Last week I sent a link to a survey, asking you to help shape this newsletter. It takes just between 5 and 10 minutes to complete, and I will add your name to a prize draw if you answer by 3 March. You can find the survey here.
“Do you eat mice at home?” asked my son’s kindergarten teacher on the other end of the phone line. “Lorenzo says you do.”
They were reading a story about mice and Valentine’s Day and apparently Lorenzo had interrupted to say that we ate mice at home.
I was confused as to why Lorenzo would say that: I know that rats are eaten in parts of Asia, and that rodents are eaten in plenty other places (I can think of guinea pigs in the Andes, for example), but being a vegetarian, I found the question a little odd.
But I was even more confused by the phone call itself. Why are we having this conversation now? The teacher was frustrated because Lorenzo wouldn’t back down. He was adamant, would not let go, and the teacher didn’t know how to settle the issue.
I tried to figure out what the misunderstanding around mice could be, but instead went back to work.
Three blind mais
When Nacho, my husband, went to pick Lorenzo up, the mystery was solved. Speaking in Spanish, he explained that the school teacher didn’t believe that he ate “maís” at home — corn. Now, corn in Italian is “mais” — same as Spanish but with a different accent. More importantly, it is pronounced exactly the same as “mice” in English.
At school Lorenzo had been telling his teacher that the mais we ate at home was yellow, not brown like in the book. And that we would boil it first.
Lorenzo just couldn’t grasp that one mouse can become three mice, and not three mouses. In his head, his teacher was talking about mais, which is something that he likes eating, and is indeed yellow.
You may think that I am sharing this story as an example of how things can be lost in translation, to mark International Mother Language Day, which took place on Tuesday. Or you may think that I want to use it as an example of the difficulties of raising a multilingual toddler. But this newsletter is not about language. As I have written in the past, growing up in a multilingual environment has many positives.
This newsletter is about how difficult it is to trust that your child is in the right space when they are not at home with you, and more specifically about entrusting a child to a daycare or kindergarten — to a system and individuals that may satisfy you in some ways (convenience in terms of pickup times and geographical location, loving teacher, schoolmates whose families you get along with), but may not been ideal in others (afternoon naps, rewards for eating, and the list goes on).
I have been thinking about this a lot recently for several reasons. The latest was an incident about the colour pink, which happens to be Lorenzo’s favourite, and how he was told it is for girls and not for boys (!!!). My husband Nacho, who writes about being a father, wrote about it here. Another was a recent email from Jodi, a member of The First 1,000 Days community:
“My conclusion about daycare so far is that I see that they are in a bit of a predicament: I’d almost go as far as saying that the ‘care’ has been taken out of daycare. It’s been turned into an industry focused on making a profit. Whilst the product is for the kids, the service is tailored around the parents (those who pay) and caregivers (operational costs).”
I couldn’t have said it better. Daycares are a big business, unfortunately. Most parents — unless they have the privilege of a lot of money, or one parent who can stay at home, or available grandparents or other relatives that can step in — need a daycare for their children at some point.
Daycares can be beneficial in many aspects, if they provide quality care, as I explained here, and as long as children don’t start up too early and spend too many hours there, as research has also pointed out (thanks to Lilla, another member of The First 1,000 Days community, who pointed me in the right direction on this topic).
But there are several structural problems.
Teaching preschoolers is considered less prestigious than teaching other grades and staff are paid notoriously worse (in the U.S., the wages are close to poverty level, while in the U.K., the low pay leads to a recruitment issue, as you can read in this piece by Charlotte Goddard, who is a member of The First 1,000 Days community).
This is because governments don’t believe in the importance of universal daycare and daycares have indeed become a much-needed business for families who need to get by. And when things are left to the market forces, we find issues around staffing. So children are asked to nap instead of having the chance to do better activities because there are no teachers available in the afternoon, or there is an overall approach that pushes children to fit in and provides fewer options for those who are neurodiverse or grow at a different pace.
So, how do you choose? Jodi, the member of this community, said he was looking for early childhood spaces that offered democratic learning, where children were perceived as he perceived his own: “I see my child as his own self with his own rights and they should be respected (as much as possible). He’s just not able to explain everything yet and he doesn’t always know what the results of his actions will be and that’s where I have to help him.”
In 2021, I interviewed Tom Hobson, a U.S. teacher who worked for a long time in cooperative schools where parents would contribute to the classroom dynamics as assistants. His vision of how to include children in early education is something I share. And there are more spaces like that. But not all of these are available freely or indeed at all.
Research is also far from clear-cut in terms of what is the best form of early childhood education — and we can’t really look at one study for answers. For example, Montessori schools, based on a child-centric approach developed by Italian physician Maria Montessori in the early 20th century, have mixed reviews.
Here’s what’s non-negotiable
So, where does this leave us confused parents? I think it is important to understand what is non-negotiable. From an early childhood perspective, what is non-negotiable is a low child-to-teacher ratio (the number varies, but the average in OECD countries is one staff member per every seven children below the age of three) and positive caregiving (you can find a helpful checklist by Dr. Cara Goodwin here). And then every family needs to figure out what is non-negotiable for them: walking to school vs driving, access to the outdoors, cost, etc.
And while you figure out your specific checklist, let’s think of what we would need from our policy-makers. Ideally, you would have enough parental leave to keep your child at home until they are one or older or an allowance for other carers to take care of your child in a home setting. This would ideally be followed by high-quality universal daycare within a reasonable distance.
Given the positive benefits for children, parents and society as a whole, it seems like a very reasonable request.
What I’ve been reading
This is a great resource: a guide to understanding how to talk about climate change in comics, by NPR’s Malaka Gharib and Lauren Sommer. The guide is aimed at children aged 6-12, but I think that with the right adjustments it can be a helpful tool to have at home and in the classroom for younger kids too. It addresses what causes climate change (the fossil fuel industry, mainly) and what some of its effects are, but also what kids (and parents) can do to feel less helpless. By the way, if you know of any resources for younger kids, I would love to get your tips.
What I’ve been listening to
I’ve just started listening to the six-episode Sold A Story podcast, which talks about how children in the U.S. are not being taught how to read properly because of an incorrect teaching method. Host Emily Hanford investigates the influential authors who promote this erroneous idea and the company that sells their work. The first episode goes into how some parents understood their children couldn’t read because of the Covid pandemic (and remote learning) and how some started questioning what was wrong.
What I’ve been watching
In this short, helpful video, schoolchildren of different ages recite the poem “Why I am Rude”, written by Sarah Dillon of the National Association for Therapeutic Parents in the UK. From fear to wanting to be in control, to not understanding they are hungry, thirsty or tired, these children spell out the many reasons why they are acting out, which are often hard to understand for parents and other adults.
Who’s been inspiring me
I love this Instagram account, of a doctor mum who makes playdough surgeries with her children who are really interested in the human body. This video, for example, recreates a caesarean delivery. If you go back in time, she also makes funky breakfast designs with porridge, pancakes and more. And I especially love this note she left to other parents when introducing herself: “Please don’t ever feel less than because of what you see on here. This account is a very skewed representation of our actual family life (I really only ‘mom hard’ on some weekends, the rest of the time I am barely getting by), and I have an extraordinarily supportive husband and family who help me make this happen.“
What members have been saying
I got an email from Nikolia, a member of The First 1,000 Days community here in Greece, asking whether she could access archive stories on the website based on the children’s age. Right now the website is not very friendly when it comes to categories, though the search engine does work. I told Nikolia I would curate a few newsletters bundling up materials based on age, and then I will go on to reworking the search engine and categories on the website. Thanks for the suggestion!
With love and care,
📣 The First 1,000 Days is edited by community member and friend, Shaun Lavelle.