By KATHERINE SNOW SMITH
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001
Theirs is one of the hardest and most underpaid jobs in the country. Yet they are trusted daily to not only care for, but also help shape the most important thing in our lives: our children.
After a long week of caring and teaching a room full of young children, about 250 child care providers from throughout Pinellas County came to the licensing board's annual Infant and Toddler Conference at St. Petersburg Junior College in Clearwater to learn how to do their crucial jobs even better.
Through workshops and guest speakers they learned about topics such as bonding with babies, common pediatric illnesses, storytelling, puppetmaking, feeding stubborn toddlers, making toys from would-be trash and child care for disabled children.
The providers I spoke with were upbeat and enthusiastic and said they loved their jobs. Still, I pressed them to tell me the biggest challenge they face or one thing they would like to change about child care.
"Parents bringing sick children to school," said Heidi DiGeronimo, who provides child care at Operation PAR drug treatment program.
"I know it's hard on the parents because they can only miss so many days of work when their kids are sick," said Jennifer Jurevic, but one sick child in day care can affect many other kids and their parents if they all get sick and miss work.
Danielle Rossewey said her biggest challenge is getting parents to enforce the rules and limits she sets during the day. She has children in her care who get to do anything they want at home, so it's hard for them to follow the rules you need when you have a group of children.
Several providers said dealing with potential child abuse is something they have to confront. They aren't medical doctors or family counselors, yet they may have to decide to notify an outsider to investigate a child who appears to have been abused.
"It's probably the toughest and the worst part of the job," said JoEtta Conderman. "But we know we are responsible (for getting it checked out). Then we tell the parents and that's really hard. They get upset."
The best you can hope for, she said, is that the parents are not at fault but are furious the child care provider was suspicious. The worst is when those suspicions are right and the child is being abused.
Another provider, Denise Friend, said she has had parents threaten her and become hostile after she has reported suspected abuse. She isn't doing it to be mean or nosy, she just wants to look out for the children, she said.
Another common concern among providers is compensation.
"It's hard for us to find qualified people because of the pay and benefits," said Lenise Hill, director of a center. These things lead to high turnover rates in child care, which isn't good for the children who bond with providers only to have them leave.
"We could always use more staff and more help," said Phyllis Conti, who blames the lack of qualified providers on the low pay and benefits of the industry. "We're at the legal (adult-to-child) ratio, but wouldn't it be wonderful if we could have even more people?"
Charlotte Lindsay said she would like to change the fact that some centers have tight finances and that limits the age-appropriate toys, crafts and outdoor equipment for the children.
"The hardest part for me is that there is no break," said Michelle Langlois. "You go from the moment you get up until you go to bed. There is no lunch hour."
For providers who work in their homes, especially, once the children are gone, are buying groceries to feed the troops the next day and getting the house ready to go again.
"Parents can be more difficult than the children," said Yvette Mackenzie. "Sometimes it's hard getting them to respect what you do. We're not teenagers just doing this for extra money. Sometimes they are not interested in what their children do all day."
It really makes a difference, she said, when you get a set of parents who really care about their children's child care program and respect the provider.
Sondra Harper said she is frustrated sometimes when parents pick their children up late because they got stuck in traffic coming back from the beach or overslept from a nap.
"We'll take extra steps to help parents. We love the kids, but that's not what we're here for," she said. "If they take a day off they should spend some time with their children."
Still, Harper, who has received some of the highest levels of training and accreditation in the state, said she loves her line of work.
"Where else can you go and pretend you're a 2-year-old all day long?" she pointed out.
The opening address to the providers came from Lucie Malinski, an early childhood consultant who now works with Directions for Mental Health.
"You play a vital role in the socialization of young people because little children don't really have friends," she said. "When people tell a toddler: "Go play with your friend,' do you know what that really means? It means: "Go hit somebody. Go steal somebody else's toys.' When they are 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8, they have friends. But for infants and toddlers -- you're it."
She offered other insights on development, such as the toddlers' creed.
"If I want it, it's mine. If I give it to you and I want it back, it's mine. If I take it from you, it's mine. If I had it a little while ago and left it across the room, it's still mine. If we are building something together, all the pieces are mine."
When toddlers start to form the earliest of friendships they can be hard to recognize. "A relationship may consist of acting silly together or playing chase," Malinski said. "And when that becomes overwhelming they will go and be by themselves, and that's not a bad thing."
Children don't get empathy until they are close to 3, she said. So when we make them say: "I'm sorry" for hitting, they don't really get it. They think: "I meant to hit you but I didn't know it would hurt you," Malinski said.
Toddlers are extremely self-centered. According to Malinski, their philosophy is: "I'm the most important person in my world, except maybe my Mommy and that's only when I want her to be."
What struck me most from Malinski's talk was when she pointed out how we are always getting our children ready for the next phase. We are desperate for them to roll over, then sit up, then pull up, then walk, then talk and so on. Once they are toddlers, we are preparing them for prekindergarten, then kindergarten, and then first grade. Middle school prepares them for high school, which prepares them for college, which prepares them for a job.
"Infants are not on their way to becoming something else. They are who they are," Malinski said. We should just relax and enjoy them more.
- You can reach Katherine Snow Smith by e-mail at Oliviachar@aol.com; or write Rookie Mom, St. Petersburg Times, PO Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.