School as Childcare

school childcare parenting

This coming weekend my kids will have four days off of school, since public institutions are closed for Good Friday and Easter Monday where I live. Last weekend they got three days off, because Friday was a professional development day for teachers. The week before that was a full week where they went to school five days in a row, but it followed on the heels of a two week long Spring Break.

Chatting with other moms on the playground after school, I often hear the comment that it can feel like there are a whole lot of days when the kids aren’t in school. I can relate. Days off from school can really disrupt the usual routine with kids. As a work-at-home mom (and student) I rely on school to give me kid-free time. When my kids are out of school more, I find myself working in the evenings more, and scrambling to keep up. Many parents love that school gives them free childcare, including me.

Chatting with other people, however, I’ve noticed that many people view this tendency of parents to use school as de facto childcare negatively. I’ve heard a few comments from a number of quarters recently along the lines of, “Well, you know, many parents think school is just free daycare.”

The funny thing is that parents who extoll the virtues of school as childcare, and critics who deride the idea of school as childcare, are actually saying exactly the same thing. They may even be using exactly the same words, just with a slightly different tone of voice. There’s no dispute that some parents use school as childcare – there’s only disagreement over whether this is good or bad.

I spent the past four months studying the philosophy of education. My textbook has this to say: “… schools do as a matter of fact serve as child-minding facilities, regardless of whether that was either the community’s or the parents’ intention or wish.” I think that sums up the issue very well. When you put a whole bunch of kids in a classroom for six hours a day, five days a week (most weeks), you are freeing up their parents to do other things. If those same parents were already doing other things, you’re reducing the amount of daycare they need to pay for outside of school. Either way, the parents come to depend on school to some extent. However, it may be the case that nobody actually meant to establish a state-run free daycare system. Hence the conflict.

It’s true that my primary aim in sending my children to school isn’t for the free childcare, but for the educational benefits. It’s also true that before I had children of my own I would have viewed school-as-childcare with some level of suspicion. I likely would have thought that daycare was something that parents should handle themselves. Now that I’m a parent my opinions are different.

When my daughter Hannah turned three years old she aged out of her infant and toddler daycare centre. Her father and I had a difficult time finding a new childcare setting for her. She ended up spending six months at a local Montessori school that just wasn’t a good fit for her. At the time I was pregnant with my son Jacob, and I needed to continue working to qualify for maternity leave. While my husband and I knew that our daughter was safe and engaged at the Montessori school it was very stressful for us, because she wasn’t happy. When she got a spot at another school that was a better fit for her, it was a tremendous relief.

This is just one example of how difficult it can be to find good childcare. I’ve had other experiences, and virtually every other parent I’ve ever met has stories to share, too. It’s emotionally gruelling when your need to work conflicts with your child’s need for quality care. It’s even harder for lower-income parents, parents of special needs children and single parents. That’s what makes public school so great. The staff are highly-qualified, the program is educational, and your kids are guaranteed a free spot. It may not meet all of your childcare needs, but it meets a lot of them, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

At its root, I think the conflict comes down to the question of whether or not we believe society should be involved in childcare. It’s clear to me that we don’t believe this, speaking in broad terms. In most of Canada the daycare system is privately-run – we leave it to parents and businesses to sort it out. Some people still believe that mothers shouldn’t work, especially while their children are small. Culturally, we value self-reliance, encouraging parents to raise their own children.

Not every country holds this view, however. In Denmark, for instance, all young children have the option of enrolling in a childcare centre, and parents must not be charged more than 25-28% of the cost of the child’s care. And why do other countries provide affordable, universal childcare and early education? Because it frees parents to work and pursue outside interests, which benefits their families. Systems with more oversight tend to provide a higher level of care from more qualified staff. And children who may not otherwise have access to educational opportunities can learn. Society benefits from more educated citizens who come from more economically secure homes.

It’s true that the primary aim of school is educational. However, it serves many other purposes, some very intentional (think hot breakfast programs in inner cities) and some not so much (think making sure your child is exposed to the Rainbow Loom craze). I am inclined to think that that some of those maybe-not-so-intentional benefits of school are still very valuable, including childcare. Not every parent will take advantage of it – I know many homeschooling families who are very happy with their choice. I don’t think those of us who do rely on school for child-free time need to be embarrassed about that, though. We’re benefiting as parents, but our kids, our employers and our society are benefiting, too. These are all good things.

If you are relying on school for childcare, though, there is one thing you need to do. Keep on top of those professional development days so they don’t sneak up on you. They have a way of popping up when you least expect it, as the other moms on the playground can tell you.

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    1. My bottom line is and always will be, school is not your daycare. In my family there is a lot of public school teachers and I’ve been privy to many tales about parents who end up using the school setting as childcare. For example, sending children to school sick is a real issue when it comes to adults working and not having childcare for your sick kid. I get it but I still stick to my bottom line. School is not daycare no matter how you slice it.
      Sure it is convenient for us to send our children off and have someone else be responsible for them, but it is part of parenting to figure out how to take care of them when schools are closed or children are sick. Teachers are not glorified babysitters.
      Andrea @MamaintheCity’s last post … Yep, I’m Nursing A ToddlerMy Profile

      • I agree that teachers are not glorified babysitters. I also agree that it’s inappropriate to send your children to school when they’re sick (although as a parent I also know it’s not always clear when they need to stay home, and I’ve had experiences both where I had to pick up a kid who ended up being too sick and regretting keeping a kid who wasn’t really sick at home). I definitely also agree that it’s my responsibility to be aware of non-instructional days and make sure I’m covered.

        Still, I think that as a society we need to do a better job of recognizing how everyone benefits from childcare. We also need to recognize how education and childcare combine – when I chose daycare for my preschool-aged kids I chose a centre with a strong early childhood curriculum because I wasn’t looking for a glorified babysitter at that point, either. There is definite overlap between childcare and education, and by recognizing it I think we can do a better job of actually distinguishing the different roles of teachers and support staff.

        I think if we did a better job of acknowledging the childcare / school connection, and established how that actually should and shouldn’t work, it would benefit teachers. They would be less likely to be taken advantage of, because we would have a better framework in place to support both school staff and parents. I’m not advocating that as parents we just dump our kids on schools thoughtlessly. If that’s what’s happening now we need to fix the system, rather than just shaking our fingers at parents.

      • Sending children to childcare sick is a real issue, too. Both times my son had pinkeye, it was because a child in his class came to childcare with pinkeye AND was not picked up promptly after the staff identified it and called the parents asking them to take the child for immediate treatment–so the staff had another 6 hours of trying to stop an infected two-year-old from rubbing her eyes and touching other kids.

        My point is that sending sick children into a group setting is not a behavior that indicates whether parents are considering the setting “childcare” or something else. Yes, it is a problem for parents to cancel work or scramble to find someone else to care for a child who’s sick, but it is an important public health concern.
        ‘Becca’s last post … Why we didn’t have a Gender Reveal PartyMy Profile

    2. My daughters are in the midst of an 11 day Spring Break. Thankfully I manged to quit one job and made arrangements to not start the new one until they were back in school. Regardless of my employment, I was planning on being home with them this holiday break.
      I admit that it’s very easy to use the school as childcare at times. For me, when the weather is too bad for the buses to run and there are hardly children in the school I send my kid anyways. Partly it’s because I work outside of the home now. But mostly it’s because for one or two days, my children have the almost undivided attention from their teachers. No new materials are learned on these snow days, however there is a ton of review that is done and I know that my kids love having these empty school days to themselves. There were a couple of days this past winter that were so bad on the roads that I didn’t go to work and they still opted to go to school.

      Being a working mom isn’t easy – but I never expected it would be. I am thankful that we live in a community where there are day programs at our local library (4 days this week the girls have had a few hours each day at the library) and various local churches. It takes some planning on my part but my kids get to do a whole lot of really cool things.

      This summer I will have activities and day camps for them to do for July and then in August my MIL is coming to stay with us and take care of the girls for me. We are all super excited. A whole month with their Grandy is a treat.

      • This is the upside of living close to the school, isn’t it? That it’s easy to get there in any weather. It sounds like your kids are enjoying – and benefiting from – the extra time in school. I don’t think there’s anything at all wrong with that.

        Enjoy what’s left of Spring Break!

    3. Great article. I think it is only daycare as in when they are in school I can do stuff and they are responsible for the lives of my kids while I am not there. I feel bad that the burden of public school has had to go so far beyond enrichment and education into the realms of physical and mental health picking up the slack for that those does not occur at home.

      • It’s definitely true that teachers aren’t parents, and shouldn’t be expected to solve all of society’s ills. They do provide childcare to some extent, but that doesn’t mean that they are responsible for the health and well-being of my kids in the same way that I am. If kids need more support than they’re getting we need other ways to meet those needs than just expecting teachers (and schools) to pick up the slack, for sure.

    4. I don’t really understand the ‘glorified babysitter’ comment. I think EVERYONE who looks after kids deserves more credit than they typically get, and I don’t think very sick children should be sent to daycare OR school (although hell yeah, Amber, I’ve been wrong on both ends of that one several times). I remember being at book club once and one member was writing an article about five-dollar-a-day Quebec daycare and another (childless) member saying with disgust “yes, but then mother who don’t even WORK send their kids”, and the woman writing the article said, in a confused kind of way, “yeah…. you think that’s a bad thing?” Some people always will.
      allison’s last post … Meme Monday on the Margins Mash-UpMy Profile

      • I was thinking of that after the fact – I wouldn’t send my kids to daycare when they’re sick, either. But I think the point is that some parents do abuse the system, and that’s wrong. It doesn’t follow that it’s wrong to rely on school for childcare within appropriate limits, though. And it also doesn’t follow that I should have to justify my use of childcare based on whether or not I work, or where I work, or how much I work.

    5. Sharon Gregson
      Twitter:
      says:

      Amber you said it so well…. “The staff are highly-qualified, the program is educational, and your kids are guaranteed a free spot.” I would add those are exactly the same qualities that younger children deserve in a quality child care setting – the same way we have that standard for a school setting.

    6. Sharon Gregson
      Twitter:
      says:

      and of course we need the$10/day Child Care Plan for BC – check out … http://www.cccabc.bc.ca/plan

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