Day Care (and Its Discontents): A Reading List

Even the most self-congratulatory conversations about parenting young children are often tinged with an unmistakable air of guilt. Its source lies in a fundamental contradiction: We might be obsessed with our kids’ food, activities, and intellectual development, but in order to provide these things in the first place, many parents also need to outsource the feeding, playing, and teaching to people who are more or less strangers. We work; they go to day care.

Child care is a minefield of a topic, and navigating it inevitably detonates questions of class and gender, labor and social justice. It’s where politics and geography become not just personal, but also emotional (and, sometimes, heartbreaking). Here are eight stories about day care: a place working parents know all too well, but never quite well enough.

1. “The Hell of American Day Care.” (Jonathan Cohn, New Republic, April 14, 2013)

Cohn’s retelling of a fire at a Houston day care facility is harrowing; four children died because of the owner’s negligence. But his story goes beyond one specific incident, chronicling a long history of policy failure that keeps producing horrific tragedies. (As a companion piece, read Dylan Matthews’ interview with Cohn on his reporting.)

2. “The Rise of Extreme Daycare.” (Alissa Quart and Alice Proujansky, Pacific Standard, November 10, 2014)

“The main room at Dee’s Tots looks like a supersized slumber party, but the truth is this is an ordinary day.” The thought of leaving a child at daycare overnight might sound unthinkable for middle-class and affluent parents. But for people who rely on unpredictable shift work and who deal with stagnant wages and precarious employment, round-the-clock day care facilities are a necessity. This piece tells the story of one such place, in New Rochelle, New York.

3. “The Lost Summer.” (Elissa Strauss, Longreads, August 25, 2015)

Academic calendars in the U.S. often include up to three months of summer break — they’ve been put in place decades ago, when the assumption was that a parent (guess which one?) would be available to fill in for external child care. For single parents like Olympia, who is at the center of Strauss’ piece, this has made summer an expensive season of uncertainty and stress.

4. “Madam Montessori.” (Nancy Shute, Smithsonian Magazine, November 2002)

How did an early-20th-century Italian educator become a buzzword among the city-dwelling, child-rearing, post-hipster demographic? Shute tells the story of Maria Montessori — and of the long shelf life of her pedagogical philosophy (and its equally-persistent critics).

5. “The Politics of Pre-K.” (Alia Wong, The Atlantic, November 19, 2014)

“Pre-k is seen as a solution to [poverty and inequality]. Preschool, on the other hand, connotes nursery school.” The question of child care as a public service is so fraught in the U.S., even the language we use to talk about it comes with asterisks and footnotes. In this piece, Wong charts the increasing use of “pre-k” at the expense of “preschool,” and how this slight modification frames a broader discussion around education, inequality, and achievement gaps between white and non-white children.

6. “Take My Kids, Please!” (Naomi Buck, Toronto Life, September 27, 2012)

American parents sometimes romanticize the social safety nets their counterparts in Sweden, Canada, or France get to enjoy. As Buck makes clear, even in Toronto the playground’s grass might not always be greener. Having returned home from a long stint as an expat in Berlin — day care heaven — she chronicles the tortuous path she endured until finding a place for her preschool-age son.

7. “How Not to Get Your Kid into Kindergarten.” (Laura Moser, Washingtonian, March 24, 2014)

As cities grow more economically polarized, so does the early-education system that caters to diverse (but often segregated) communities. The result is a stark divide between undesirable and highly coveted facilities. In Washington, D.C., Moser maps out the baroque kindergarten lottery system — and the lengths to which parents will go to game it.

8. “A Baby Dies at Day Care, and a Mother Asks Why She Had to Leave Him So Soon.” (Amber Scorah, New York Times, November 15, 2015)

“Our sweet son died two and a half hours after the first time I had left him.” Scorah’s day care history was short, and heartbreaking: on his first day there, her three-months-old son, Karl, died. Beyond her personal tragedy, Scorah opens up an important discussion on parental-leave policy and the low value American society attaches to child care.