet and Richard
Barnet, May 12, 1997).

If you are a welfare mother now
required to work for your benefits, you may have had to leave
your child with a "provisional" child care provider
whose only qualification is that s/he has no criminal record.
Or perhaps you have used your child care voucher to leave
your child in a family day care that once had a six-child
maximum but now, due to "relaxed standards," has
"taken in thirty-four" (as happened recently in
Wisconsin, according to the Progressive, October

Of course women should not be held
responsible for every minute of our children’s care. Nor
should we, for any reason, feel compelled to put them in
substandard care. Nor should we be limited to these two
choices: 24 hours of Mom-duty vs. 10 hours of who knows what.
Leaving children in a place where the care is "possibly
injurious" or even "mediocre" is nothing less
than violence against families and children. But calling for
more day care slots—even the high quality
variety—is not the ultimate progressive answer to
childraising. While it may alleviate a short-term burden for
families, day care that is mandated by the needs of the
marketplace is damaging to small children and weakens
community ties. Many day care centers disconnect children
from daily family and community life and train small children
in the ideologies and regimens of schools, factories, and


What’s Wrong With
Day Care?

Those of you who have visited a quality
day care center are probably wondering what I’m talking
about. In fact, you may know a child who finds it a
wonderfully enticing place—everything is scaled to her
height; there are different play "stations" where
she can entertain herself; she can curl up on the rug in the
reading corner; she can open the trunk full of dress-up
clothes; play pretend; or pull out any number of games and
toys that are placed on shelves at the appropriate height.
She has a hook for her coat and a cubby for her lunch
box—both brightly labeled with her name. The room is
decorated with educational colorful images, perhaps the
letters of the alphabet, pictures of other children, and
barnyard animals. She has the opportunity to listen to music,
sing and dance, and play outside. Perhaps there is attention
to diversity. They celebrate Hanukkah and Kwanzaa as well as
Christmas. This particular child is lucky; she has teachers
who, although woefully underpaid, sincerely like their work
and care about the child.

There is not one particular feature of
this package that makes day care centers problematic, nor is
the whole package necessarily a problem in every instance.
But in the context of late 20th century America, given the
needs of our economy, the socializing force of educational
institutions, and the pressures on families and communities,
we should seriously evaluate the role of day care centers in
shaping daily life and as part of a progressive agenda.

Here is another take on the lessons our
day care center child may absorb: Her learning and play, her
growth and development, need to be structured and facilitated
by professionals. There are no mentors for her, nor are there
any young ones that she can in turn help usher through the
months and years. She will not get a sense of her intrinsic
worth as a member of a community that has a reason for being
and a set of daily tasks that have varying degrees of
meaningfulness, and that incorporates her at whatever
developmental stage she might be, provides a variety of
models for her, and invests her with a sense of the rhythms
of everyday life. Instead, she gets the rather profound
message that her role is to be entertained (educated,
enriched, etc.) until someone picks her up and takes her home
for some quality time. The lesson is an early one in
consumption: She may be missing out on finding meaning in
organic relationships but she can always come into the day
care to consume some stimulation and entertainment instead.

Furthermore, she learns about class
position and hierarchy. Rather than absorb the needs and
values and cultural norms of her community, she integrates
herself into an institution—learning to please the
caregivers, compete with her peers for attention, divvy her
day into structured activities, accept the rules and guidance
of the authority figures, and mark time by her movement from
the infant room to the toddler room and on to the pre-school
room. Just as the U.S. educational system produces young
adults schooled to take their place among the powerful, or in
the office, the factory, the service sector, or the permanent
underclass, so early childhood education will help produce
the workers we need. Yes, some day cares promote cognitive
development, teach positive social skills, and empower young
minds, but you can be sure that class position is a key
determinant of who learns what.

Does this mean good day care is
impossible? No. Even mediocre day care can offer a respite to
young children who come from dysfunctional or oppressive
families. Some of the social skills kids learn in day care
might balance the authoritarian, mostly patriarchal, nature
of the family. There are studies that show children in day
care have more tolerance and understanding of diversity and a
less rigid sense of gender roles. Under certain conditions, a
high quality pre-school experience has been shown to truly
make the difference in an underprivileged child’s
educational experience. And for parents, particularly
mothers, dependable affordable day care can facilitate an
improved quality of life—one that allows women pursuits
outside the home and that gives children a more active female
role model. For some, day care can literally mean a step out
of poverty.

Many toddlers and pre-schoolers who are
thriving in their family and community lives might enjoy and
benefit from a few hours a week in something like a day care
center. We’ve all seen children’s faces light up
when they enter a child-friendly room. They rush from toy to
toy and delight in the plastic food that they can cook in the
child-sized oven. But do they want to do this all day every
day? Not necessarily. I see kids who are motivated to do what
the grown-ups or older kids are doing. They observe us, model
themselves after us, and join in the best they can. They want
to get their hands in the soapy dishwater, follow the big
kids around the neighborhood, and pound their hands on the
computer keyboard.

Even if kids appeared to truly enjoy
being in day care, is that the model of human activity and
relationships we would want for them?

In a typical day care center, kids do
not have the opportunity to join in any adult activities. Any
onsite adults have nothing to do but care for them, observe
them, direct their play, break up squabbles, etc. Suddenly,
unself-conscious play and experimentation is managed and
scheduled by childcare experts who, for the sake of their own
sanity and the smooth functioning of the day care center,
need the children to meet fairly rigid expectations. I agree
with John Holt (in Freedom and Beyond) when he
bemoans the trendy thinking that says children lack the
"careful and loving attention of people who have been
specially trained to attend to them and have nothing to do
but attend to them." It’s as if "growing up
were a process that could not happen unless we made it
happen. Not so. What children need and want are more chances
to see us adults when we are about our adult business,
whatever that may be, and more time in which we leave them
strictly alone."

Of course, integrating kids into family
and community life has quite a few expectations as well. In
the course of observing adults us going about our business,
they will be schlepped around on errands, taken to job sites,
asked to play quietly at the office, expected to get along in
different homes where there are different values and
activities, and required to chart their own course when it
comes to playing, creating friendships, and just passing the
time. In a home- or community-based setting, there are lots
of expectations, just as in a day care. But there are some
key differences. One is, kids who spend less time in day care
are, from the beginning, integrated into our lives,
participating in the culture we are part of and thus
preserving it, and perceiving that they are a meaningful part
of everyday life. This is important in a society that wants
to protect cultural diversity, and give children and families
something to identify with besides the acts of making money
and then spending it. Two, some activities are proscribed,
but not much is prescribed. John Holt argues that a child
experiences much more freedom and self-direction when she is
told what she can’t do as opposed to what she can do.
Thus, saying to a child, "You can’t play with the
knives, the Drano, or yesterday’s compost" but
leaving her the rest of the kitchen means she’s been
given a wide berth. In a day care center setting, the play is
much more prescribed. It’s time to jump on the
trampoline, take a nap, stand in line, read a book, etc.
Three, in a home-based setting, kids and parents or
caregivers are more likely to participate in community.

Four, lest anyone think I have painted
too rosy a picture, it’s hard work. The tedium is
sometimes intolerable. Chattering with a toddler for too many
hours in a row can be unfulfilling and truly draining. We
need breaks from our children and vice-versa. We (and our
children) need multiple opportunities throughout the day to
bond with and relate to others, and adults need time to work.
Furthermore, being part of community life can be fraught with
difficulty. Child- rearing and community building are
undervalued invisible jobs that women do. Society needs to
recognize and value women’s work and men need to share
the load.

Building an extended web of family,
household members, friends and babysitters is not necessarily
easy, possible or even desirable for everyone. But I believe
it is something progressives should support at least as much
as day care. By working the care of our children into our
daily lives, we build and strengthen networks that otherwise
would not have been there. As a social change activist, I
think it is important to bring children into strong, diverse,
democratic communities that are a form of resistance to
bureaucratic service providers and market values.

In an Australian pre-school study
called The Mt. Druitt Project, families participated in
either center-based or home-based care for their pre-school
age children. The latter experienced an unexpected benefit:
"the parents who participated in the home-based program
established a network to organize other social, educational,
and welfare activities independent of the project." By
keeping their children in a home-based environment, parents
and siblings presumably interacted much more around the care
of the pre-schoolers. They forged bonds— and built
community—in their effort to educate their children, and
these bonds flowed into other aspects of their lives. The
families whose children were sent off to center-based care
did not develop these networks.

Some day care—particularly when it
is locally owned, operated out of the home, and/or
collectively constructed by adults and children—can
foster community, build networks among children and
relatives, and offer a safe space that more or less leaves
the kids "strictly alone." Many day care providers,
whether they are running their business out of their home or
working for a national day care chain, care deeply about
their work. But even the most dedicated day care worker
cannnot replace social responsibility for children. When
progressives lobby for childcare, we should conceive of ways
that government and workplace policy can be changed to foster
networks and communities that will provide continuity and
support to children and families.


Looking to History

Once upon a time feminists made the
jump from abortion rights—the limited ability to
terminate a pregnancy—to reproductive freedom—the
broader ability to have children if you want them, health
care when you need it, and control over your body vis a vis
the medical establishment and reproduction. By taking into
account the needs, desires, and problems facing women of
color, poor women, and lesbians, feminism moved from
protecting the legal right to an abortion to a much more
pro-active visionary agenda that gave women a chance to
articulate how they wanted to be in the world as sexual
subjects and mothers. Now, another leap is in order. We need
to define how we want to raise our children. We need to say
what we mean by good day care, and then we need to make sure
it is available to those who want it. We also need safe
nurturing communities that help us raise our children. This
is not a call for women to become full-time homemakers. Men
need to play an equal role in the lives of their children and
communities. No one should be confined to an isolated home.
Nor should anyone suffer the straitjacket of menial work that
consumes all our energies. Reproductive freedom is about
producing and reproducing ourselves, our children, our
families and our communities outside the market sphere. It is
about really being able to choose how we want to raise our
children. It is about having healthy functional families and
communities that are meaningful because all participate in
nurturing, mentoring, learning, producing, working and
playing, and that welcome children into this process.

In their book, A Tradition That Has
No Name
, Mary Field Belenky, et al., investigate how
unempowered people "help each other move out of the
silence, claim the power of their minds, exercise their
leadership, and come to have a real say in the way their
lives, families, and communities are being run." The
authors look to the African American tradition of developing
leadership from grassroots sources and nurturing community
and "homeplaces" outside the reach of the white
status quo. In her book, Yearning, African American cultural
critic bell hooks says: "Historically, African-American
people believed that the construction of a homeplace, however
fragile and tenuous (the slave hut, the wooden shack), had a
radical political dimension. Despite the brutal reality of
racial apartheid, of domination, one’s homeplace was the
one site where one could freely confront the issue of
humanization, where one could resist. Black women resisted by
making homes where all black people could strive to be
subjects, not objects, where we could be affirmed in our
minds and hearts despite poverty, hardship, and deprivation,
where we could restore to ourselves the dignity denied us on
the outside in the public world."

In Black Feminist Thought,
Patricia Hill Collins calls these women "community
othermothers," and Charles Payne, in I’ve Got the
Light of Freedom, calls those who nurture community
"leaders in the developmental tradition." In Double
Stitch: Black Women Write About Mothers and Daughters
Collins suggests that black women’s role as community
othermothers encouraged black women’s social activism.
Their feelings of responsibility toward all their
community’s children gave rise to a "more
generalized ethic of care." Without romanticizing the
hardship that gave rise to the need to create private safe
space, we can draw lessons from a tradition that nurtured
community and valued it as a site of resistance, a place that
could preserve values not found in the mainstream.

Parade magazine recently
reported that "48% of the 9.9 million children under age
5 who need day care are looked after by relatives …
Preschoolers from poor families are 50% more likely to be
cared for by relatives than those whose families live above
the poverty line." The article implies that the
situation is obviously in need of repair. But can we be
certain of that? Is the child posted in front of the TV all
day? Is he ignored by a depressed exploited mother? Is he
forging bonds with grandparents, relatives, siblings, and
neighbors who care about him and are invested in his
well-being for no other reason than that he is one of them?
We should look at what’s really going on in those
families, and we should be open to hearing what those
families want. We should look at how diverse communities
reinforce ties and we should consider the possibility that
the care of children is an important community builder, one
that roots children and families in traditions outside
consumer-driven, white middle-class America.

In his acceptance speech of the 1991
New York State Teacher of the Year Award, John Taylor Gatto
lists the seven most important lessons of schoolteaching:
confusion, class position, indifference, emotional and
intellectual dependency, conditional self-esteem, and
surveillance. After 26 years of teaching, Gatto has come to
believe that "institutional schoolteaching is
destructive to children" and that the seven lessons he
is entrusted with passing along are "prime training for
permanent underclasses, people deprived forever of finding
their own special genius."

Ira Shor, Henry Giroux, Paulo Freire,
John Holt, and many others have contributed to a rich
progressive critique of educational systems, the relationship
between the development of capitalism and public education,
the ways that schools train our young people in the whys and
wherefores of a consumer culture and workaday world that
requires an uncritical respect for authority, ability to
tolerate boredom, and acquiescence to fragmented uncreative
work. Now that pre-school age children are being ushered into
educational institutions at an earlier age and faster rate
than ever before, it’s time for progressives to take
notice. What do we want for our small children? How do we
want to care for them? What sorts of families and communities
do we hope they will have access to?


What We Should Be
Working For

• True choices about how to be in
a family.

We need a system of social supports and
benefits that would allow parents to take paid leave from
their jobs to be with their small children if they wanted.

Work schedules should be flexible and
should allow parents to take care of family needs. Rather
than provide emergency nanny services and birthday cakes on
short notice, work culture should support parents’
efforts to parent their children. To fully achieve this, we
have to remind ourselves that a big part of parenting is
simply being around. Moms and Dads are not service delivery
systems, easily replaced by emergency nannies, cake-makers,
and other stand-ins. We cannot meet children’s needs by
purchasing services for them. Although many services are
helpful and necessary and should be affordable to all, they
are a far cry from the radical restructuring of work and
community life that we really need to support families and
children, and to allow communities to reproduce themselves
outside the corporate sphere.

Community life needs to be structured
in such a way that values all community members, fosters
networks of support and care, and welcomes children as part
of the pleasure and responsibility of the entire community.

• Make a range of quality day care
options available.

What makes a "quality" day
care should be widely debated by different
communities—not the government, not corporate America,
and not just the white middle class. We need to hear from all
the families and communities that have been raising children
for centuries using extended family networks and community
resources. Rather than disrupt those organic networks, we
should support them. A range of good choices should be

We need to critically evaluate the way
that a corporate bureaucratic mentality has seeped into not
only the educational system, but also the day care system,
and we need to propose alternative structures and
institutions for families and children.

• We need a reinvigorated feminist
agenda that continues to expose and amend gender inequality
in families.

Men still only do a fraction of the
total household chores. In two-parent heterosexual families,
forget the emergency nanny service, get Dad to stay home with
the sick kid.

Let’s continue to raise
consciousness about the way men’s public lives are
valued more than women’s. Let’s demand that social
policy and work rules see men as active parents and
incorporate their needs.

We need parental leave, not maternity
leave. We need extra days off for Moms and Dads to stay home
because the children are sick or just to spend time in the

We need comparable worth so that
families do not have to decide it is more economical to send
Dad into the work force and leave Mom at home.

We need social benefits that make it
possible for single parents to raise their children outside
of poverty.

We need to abolish the tax breaks and
other institutional supports for straight marriage and
nuclear families.


Cynthia Peters, formerly a member
of the South End Press collective, is a freelance writer.