We’ve been thinking about daycare for Daigoro for almost a year now, searching on and off for a suitable place. Although I never wanted my daughter to grow up under the care of strangers, it’s been obvious for quite a while that we need a daycare. Daigoro needs friends, I need to get out of the house, my wife needs to stop working overtime, and we all need more money. Daycare is the only answer.
So we’ve been looking, somewhat reluctantly. Finding a daycare that answers all of our needs has been a difficult quest. The nice places, that give you the feeling that your child will be lovingly nurtured and encouraged to grow, cost so much money they are out of the question for us. The places we can afford are uniformly terrible. “Family” daycare (in a caregiver’s home) is the cheapest option of all, but I’ve heard too many horror stories of children sitting around a TV for six hours at a time while the “caregiver” talks on the phone and does her nails. Not really what I had in mind for my little monster girl, thank you.
Finally, we found what we were looking for completely by accident. And in a bizarre trick of fate, the place we found is the daycare I went to over three decades ago. It’s a cooperative daycare that my mother was one of the founders of. I’ve lived in almost two dozen houses in several different countries since I went there. The daycare itself has moved twice in that time. Life is peculiar.
It’s hard for me to even believe the old hippy institution is still around. It’s just too fantastic. When I finally came back to this town, I never even thought about looking the place up. I expected that it would have vanished long ago, like the coffee shops and fringe communities I remember from my childhood. But it hasn’t vanished. And it hasn’t been swallowed by some transnational corporation, or turned into an heartless institution run by a bunch of money-grabbing professionals. It’s still run by parents, and a few of them even look like the people that I remember originally running the place - long hair, beards, and all.
Of course, it isn’t really an experimental hippy thing anymore, and today’s Co-op has a more polished feeling and a much wider variety of people than it used to. But the spirit is there. Our little DIY school has survived and even thrived, providing alternative childcare for a third of a century and counting. I find this astounding. If this is possible, who knows what else we might accomplish if we set our hearts on it?
This place was once such an offbeat experiment, it was a regular fixture in Doonesbury back when it started. Long-term Doonesbury readers might remember Joanie Caucus working at a cooperative daycare with precocious and bossy children before she went to law school, around 1972 or 73. That place was reputedly based on my daycare.
All right, DM, get to the part we care about. What the hell is a cooperative daycare?
It’s simple, really: a daycare owned, managed and staffed by the parents of the children who stay there. Every parent works half a day per week in the daycare, and everybody takes on at least one other job such as treasurer, gardener, maintenance crew or welcoming committee. Usually, there is one professional teacher working full time. The rest of the workers are all parents. Parents take turns buying breakfast and snacks. Parents donate toys and books, buy playground equipment, and drive the kids to field trips. Parents do it all.
WHY CAN’T YOU HIPPIES JUST PAY FOR IT LIKE THE REST OF US?
There are many advantages to such a system. First of all, in terms of money it’s the cheapest form of daycare I’ve ever found, because you aren’t paying the salaries of a dozen strangers and the institution itself is not out to make a profit. Usually your tuition is based on your income, and even at the highest levels it’s half the price of any other daycare.
More important than the money, however, is the level of parental involvement and the peace of mind. You know that the children are well cared for because everybody working there has at least one child in the place. Even better, you know because you are there once a week. You see what they have to eat. You see how much time they are spending on art projects. You see how the teacher works with the kids. And if there is a child or a parent causing problems, you know about it immediately. There’s a meeting every two weeks, to fill you in on issues you might not see on your specific turns.
All of this also means you don’t have to relinquish your involvement with your child on the day you send her to daycare. You can continue teaching her the things you care about. You can keep on witnessing her “first steps” and feeling like an actual parent, instead of coming home at 5:30 and asking her what she did today. I know what Daigoro did at school today, because I was there. And I not only had the pleasure of playing with her, but got to enjoy being a substitute parent for seven other little kids, all of them different ages, with different abilities and personalities. I read to three little girls. I pretended to be a dinosaur and a giraffe with a whole squad of children. I made egg-carton caterpillars with Daigoro and all her friends, and ate lunch and sang songs with them, and changed diapers and tied shoelaces. These kids are beautiful. I don’t know that I would have the patience to be a full-time daycare worker, but once or twice a week it’s a wonderful experience.
On top of these pleasures, you get a feeling that the co-op is an extended family instead of an institution. Everybody works together. Everybody cares. The kids sleep over at each other’s houses, and you know exactly who they’re with and what the atmosphere in that house is like. You’ve worked with the parents, maybe even gone out with them, and you know that you can trust them. Need a babysitter? You know who to call. In many ways, this is like a kibbutz, something I never thought I would be able to find in the USA.
AND WHO WILL SPEAK FOR THE LITTLE CHILDREN?
There are advantages for the children, too. First of all, they get continuity. Instead of suddenly dropping out of their parents’ lives for five hours a day, they get gradually introduced to a wider world and cared for by people who really do care.
When I call it a wider world, I mean exactly that, and I think it’s one of the cooperative’s major strengths. Co-ops tend to be more diverse than most kinds of daycare. Most of the “professional” daycares I’ve seen were pure monocultures. You’ve got your lily-white WASP daycares, your Jewish daycares, and your uniformly black, Hispanic or Asian daycares. From the day we met, my wife and I have known that we couldn’t send our future children to any of these places. Daigoro is a little melting pot of languages, religions, colours and geographies, and in almost any homogenous environment she would be the odd girl out.
In the Co-op, however, she’s just another little girl, no more different than anybody else in the mixture of cultures, races and creeds. There will come a time when Daigoro has to face stereotypes of one kind or another, but I’m glad it doesn’t have to happen right now. Toilet training is her big challenge at the moment. And that, I firmly believe, is the way it should be.
The diversity of the parent-workers also means that the children have a chance to learn any number of things they wouldn’t be exposed to in an ordinary daycare. They can pick up bits of other languages, learn about a variety of different cultures and religions, and do in-class projects that normal daycares would never consider. Is one of the mothers an artist? Good, she can do art projects with the older kids. One of the daddies a lobsterman? Cool, he can bring fish and other sea creatures to class for scientific studies. Is your vegetable garden the best in the county? Great, you can help the children plant tomatoes. And so on and so forth. It takes a village to raise a child, and the parents of the co-op are a village full of specialists.
AND NOW THE BAD NEWS
You’ve been waiting for this part, haven’t you? Yes, there is a downside. Increased parental involvement can be a negative factor as well as a positive one. You will find yourself working almost as hard1 for the daycare as you would if you just stayed at home to raise your own child. The weekly turns can conflict with job requirements, as well. In most cooperatives, you can’t substitute your turns on a regular basis. Both parents need to do their turns. Some co-ops are more flexible than others about this, but almost all insist that each parent does at least occasional turns.
And the weekly turns are only the beginning. There are a number of additional jobs that have to be filled by the parents. You’ll have to take on at least one extra duty for the coop, and help out whenever it’s required. Then there are meetings to be attended every two weeks, field trips and special maintenance jobs to be organised, and numerous other odd duties that pop up on a semi-regular basis.
In short, cooperative daycare isn’t the sort of thing that works for everyone. Like they say about Linux, it’s only cheap if your time is cheap. And like Linux, it has unique advantages and disadvantages. You’ll have to weigh the pro and cons to decide if this is the best option for you. But if you have the time, energy and flexible schedule required, I think it deserves serious consideration. As a co-op graduate and parent, I guarantee that your children won’t hate you for it.
As I’ve spent most of this writeup waxing lyrical about hippies and diversity, I see that I will have to write at least one more writeup on the subject, with practical advice on starting and running a co-op. Needless to say, starting a co-op is infinitely more difficult than simply joining one, and such a writeup will require a fair bit of research. In the meantime, here are a few sites with more information on the subject:
- The complete members’ manual for the Knee High Cooperative in Bloomington, IN -
- Thoughts on cooperative preschools (not quite the same concept, but similar) -
- Overview of different sorts of childcare co-ops, with links to more detailed information -
This is an outright lie, written in a flurry of optimistic zeal when I first started at the Co-op. Two months down the road, I would change that to "a million times as hard". This is hard work. But I still love it.