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Daycare skeptics
Not everyone wants institutional child care. Maybe
advocates should be making their pitch to
middle-class Canadians instead of governments

SEAN FINE
The Globe and Mail
Friday, October 22, 1999

Toronto -- Daycare is not an easy sell in middle-class urban Canada.

John Hykel and Vivian Cheung work 90 hours or more a week between them and have two children under 4. So what type of care did the Toronto couple choose for their son and daughter?

Not formal, licensed care provided by specialists in early childhood education. They chose unregulated, uninspected care in a neighbourhood home.

"I just felt more comfortable having a smaller, more intimate group that they wouldn't get lost in," said Mr. Hykel, a 37-year-old retail manager. "I wanted it to feel like a family."

The couple's views, echoed by neighbours in their Danforth community, suggest why institutional daycare has made little headway in Canada -- and why a new system of subsidized child care for all is unlikely to get off the ground any time soon.

Daycare attracts broad approval in polls, and nearly everyone seems to think that it is great for the children of poor families. But much of the support among the middle class is soft when it comes to their own children. Scratch the surface and there is a vein of skepticism and misgivings.

"Is it like Communist China with Mao," Mr. Hykel asked, "where the kids are all in daycare so their moms can work, and they're learning the same stuff and doing the same things?"

Just how deep this aversion runs is open to debate. Some researchers say opposition to institutional care would fall away if the price drops.

If there were a low-cost daycare centre in every public school, parents would feel sure it was of high quality and safe, University of Toronto economist Gordon Cleveland said. "Then people would go for it overwhelmingly." He cited the experience of $5-a-day care in Quebec and the écoles maternelles in France, where virtually all children 3 and older are enrolled.

But that is the policy standstill. Institutional care will not be on every corner until people demand it. And people will not demand it until it is so easily available that they have tried it for themselves.

It may be that Canada's daycare advocates, having pressed governments for years, should switch targets temporarily. To talk to Mr. Hykel, Ms. Cheung and their neighbours is to suggest here is where the selling job needs to begin.
John Hykel and Vivian Cheung

Once, before they had children, they chanced on the children of a daycare centre playing in a park. Neither was impressed.

"They didn't seem very happy. There wasn't much supervision," said Ms. Cheung, 32, who works as a client representative for Bell Canada.

"What supervision there was was very authoritarian and very indifferent," Mr. Hykel said.

They found Fazila Kasam, a woman who with the help of her extended family (her mother and sisters) took care of children for working parents. "She's very loving," Ms. Cheung said.

Recently, they moved their three-year-old, Kristofer, into the home care of a neighbour, Jacqui Strachan, so that he could be with other children on the street. Neither Ms. Strachan nor Ms. Kasam is licensed, but Mr. Hykel and Ms. Cheung said they know them well enough to feel confident.

Mr. Hykel said that for the $28.50 a day per child they pay, they are not getting the "latest and greatest" in child-development experts and programs. But he believes that too much emphasis is placed on giving children an early preparation for school and the life ahead. "When are they allowed to be kids?"
Karen Lawrie and Chris Harris

If the daycare movement needs some promoters, it might consider this couple.

They think that their daughter's licensed daycare centre is terrific. And they are not obsessed with turning two-year-old Ailie into a super-achiever. They chose it (when she was 10 months old) because they believed it was a safe environment and because they did not have personal connections to a nanny or home-care provider.

"I felt more secure with the idea of a licensed daycare, primarily in terms of safety," said Ms. Lawrie, a picture editor for Nelvana Ltd. "I wasn't very comfortable with the idea of leaving her with a complete stranger.

"She totally loves being there. She always seems very happy when I go to pick her up."

It helps that the centre is directly across the street from Nelvana, which partly subsidizes four spaces for employees. And Ms. Lawrie cannot praise the teachers highly enough, calling them open and caring.

They monitor Ailie rigorously -- recording feedings, nap times, activities, even her bowel movements in a log -- plus making daily notes about her mood and feelings.
Kathryn and Chris Jensen

They strongly support universal daycare, even if it means paying higher taxes; on the other hand, they have a nanny, Hazel Sylvan, for two-year-old Emelia.

Dr. Jensen, a physician, preferred a daycare centre, but his wife, a teacher who recently returned to work after two years at home with Emelia, carried the day. "You want to have a nanny," she said, "because it seems the closest to replacing you."
Christine Carson

A stay-at-home single mother who recently re-entered the work force two days a week, she had an offer of two spaces in a nearby child-care centre for Tess, her two-year-old, and Riley, 5. She turned it down.

Instead, she placed her two children with Ms. Strachan, her neighbour and friend. Like Mr. Hykel and Ms. Cheung, she objected to what she saw as too much structure. "Structured in the sense that they know they have to conform very early in life to a very impersonal environment that doesn't necessarily respond to their character."
Karen Geraci and Marc Rumball

They work different shifts. He is mostly a stay-at-home dad, but does work 15 to 18 hours a week at a theatre box office; his wife works full time in adult education, but can work evenings and weekends.

They had their first child, Sophia, now 4, in a home-based daycare, which they chose for its low price and flexibility. Having heard that institutional daycare had waiting lists, they did not investigate that option further.

(Low-income families face huge waiting lists for subsidized care, but those who can pay full fee can generally find spots for their children, Prof. Cleveland said.) After a year, they took her out of the home-based daycare because they wanted to participate more in her development. "There's a consistency that you can foster at home. Sophie likes to be in her own environment," Ms. Geraci said.
Jacqui Strachan

"I'm one of those hideous unlicensed daycare providers," joked the 34-year-old who once practised criminal law.

Her advantage is individual attention and flexibility for outings, whether shopping or (on the day a reporter visited) to the Royal Ontario Museum by subway. (She has no such flexibility on Wednesday afternoons, when for two hours she has seven children, including her own two, in her two-bedroom flat.)

"I don't want to sound like I'm slagging daycare because I think there's lot of opportunities in daycare that I can't provide," she said, including a better selection of toys and a more structured education.

DAYCARE IN CANADA

Daycare centres: 188,000 children aged 0 to 5
Regulated family care: 80,000
Unregulated family care: 303,000
Non-relative at child's home (nanny): 127,000
Grandparents or other relatives: 200,000
Estimates based on data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth




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