It seems like I really waded into some trouble in this post regarding the Roots of Empathy. I compared daycare centres to institutions, and several in the comments took exception to that.

I’ve been mulling over whether it’s worth writing a long post on my reasonings behind what I think of daycare, and I was rather hesitant initially, because I know it’s a sore spot for so many. In the church we do tend to judge each other by our choices with regards to childcare, and I don’t want to perpetuate that.

But at the same time, if there’s anything that I really stand for, it’s this. So I’d be a coward not to address it. I know there are some who will be offended by what I say, but please understand that I do this after a lot of prayer and a lot of thought, and I don’t do it lightly.

So let’s start with first principles, and then we’ll move steadily outwards looking at childcare choices, discerning God’s will for our lives, and more.

1. Children Learn Through Attachment.

A child’s brain before the age of 3 is very different from a child’s brain at age 8. When children are young, they primarily learn best when they feel very attached to a specific caregiver, or perhaps to a few close caregivers.

They need to feel secure and attached before they are really able to explore the world and their place in it. When children don’t feel secure or attached, their ability to learn well is hindered. They may learn academically, but their social skills are hurt because their feelings aren’t as acknowledged or affirmed. Therefore, any childcare arrangement must be one in which a child is able to attach to a safe caregiver.

2. Children Need to be Kept Safe.

A parent’s primary responsibility is the safety of their children. What is most likely to harm children? Other children. Little supervision. Unfamiliar surroundings so that they feel scared and act inappropriately. And above all, diseases.

Here’s an excerpt from a column I wrote on the subject five years ago:

Day care certainly is a germ factory, since at any one time 16% of day care children will be ill, and 82% will attend anyway. Both the Canadian and the American Pediatric Associations say that day care centres are responsible for the epidemic of ear infections. Day care children are also three to four times more likely to be hospitalized than other children, and at least 50% more likely to die overall.

But physical illness is not the only problem. A 1998 study published in the Child Development journal found that the levels of cortisol—the stress hormone—of children in day care centres are opposite to everybody else. Most people start their mornings with high levels which peter off as the day wears on. Day care kids’ levels peak in the middle of the afternoon. The more these kids are in day care, too, the more likely they are to insecurely attach to their mothers and to exhibit behaviour problems in school.

If a child’s safety and health are most important, we must consider these factors when deciding what to do.

3. We Have a Moral Obligation to our Children.

Our children do not have an obligation to fit into our schedule; we have a moral obligation to raise them the best way that we can. For some that will mean daycare, because single parents often don’t have a choice. Especially if you have to accept subsidized care, you often have little choice except the big daycare centres.

But many who say they “don’t have a choice” really do. I don’t mean to be harsh, but we can all make decisions to spend less money. You can move to a smaller community where housing costs are not as great. You can choose not to have a second car, even if it means you drive your husband to work everyday (I did this for years). You can choose to live in an apartment rather than a house (did this one, too).

Our children did not choose to be born. We chose to have them (even if they were accidents)! Therefore, we have an obligation to give them the best, safest life there is.

4. The Daytime Caregiver Should be Someone With Whom the Child will have a Steady, Ongoing, Loving Relationship.

Here’s one where I may differ from many Christian sisters. I don’t necessarily believe that it must be the mother who stays home with the children. I just think that it must be someone who is very close to the child. One of the other pediatricians in my husband’s group of doctors works while her husband stays home full-time with their two toddlers. She has greater earning potential, so he’s home. And he does a great job with the kids–taking them to the Y, taking them to the park, reading to them, etc.

One of the happiest periods of my life when the children were very small (1 & 3) was the time when I worked half-time and my husband worked half-time. We were both earning equivalent amounts of money, and so it didn’t make a difference who worked. For six months we split it, and it was so much fun! I got the intellectual stimulation of working two and a half days a week, but I also got to be with the kids. But so did Keith! And he grew a lot closer to the girls during those months, which has had a big impact on his relationship with them, even to this day.

I also think grandparents can be wonderful caregivers. I have several friends who have used grandmothers–in one case, even both grandmothers–to care for their kids while they worked. I wouldn’t necessarily consider this ideal, but it’s pretty close to it! I can tell you that I’m going to be a wonderful grandmother, and a grandmother is in the child’s life, is concerned about the child’s feelings, and can really give excellent care. So can aunts, for that matter.

But what if you don’t have family? Are you then stuck? It is harder, no question about it. I didn’t have grandmothers who were in a position to look after my children, and I don’t have sisters, either. But a close friend from church could also fill that role, especially for single parents who don’t really have a choice.

5. Institutional Care is Not Fun and, I would argue, not fair.

We live quite near the largest daycare centre in my small town. It’s also one of the most expensive, and the one that those with government subsidies use. In other words, this is the “cream of the crop” of daycare centres near here.

And this sort of thing is what I see everyday:

Imagine two women, probably aged 19-20, pushing two strollers with 5-6 children each. In each stroller, at least one child is crying. The two caregivers, though, are chatting with each other at the Stop sign, oblivious to the children’s wails. There’s really nothing they can do, anyway.

My children didn’t always nap at the same time everyday. They didn’t always eat at the same time everyday. They wanted to explore the world, and some days we did certain things, and other days we did certain things. When they were in the process of losing their afternoon or morning naptimes, some days they would nap, and some days they wouldn’t, and that was okay (though a little aggravating for me!)

In an institutional daycare centre, there is no room for individuality. All the children nap at the same time, in cribs lined up, one after each other. They eat at the same time. They often have to sit in a stroller, or in a seat, or in a high chair, waiting for the caregiver as she gets everybody strapped in before she serves lunch.

The daycare centres may look pretty, with painted walls and lots of toys, but it doesn’t stop the fact that it is an institution. Children must conform to the schedule or everything is chaos.

Do you remember when your baby was 10 or 11 months old, and how challenging that child was? Imagine having 4-5 of the same age, and you’re the only one caring for them. Could you do it well? Likely not. The children may have more toys at daycare, but there is a reason why we don’t tend to have four babies at a time. It’s hard to look after four kids of the same age all at the same time. Kids are very demanding at that age. They need you to rock them, and talk to them, and look out for them. Could you do it well if you had four?

I know moms who look after 6 kids under 6 at the same time. It is tiring. But it is not the same thing, because the children are not all the same age. It is much easier to care for a sibling group of various ages than it is to care for four children of the same age.

One of the joys of childhood is being able to explore, relax, and learn about the world. They don’t do that in the same way when everything, by necessity, has to be regimented.

Don’t blame the caregivers, though. Daycare is one of the most challenging jobs, and thus has one of the highest turnover rates. That’s why kids rarely have consistent caregivers at a daycare centre. I have had wonderful friends who worked at a daycare centre who recently quit. Both in their forties, they raised four beautiful children each. They are great moms. But they weren’t great daycare workers because, they said, it’s an impossible job. You cannot provide that many kids with the kind of love and attention a parent can. And the kids bit them and the other children. They hit. They cried for their mothers, even after months of being in the centre. Not every child cried, but enough did that it made my friends really sad. They felt like they were enabling something that was dysfunctional, and so they quit to do something different. Their conclusion? “You just can’t replace a mom.”

6. Your primary responsibility is to your family.

I remember reading Floyd McClung’s book Living on the Devil’s Doorstep: From Kabul to Amsterdam when I was just 19. He was the founder of YWAM, and took his family to live in the red light district in Amsterdam. He was busy with his ministry. Then he began flying all over the place raising money and awareness.

And one day, after being away from his family for an extended period of time, he felt God telling him something. And this was the message:

I have given the world to the church to save. But to you individually I have given your family. You serve your family first, and then the world.

That stuck with me, even before I was married, and I have often come back to that thought when I’m trying to make decisions about my life. This is a fallen world that desperately needs help. But God has given that world to the church, not to you individually. To you individually He has given your family. And thus your family is your primary responsibility. You don’t leave them for something substandard so that you can fulfill a role that is the church’s. We must all have a place in the Great Commission, but it comes after our role in caring for our families.

I don’t believe this applies only to moms considering daycare. I think it applies to men, like Floyd, who are also balancing ministry. I do not believe God calls us to sacrifice our children for ministry.

In fact, I would argue that 1 Corinthians 7 supports that.

I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs, how he can please the Lord, but a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world, how he can please his wife, and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs. Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit, but a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world, how she can please her husband. (verses 32-34)

In the context that Paul is speaking, he is giving advice about marriage. And he is telling people it is better not to marry because then you can be fully devoted to the Lord. Once you’re married, you can’t.

Think about this for a minute. If Paul thought that you should always be fully 100% for missions outreach, whether you were married or not, he would have said something like, “Do not let your feelings for your husband or your children distract you from ministry.” But instead he acknowledges that a married person will be concerned about his or her family. It’s natural. It’s the way it should be. Hence, if you want to be fully devoted to ministry, you should not marry. Otherwise there are always other considerations. You have to worry about your own safety, because others are counting on you. You have to worry about finances, and a house, because others rely on you. You have to worry about their safety. So you can’t be as devoted to the work of the Lord. Hence, Paul says, if it is possible, don’t marry.

Thus, I think another principle, when it comes to insitutional daycare, is that God would not call a family to choose this for their children in order to advance His kingdom in another way. Perhaps there may be exceptions, but I think those exceptions would be few. When you are a mom, your primary responsibility, within the will of God, is to your kids. I do not believe that God would call you outside of that.

And remember–your children are only young for a time! I’m now 40, and my kids are both teenagers. I’m in a position to do much more ministry than I was at 26, and quite frankly, I’m better at it now than I would have been then. I also still have 25 years before traditional retirement (which I don’t even really believe in, anyway). And even when the kids were little, I was still involved in ministry. I just did it in a way that allowed me to be home with them!

So where does all of this leave us? I would say these conclusions:

1. When you have pre-school aged children, who are still at a very vulnerable place in their development, your primary responsibility is to ensure that they have a safe, caring place with a caregiver that they can attach to.

2. That caring place should not be an institutionalized daycare centre, with numerous children and a turnover of caregivers. If you must use daycare for financial reasons, then choose one run in a home by a Christian friend whom you trust. And take all the precautions to ensure that it is a safe home. Don’t assume anything.

3. Don’t put your child in daycare just based on standard of living. If you need daycare to afford a house, choose an apartment. Give up the second car. Move to a cheaper city. Put off your education if you need to, or take it part time or online. You can never get these years back, and your child needs you.

Those are the conclusions I’ve come to. I do not write all this to criticize those who make other choices; it is just that I feel strongly that institutionalized settings harm children, and to not speak up because I fear hurting people’s feelings seems cowardly.

Here in Canada, the Liberal party keeps pulling out the “universal child care” option as a platform in their elections, claiming that they speak for children by wanting to increase the number of day care centres. They do not speak for children. They speak for a worldview, an ideology that they want to promote, that is essentially “anti-family values”. If they cared about kids, they would instead support tax breaks for families so it would be easier for one parent to stay at home.

Often day care is sold as being “for the kids”, a fun place where they can be stimulated and made “kindergarten-ready”. It isn’t for the kids. And as Christians, we need to stand up and support policies that would make it easier for parents to stay home, make it more likely that marriages stay together, and less likely that single parents would be forced into this in the first place. Instead of government doing anything, let’s demand a smaller government that lets us do the things that are important.

I hope that clears up my views. I also don’t want the comments to become a “fighting arena”, where we label people as bad or unChristian. I think it’s fine to express an opinion, but please acknowledge that others have the right to theirs. I’ve now expressed mine; if you disagree, feel free to explain why, and I will not assume bad motives on your part. I just ask that others who want to comment do the same thing: don’t assume bad motives on anyone’s part, and don’t malign anybody’s faith (or lack of faith!). Let’s just talk about this like friends!

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