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Redefining Child Care in 2021 and Beyond

In today’s post, SmartSitting Co-owner and Director of Operations Suzie Zeldin discusses the state of child care in our country today and her thoughts on how we can begin to think differently about this essential profession — in a pandemic and beyond.

SmartSitting Director of Operations Suzie Zeldin redefines childcare

We need to redefine child care

As we come up on a full year from when the COVID-19 global pandemic started, I find myself thinking about child care. (I often do, being a mom of two kids and running a nanny agency and child care staffing firm). After making it through the past year, we should all be able to agree how essential it is to have reliable, thoughtful, and engaged child care. Guardians everywhere have seen first-hand how child-care providers help build the foundation of our future by raising emotionally intelligent and empathetic children— children who will become the adults we trust to navigate ethical dilemmas, choose people over profit, and demand equality and justice while fighting against racism, indifference, and complacency.

While we should always recognize the substantial role that teachers, nannies, babysitters, and others play in our families’ lives, it’s only when we shine a spotlight on them that people pay attention, before the next headline steals our attention away. The fact that we even need a spotlight highlights the bigger issue: we need a permanent cultural shift in how child care is viewed, defined, and institutionally supported. We have been indoctrinated into a belief system that undervalues child care. As we near the light at the end of this pandemic tunnel, it’s my hope that we stop relying on an intermittent spotlight and turn the lights on once and for all. We must continue to honor and appreciate those who feel called to help raise and care for children by transforming outdated and inaccurate perceptions of child care. We need to redefine child care. 

“I just need a warm body”

In-home child care is too often viewed as an unskilled, unprofessional, and “easy job.” School-aged kids are introduced to it during their childhood when they babysit for neighbors or their own family members. The idea that child care should be cheap or free is introduced early in all our lives, and not much is done to change it. Later on, parents (most often, moms) leave the workforce to take care of their children “for free”. As a result, responsibilities are diminished and child care is extremely undervalued. I can’t tell you how much the phrase “I just need a warm body” drives me crazy.  When I have the opportunity to unravel that little phrase, it sounds more like what you really need is a warm body who is also trustworthy, reliable, a great decision maker, sharp in an emergency situation, skilled at navigating conflict, empathetic, caring, supportive, kind, and won’t mess your children up so badly as to send them through many years of therapy as adults. 

How do we actually view childcare?

I know that redefining child care is going to be an uphill battle. Every day, I talk to people who have no problem justifying the money they spend on takeout every week but can’t seem to wrap their heads around the added cost of setting up a payroll and paying their nanny regularly, reliably, and legally. (Spoiler alert: it’s about the same as a few nights of takeout.) It’s almost never about the actual cost. Rather, it’s almost always about what it “should” cost, what a friend pays their nanny, or what some internet aggregator says the “average cost” of a nanny is in their area. Maybe even worse, I see child-care jobs offered at less than minimum wage with no pay when you’re sick or when the family doesn’t need you, unlimited flexibility required, tons of additional household responsibilities, and no contract. Ask yourself, if the job you have now told you that you need to work 60 hours next week and then shouldn’t come in for a few weeks next month and also, that they would be docking your pay and not paying you overtime, what would you do?

So, if you’re offering a child care job with terms that you would never accept, I want you to ask yourself why you’re doing that. Really. It’s not a rhetorical question. I’d like to invite you to examine how you value private in-home child care. What narratives are at play in your mind? What have you grown up believing about child-care work? Have you only ever seen women do it? Has it typically been done by mothers who are not paid for the time they invest in their families? Does that mean it isn’t a real job or even a career? Let’s talk about this. What do you have to overcome, personally, to value child care appropriately, and to acknowledge the immense impact that engaged, empathetic, and attentive caregivers have on our future?

As far as I see it, we need three major things:

  1. We need to acknowledge the expertise and training that experienced, skilled child-care providers bring into our homes and the incredible contribution they make in raising our children—to do that, we must rid ourselves of the mistaken notion that it’s easy, that anyone can do it, and that it’s cheap or free.
  2. We need to require professionalism in the child-care field, especially in private homes where the lines between personal space and professional responsibilities often get blurry. That means legal employment, appropriate compensation, and at the very least, fair working conditions and expectations.
  3. We need institutional support. If we pay child-care providers what they are actually worth, child care will not be accessible to everyone. That is a real, very different problem, and one that also needs to be tackled on a policy level. Before we get there though, we first have to reject the values that allow us to undervalue this entire industry and workforce.  

Can we view childcare differently?

I’m generally not in the business of pointing fingers or assigning blame. I place no judgments on the people I encounter, because I know that they aren’t thinking about all the issues at play. They have been looking through a particular lens for a long time, and seeing things differently is a big shift. When I talk to someone now, I just want them to see through a different lens for a few minutes and build some empathy for the incredible, important, underrated, and exceptionally talented humans who choose child care, despite the uphill battle. Just for a little while, I’d like them to look at child care as if it were any other job in any other field and make their decisions about it from that perspective.

What do you think about the status of child care? What can we do to improve it? We’d love to carry on this conversation with you on our Instagram or Facebook pages. For more helpful information and updates from the SmartSitting team — don’t forget to sign up for our Newsletter.

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