Monday, October 8, 2012

The Daycare Dilemma

I had a woman ask me if I felt there was a difference between kids who stay home until they are old enough for preschool or kindergarten and kids who are in daycare from infancy or toddlerhood. It was a friendly and sincere discussion, not at all judgmental, and she confided that she likes to ask other mothers' opinions because, in a way, she wants to justify to herself her decision to keep her kids home with her until they're three.

My oldest, NJ, has been in some form of daycare or school since he was four months old. My other two have never been in any kind of daycare or school, except for the four weeks SB spent in a preschool summer program in this past July. I hire the occasional baby-sitter or mother's helper, but, for the most part, SB and GI spend their lives, morning, noon, evening, and nights, with me.

I can't speak much for GI yet, because he's just 13 months. But I can talk about the older two. NJ and SB are very different people. They play well together and love each other and each has traits from both parents, but their personalities are really quite different. NJ is more like his dad, while SB seems to be taking after me. Both are bright, verbal, funny, and enthusiastic. Both love to learn, are curious, like to experiment and figure things out, and like playing with friends. Both are cuddly and affectionate. NJ is less self-driven, more dependent, and likes to be in control. He talks a lot and is fidgety. He asks a lot of questions and insists on being right. He jockeys for attention, likes to be in charge, but also strikes me as a little bit insecure. SB is more independent, more likely to go off and find something to do. He's confident but not bossy. He has trouble sharing (but what 3-1/2-year-old doesn't?). He tells stories and speculates aloud about things. He has more self-control and is less talkative than NJ, unless he's competing with NJ for attention. He has fewer playmates but craves their contact ("Can we go to S's house? Can I play with Y?").

How much of these differences are simply their personalities, what G-d gave them and what they inherited from us, and how much are due to their school/daycare experiences?

I don't know.

I think NJ would be more secure in himself and be able to play more independently if he had been at home with me and had had to entertain himself more. I think SB would know a lot more and have had more stimulation and be less bored if he were in preschool. On the whole, though, I'm not sure that it made a huge difference in their development.

I think the difference lies in me. I think I am different as a parent.

When NJ was a baby and toddler, he was out of the house for a good chunk of my day. I had the house to myself and could get work done and run errands easily by myself. I didn't have to deal with a fussy baby or a whiny toddler most of the day. But, when he was home with me, on a day off from daycare or when he was sick, instead of knowing how to enjoy him and spend time with him, I resented his interference in my daily routine. I didn't know how to balance work and baby, and it was hard for me to let go of the need to produce in my day job.

By contrast, SB was with me all the time. I had to learn to balance work and baby, because I had no choice. It wasn't easy, and I found myself in the same cycle of resentment, where the baby would be fussy and clingy and needy right when I had tons of work to get done. NJ was still at daycare, so I only had one child to deal with, but it was definitely an adjustment. Slowly but surely, I got better at letting go, working at odd times, and simply spending time with my baby.

The result is, I think, that I know SB and GI better than I know NJ. I understand them, I understand their needs and how to handle them. And they have the stable foundation of always having Mommy to run back to.

So, do I think there's a difference between "daycare kids" and "stay-at-home" kids? Yes. But I don't think one is "bad" and the other "good." I don't think there's a "right" choice and a "wrong" choice.

I think it's very healthy for kids to be home with a parent when they are young. They learn that they can depend on you, they learn your values, they learn how you spend your day. They learn important life skills.

I also think it's healthy for kids to be in a setting where they have contact with peers. A child isolated at home with a parent will be bored, will not learn to play nicely with others, and will crave stimulation that he's not getting. It's important to take advantage of a young child's desire to learn and ability to absorb information and establish a foundation of knowledge for when they do eventually start school. I think a parent who is overwhelmed by being with her kids all the time will not parent effectively, will be burned out and jaded, and might not give her child everything he needs.

There are extremes, of course, of parents who never see their kids or kids who only ever see their parents. Neither is of these situations is healthy. A balance is important. If a child is home all day, then it is the parents' responsibility to find some kind of group situation, such as a playgroup, class, or part-time preschool or daycare program, or to set up playdates with the child's friends. If a child is typically in a daycare or preschool situation all day, then it is the parents' responsibility to spend as much time as possible with them in the mornings and evenings and on the weekends and holidays so that the child learns he can depend on his parents and so that the parents understand their child.

Now that SB is approaching four years old, though, I can see his need for more stimulation that I can give him. He craves knowledge, and I can't teach him everything he needs and wants to know. And now that NJ is approaching six (his birthday is in two weeks!) and is in school all day, I can see that he needs me more, for grounding, stability, and discipline. I can't meet SB's needs all by myself any more, but I can - and must - be there more for NJ.

Looking forward to when GI is three or so, I can see that he, too, will need more than just Mommy all the time, but I can also see that, right now, Mommy is his greatest need. I hope that as he grows, I will be able to find that balance with him and that NJ and SB can benefit from it as well.

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