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Monday, July 21st, 2014
The arrest of a South Carolina mom on charges that she left her 9-year-old daughter alone in the park while she went to work has sparked a furor over her decision and whether it was appropriate to arrest her for it. It’s far from the only instance of a parent doing something dangerous, even allegedly criminal, in order to go to work when there’s no childcare available. I wrote in December about a California woman who lost custody of her son—permanently—after leaving him alone in his crib one workday. And I am sure there are countless other parents facing similar dilemmas every day.
For women who need to work and don’t have reliable childcare, what are the options? Even Michelle Obama faced a similar dilemma in her past, recently making headlines for her recollections of bringing young Sasha along on a job interview.
That South Carolina mom, Deba Harrell, faced a no-win choice, as my colleague Lisa Milbrand wrote: “to let her daughter play in a park alone, leave her at home, or bring her to work, where she was forced to hang out for hours in McDonald’s with little to engage her. Debra picked the park.” Home seemed more dangerous and would also likely have led to Harrell’s arrest, while having a child at work all day seems like a recipe for getting fired for needing to care for her while on the job (and hardly seems like a healthy environment for a child).
A lot of the discussion about Harrell’s case has focused on how protective and hovering parents should be, and whether we as a society have gone too far in “criminalizing” parenthood, as Radley Balko of the Washington Post put it.
But as essential as that debate is, there is another, related issue that these cases raise, and that is the question of affordable childcare. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat begins to address this in his latest column, questioning a “a welfare system whose work requirements can put a single mother behind a fast-food counter while her kid is out of school.” He concludes that “we have to also find a way to defend their liberty as parents, instead of expecting them to hover like helicopters and then literally arresting them if they don’t.”
But Douthat stops short of taking his argument to its natural conclusion. Affordable, reliable, and safe childcare is a necessary component of a functioning society, especially one that expects—requires, even—parents to work. And so we need to figure out a way to guarantee it to all working parents. In Europe, “all European countries offer government subsidies and regulation support to early childhood care,” according to the European Union’s website. “These measures include tax breaks, vouchers, subsidies paid to parents or to the care provider; and in several European countries, capping of childcare costs relative to household income, or by obliging employers to support childcare costs (for instance in the Netherlands).”
I don’t know what form this sort of policy should take here in the United States, but whether it’s tax breaks or subsidies or publicly funded day-care centers or something else entirely, without addressing this problem, we will see many more Debra Harrells.
I also don’t want to let the absent dads off the hook. While moms like Harrell are arrested and may lose custody of their children, nothing is asked of the dads. Granted, many are not in the picture at all; but where they are or can be found, I don’t know why they are not required to be part of the solution, financial or otherwise, or why they don’t share the blame for alleged neglect and other decisions.
Our public policy must recognize the realities of today’s families, especially the huge number of single parents (and the correlation between single parenthood and poverty). In addition, many families today lack the extensive familial and social networks that may have, in the past, provided (free) childcare so mom and/or dad could work. This is not just a problem for the very poor. There is nothing optional about working for most people trying to support their kids, and childcare could easily be beyond a single parent’s means. As parents, most of us have said things to our kids like, “I don’t have eyes in the back of my head,” or, “I can’t be in two places at once.” For the single moms who must be at work in order to feed their families but have no one else to supervise their children, these are not flippant throw-away lines; they are realities that we as a society must help fix.
Considering day care? Download our Daycare Center Checklist to help you evaluate your options.
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Tuesday, July 15th, 2014
A mom is in prison, and her daughter is in foster care. And odds are, you (or your mom) might have done exactly what this woman did: She let her 9-year-old child play outside in a park, unsupervised.
The circumstances, however, might be a little different than your situation. Debra Harrell in North Augusta, South Carolina, couldn’t find any child care for her shifts at McDonald’s in a Walmart. So her choices were to let her daughter play in a park alone, leave her at home, or bring her to work, where she was forced to hang out for hours in McDonald’s with little to engage her. Debra picked the park. But when other parents noticed this girl by herself for long stretches, they alerted authorities, and Debra was arrested for unlawful conduct toward a child.
There’s so much that’s anger inducing here. There’s the fact that so many jobs don’t pay a living wage, which means that even though moms like Debra are working full time, they still need public assistance to get by. There’s the fact that affordable (or subsidized) child care isn’t available, even for people like Debra who are trying hard to earn their living, but may need a little support to make ends meet. There’s the fact that what she did doesn’t even seem to be illegal in South Carolina, where the laws say Debra’s daughter could have legally stayed home alone (kids younger than eight are the only ones who are legally required to have supervision). And it’s my opinion that it likely wouldn’t have been as big an issue if, say, it was a white middle class woman who left her child there (Debra is African American).
But really, what’s the appropriate age to leave your child unattended? And why has it shifted so seismically since we were kids? If you tell me about your childhood, odds are you were roaming the streets and hanging out in the park for hours at a time. I was. I remember leaving for the playground in the morning, coming home for a quick lunch, then heading back out until the street lights came on. (And I had a stay-at-home mom who in theory, could have come down to monitor us and make sure we slid down the slide properly until we turned 25. But she had better things to do.) I was definitely left to my own devices for hours at a time, at an age younger than nine—and likely for as long as Debra’s daughter spent in the park.
You have to start somewhere with giving kids independence. And despite the pervasive helicopter parenting in my neighborhood, I’ve worked hard to let go. For the past several months, I’ve let my daughters, now 10 and 7, go to the park unsupervised. (They go together, they’ve been instructed on stranger danger, and they both have brown belts in karate and jiu jitsu and wicked roundhouse kicks.) It’s been very hard for me to let go, but I know that they need some space to learn how to develop independence, leadership, empathy and problem-solving skills. And they won’t necessarily do all that if I’m hovering ready to solve any quandary that comes up. Does that make me a bad mommy—and a potential felon? I honestly don’t think so. And I don’t think it should make Debra a felon, either.
Tell us: When do you think is the right age to leave your kids unsupervised? Do you think Debra should have been arrested?
Are you too protective of your kids (or not enough)? Find out if you’re a hover mother!
Image: Girl playing the park by Zurijeta/Shutterstock.com.
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child care, child unattended, debra harrell, helicopter mom, helicopter parenting, home alone laws, hover mother, minimum wage, stay home alone, unsupervised kids | Categories:
Big Kids, News, Safety, The Parents Perspective
Wednesday, July 9th, 2014
Could support for paid family leave be the centerpiece of a Hillary Clinton presidential campaign in 2016? In The Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky argues for just that, saying that Clinton should make “paid family leave a—no; the!—central plank” of her presumed run for the presidency. Tomasky is just offering advice and not reporting that this is actually under consideration, but his argument is persuasive that this issue is a winner.
I can’t agree more. Let’s look at the facts of the situation and then the politics of it:
The fact of the matter is that the United States is last among developed countries—final, end of the list—in legally mandating paid leave, with a grand total of zero weeks. Not a single day of paid family leave is guaranteed by law to new parents. Instead, the Family and Medical Leave Act, signed into law by none other than Pres. Bill Clinton, guarantees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for workers in companies covered by the law. Between the lack of any pay during that period, the measly three-month length, and the relatively high number of companies not covered by the law, this not exactly a generous policy.
Elsewhere in the world, however, Tomasky reports, workers are entitled to large chunks of paid time off to focus on their children: “In France, it’s 100 percent for 16 weeks. Mon dieu, you say, that’s France. But in Germany, which even American conservatives respect a little more in economic terms, it’s 100 percent pay for 14 weeks, and 65 percent for an astonishing 12 to 14 months.”
Our neighbors to the north and south also put us to shame in this department: Canadian moms get 15 weeks of leave at 55% of their pay, plus the couple get an additional 35 weeks at the same pay rate to split between them however they see fit. In Mexico, moms get 12 weeks at 100% of pay. There’s no reason for U.S. parents to be without any paid leave. (Andrew Sullivan of The Dish posted a sobering chart illustrating just how behind we are.)
Then there’s the politics. Paid family leave has long been a dream of political liberals and a nightmare to business interests, who would be forced to pay employee’s salaries during periods when they are not working. But, as Tomasky points out, the idea of paid leave enjoys wide support among the public, and it’s hard to see women, even those with conservative, pro-business political leanings, opposing it. They and their families stand to benefit greatly from it. “A survey commissioned in 2012 by a pro-leave group found that respondents supported the idea by 63 to 29 percent,” Tomasky writes. “Democrats were of course strongly in favor (85-10), but independents were at a still quite favorable 54-34, and even Republicans weren’t against it—they were evenly split at 47-48.”
For Clinton, who usually plays her politics safely, it would be a bold stance that would at once show her independence—by hewing to the left and taking a risky stance contrary to her usual centrist leanings—while also remaining absolutely true to her pro-family, pro-woman concerns she’s focused on throughout her public career. In short, it’s an issue that is bound to be immensely popular, despite vocal and well-funded detractors.
I would add to Tomasky’s analysis that rallying support for paid family leave has the potential to attract religious conservatives for whom the health and strength of the family is paramount. It’s hard to imagine a policy that would do more for families than one that allows more parents to spend more time with their new babies (or ailing family members) without worrying about losing their income. Too many parents now have to make a choice between spending that crucial time with their newborns or paying the bills, because they cannot do both without paid leave. Family-values conservatives joining liberals and women from across the political spectrum would comprise an impressively powerful coalition to advance this cause.
In addition, it’s important to remember that paid family leave is not just beneficial to women. Men would also be covered by paid paternity-leave policies, allowing them to spend the time being fathers and bonding with their children that they otherwise could not afford to. And the real winners here, of course, are the children who would have more time with their parents at home.
Lastly, I’d argue that the idea should not be confined to a Hillary Clinton candidacy or pigeonholed as her thing, lest it end up buried in partisan combat (which, of course, it might anyway). It is a policy whose time has long past come and I’d invite–expect–any candidate from any party who claims to be pro-family to take up the cause.
Plus: Use our stay-at-home calculator to find out if you can afford to give up your job and stay home with your kids full time.
Image of Hillary Clinton via Shutterstock.
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Tuesday, July 1st, 2014
“School’s out for summer.” I used to play that Alice Cooper song for my son on the last day of classes (the Muppets version) as a celebration of his 10-week break from homework (and pencils, books, and teacher’s dirty looks). But as it turns out, I probably shouldn’t have been hailing his educational break. The National Summer Learning Association says that students lose about two months worth of skills in mathematics during the lazy days of summer. And as we reported, kids of all ages score lower on the same standardized reading, spelling, and math tests in September than they do at the end of the previous year in school.
The reason for this “summer slide,” a.k.a. “brain drain” or “summer slump,” is obvious: Kids—and, to an extent, parents—tend to view July and August as a break from learning, a time to enjoy the beach and the pool and recharge. R&R is all fine and good. The real problem is that many children wile away the days watching TV, playing video games, or surfing the Web. Kids spend three hours in front of a screen for every hour they crack a book during the summer—and more time than they spend outdoors. According to a new survey from the nonprofit kid’s literacy group Reading is Fundamental, only 17 percent of parents say reading is a top summer priority for their kids, and 60 percent don’t worry about their child losing reading skills during this time.
Actually, you really shouldn’t worry, because it’s easy to do something about it. A nonprofit organization called TRUCE (Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment) offers lots of screen-free ideas to inspire your family to play and learn together. Try incorporating some of these fun, mind-building activities into your kids’ break. Also consider downloading these educational apps, which at least turn screen time into learning time. And check out ideas here and here, along with a video chat with Soleil Moon Frye (the former star of “Blossom”) about how to stop summer slide.
I don’t pretend to have any magical suggestions for preventing this phenomenon. I worry about my kids and their tendency to gravitate toward watching sports events and Disney shows. To minimize this, we encourage reading and writing for pleasure, try to get them out of the house as much as possible, and look for teachable moments in leisure-time settings, such as digging for hermit crabs at the beach and calculating batting averages and ERAs at baseball games. Granted, these are no substitute for cracking the books, but at least they should leave our children be better prepared when their teachers see them in September.
Two little girls with magnifying glass outdoors in the daytime via ShutterStock
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back-to-school, brain drain, educational apps, math, mind-building activities, reading, screen time, summer learning, summer learning loss, summer slide | Categories:
Big Kids, Child Development, Education, Health, Must Read, News, The Parents Perspective
Tuesday, June 24th, 2014
For the first time, the AAP has made an official stand on early literacy, releasing a new policy today that advocates reading aloud to children every day, beginning from birth. The new policy urges pediatricians and policy makers to ensure that books are available to all families, particularly those with low income.
In addition to the announcement, the AAP has also partnered with four organizations, the Clinton Foundation, Too Small to Fail, Scholastic, and Reach Out and Read, to implement the new policy. The AAP and Too Small to Fail are creating a toolkit to include guidelines for parents on the importance of reading from infancy, which will be distributed to 62,000 pediatricians in the AAP network. Scholastic is also donating 50,000 children’s books that Reach Out and Read will distribute to 20,000 medical providers.
The AAP recommends restricting TV time for kids under 2 in favor of interactive play, and reading books can certainly be a part of that. Speaking to the Huffington Post, Pamela High, M.D., the lead author on the AAP early literacy policy, recommends that parents focus on the 5 Rs of early education: read together, rhyme and play with words, set consistent routines, reward with praise, and develop a strong relationship.
Being exposed to books at a young age will also foster early education, help kids prepare for school later in life, and possibly reduce the educational gap between low- and high-income families. There are also several amazing benefits of reading out loud to babies — it strengthens bonding, increases language skills, improves vocabulary, boosts brain activity, and fine-tunes social and emotional recognition — all important things for baby’s development. So grab some board books and start shaping a little bookworm today!
Image: Mother and child reading a book via Shutterstock
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Babies, Child Development, Education, News, Parenting, The Parents Perspective