Providing onsite childcare is the right thing

Why should Swarthmore College have onsite child care? I’ve been asked to write an op-ed piece on this. And I’m going to make it personal, a value-based argument rather than an interest-based argument. These are my views and experiences. They are not an analysis of the situation in any academic sense.

I’ve done many things in my life. I have three “careers” presently: linguist — which means researching and publishing my findings as well as teaching in those areas I publish in; writer — which is not a hobby, since I write for myself and strangers; and activist — which means assessing needs, publishing articles with a team, running conferences. I’m busy and I gain satisfaction from the work I do. But none of the things I’ve done or am doing now are as important as the job I had as mother. That was critical. In all my other jobs, someone else could take over and maybe that person would be younger, cheaper and better — speaking from the perspective of an employer.  But a parent is special.  A parent is hard to replace.

A child is not a parent’s product except, usually, in a biological sense. Parents cannot take the credit or the blame for their children’s accomplishments or failures. I firmly believe this. We can admire our children or we can grieve for them. But we cannot strut or bow our heads in shame over what they do. Children are their own people, with their own rights and responsibilities.

Nevertheless, a child depends on adults to open up possibilities and to offer guidance through the maze. Without those possibilities, the child’s world is likely to be inhibited. The child might be unable to recognize doors and envision how to go through them. And without guidance, a child is less likely to find a satisfying, productive path — less likely to become the kind of person who can contribute to a better world. If we fail to do these things to the extent that we are able, if we do not live up to our charge as parents — shame, shame on us.

But the same is true of society in general. Parents can’t be left on their own either. We all have different capabilities and resources. Leaving it up to parents alone is an injustice — a mark of only the most barbaric of societies. It took our country hundreds of years to come to this conclusion, but it did, finally, and through the late 1800s and the early 1900s, publicly-funded education became obligatory in state after state; elementary education was obligatory in all states by 1918. That date matters to me. My mother was born in 1918 — my mother got an education. She didn’t finish high school — that wasn’t and still isn’t required — but she learned to read, and reading was a source of delight in her last years of life, especially. I’m so happy for her that she had that.

Ideas about childhood have changed with growing information. In some places people used to think of children as small people, not that much different from adults. My father’s father was placed on a cargo ship as a stowaway, all by himself, to travel from Italy to the United States to find his fortune. He was five years old. These days, no mother in her right mind would think of sending off a five-year old to cope for himself — at least not in ordinary circumstances. Perhaps my great-grandmother was not in her right mind, I don’t know. Undoubtedly she was in extraordinary circumstances, being an unwed mother in a time and place where starvation threatened. In any case, I’ve read a lot about immigration from Italy into the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and I know that parents often took their sons with them to America, to help get settled, and left behind their oldest daughter to take care of the smaller children until they had enough money to send for them. I read about one of those oldest daughters, taking care of four younger siblings — she was eight. It happened. And extreme things happen in extraordinary circumstances even today.

Still, I think our knowledge has changed, and most of us would agree today that children are not just small in stature: they are not tiny adults. They are different. Their brains are different. For example, if you take a cross-eyed child and do a surgery that corrects that before the age of two, the child is likely to have stereoscopic vision. If you do that surgery after the age of two, the chances of stereoscopic vision are minimal. If you take a deaf child who is not managing to access spoken language through a hearing aid or a cochlear implant or through exceptionally good speech-reading so that they are alinguistic, and you introduce them to a sign language before the age of around four or five, the chances of them developing complete fluency in that sign language are great — with all the cognitive attributes that go along with a solid first language foundation. Including the ability to do mathematics, to read, to organize memories chronologically, and other things. If, instead, you wait until later to introduce them to a sign language, the chances of them developing fluency in any language are much reduced — with all the detriments to cognitive abilities that follow from that. Human brains absorb all sorts of information readily in the early months and years of life; they continue to absorb information as they age, but the sorts of information that can be comprehended are more restricted as we age. So early childhood is a sensitive time  — a critical time — for development.

Public schooling in this country is obligatory as of age six, although people can petition to do homeschooling. But six is far too old. If we want to open up possibilities and offer guidance to all children, then we need, as a society, to take on that responsibility from the very first months of life on. Our present situation of leaving this up entirely to the parents is wrong — patently unfair — and we all know it. Parents have different resources, intellectually, economically, emotionally. We should be contributing to the care of the children of our society — they are ours, this is our responsibility — whether they came from our loins or not.

Why should Swarthmore have onsite child care? Because children need care opportunities and guidance. And if we are going to try to be a community here at Swarthmore, we should aim for the best community we can be. We should be ensuring the care of our children. We should be augmenting whatever the parents among us are doing with the very best that an institutional setting, such as a daycare center, can offer.

I visited Brazil earlier this month. I took a bus with a man and his four-year old son to the university where the man is a graduate student. I walked with them to the daycare center where his son goes, on the university campus and I asked him how much it cost. He looked at me as though I was crazy. It is free. All students and employees of the university can bring their children there for free. He told me all universities, no matter how small, offer this — and some are small, smaller than Swarthmore. He told me that the day care centers are considered an integral part of the university. Education classes, psychology classes, sociology classes, linguistics classes, all kinds of classes visit the center, work with the children and study the children. Everyone benefits.

Swarthmore should have onsite child care because we should strive to be decent. And, by the way, it would be a benefit to the parents in our community and to so many of our classes; the interests that would be served by a child care center are multiple and important, and easily enumerated: nursing mothers, commuting parents, children and/or parents in emergency situations, among others would all benefit from onsite child care. Students and faculty studying child development would benefit. Employees who feel well-treated tend to have strong institutional loyalty — an important overall benefit to the college. The list goes on and on, and has been outlined before by many, including me.

But now and then it’s important to consider values, too: we should have onsite child care because it’s the right thing to do. Hey, we’re Swarthmore. We can believe in ideals and strive for them, and if anybody can achieve them, we can.

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