Caring for Kids Isn't Child's Play
A formerly avaricious college freshman finds that day care workers are smarter than she thought
During my freshman year of college, I learned many things: which clubs hosted the hottest parties, which stores sold the most stylish outfits, and which restaurants lived up to their Zagat ratings. Unfortunately, all of that learning was expensive (and the effects weren’t limited to my transcript). By finals week, my wallet was empty.
When I returned home to Long Island, I couldn’t find a paying summer job, because I had no skills. Even though I promised myself I wouldn’t do it, I had no choice: I asked my mom for a job.
My mom has worked at an adult day care center for Alzheimer’s patients for 15 years. With a résume consisting entirely of babysitting experience, I was offered a summer job at her company’s other division, in children’s day care. Since I babysat for seven years, working in a day care seemed like a natural fit. And at $10.50 per hour, the pay was good.
On my first day, I walked in ready to prove that I was an expert with children, and to squash any scent of nepotism. Most of the other workers had just high school degrees, so I naturally assumed I was smarter. I also figured they were all miserable—who chooses to wipe butts for a living?
My confidence lasted for about five minutes. I had to ask for help changing my first diaper (state regulations require two pairs of gloves). At snack-time, I jumped at filling cups and bottles, thinking I couldn’t possibly mess that up. But I did. Whole milk, 2%, skim, soy, organic, formula—who knew there were so many options?
If my first day was bad, the next month was terrible. I messed up, a lot. A toddler bit me when I was putting on his shoes. I put a baby down before he supported himself, causing him to bite his tongue and bleed profusely. I forgot to snap Onesies after changing diapers. I sat a child with a milk allergy next to a boy drinking milk, making him break out in hives. After a month, I wanted to quit.
But one day, during a surprisingly calm moment in the nursery, I was holding a girl’s hands while she walked. When I let go, she kept walking. She was taking her first steps.
At that moment, my feelings about the job changed. I forgot about my need for money, and started thinking of the children’s needs. I stopped assuming I knew everything (since I clearly didn’t), and I began to listen to my coworkers.
It turned out that they varied quite a bit: they ranged in age from teenaged to 60, were both women and men, and college educated and not. But they all seemed to love children, and their jobs.
Every day they’d come to work with a smile, ready to teach, protect, and nurture other people’s children as their own. I saw that they were rewarded with little pay, and even less respect. The 236,110 child care workers in America earn an average salary of $17,650 per year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Child care workers get paid about as much to nurture children as McDonald’s employees get to flip hamburgers.
The low pay and education requirements rob them of respect. We assume they’re settling for an easy job. But they aren’t.
It’s not a glamorous job, of course, unless you consider spit-up, throw-up, and poop stains attractive. But taking care of children requires more than a high gross tolerance. Child care workers must be patient, intelligent, and endless suppliers of love. Although they do sing silly songs and play pretend, they also rock teething infants for hours, react swiftly when a toddler is choking, and comfort a child whose parent is late again.
My only reason for working at the day care center was to replenish my bank account. But my coworkers taught me that nothing should be measured only in dollar signs. Many crucial jobs, including child care, do not pay well, but are no less important or difficult.
A job’s value is in the impact it has on others. Child care workers aren’t “watching” children, but shaping them into the adults they’ll grow up to be.