My Life As A Child Care Provider: A Mixed Review

by Micheal Kauper in Minneapolis, MN - USA

How It All Began: The first three times I applied for a Family Child Care License, I was told "We don't license men!" So I worked as an un-licensed assistant to a licensed provider. Then we got a male licensing worker. He said "Of course we license men!"

So as far as we know, I was the first man to become a licensed Family Day Care Provider in Minnesota. That was about 1975.

In those days the title "Child Care Provider" did not exist. I remember asking a door-knocking political candidate about his stand on Family Day Care issues. He'd never heard of "Family Day Care". On further questioning we discovered that his own child was attending a Licensed Child Care Home, selected by his wife, but he knew nothing about it.

Times have changed! Today's politicians know much more about Family Child Care homes.

Before entering this world of children, I was a grad student in physics and geology. I departed the U of M soon after my department head scolded and censured me for spending too much time on my teaching duties, and for organizing recitation sessions for undergraduate students. Ouch!

When I entered the child care field (in 1975), I had all kinds of ideals and wonderful expectations.

Caring for children would become a priority for our society; pay would improve; men would enter the child care field in the same proportion as women were entering businesses and professions!

Most of all I believed that for woman and men to achieve equality of opportunity and for children to be raised into a free and open society, we must have significant numbers of men caring for children. This is a crucial point for me so let me say it again another way.

We must not only open "men's work" to women, we must also change "woman's work", including child care, into everyone's work.

This principle seems obvious to me, yet I have encountered many feminists and progressives who do not agree. For my part I believe that raising children in a democracy must be an attractive vocation, viewed favorably by people with options as one good choice among many other good choices. Such is not now the case!!

Child Care As a Career
The Good: Taking care of children is one of the greatest jobs in the world -- if and only if you are referring to the actual work. I love the work as much or even more than I did 25 years ago.

The profession of Family Child Care offers great freedom and responsibility. Quality is limited only by imagination, dedication, skills, and funding. Curiously, limited money may be the least important barrier, moment by moment, to delivering excellent care. The children want our love, our attention, our stories, our time. Poor funding is felt more keenly in the harm it does to child care as a career, as detailed below.

Child care providers do "the most important job in the world". We "influence children's entire lives". We are "raisaing the future of the world". All of this is true. Many of our children were (are) in my care for 10 or more years. And as teens, many have returned to work for us after they "graduated", extending our influence even longer.

We have attended their school plays and concerts, high school and college graduations, even weddings! We have taken care of them as their siblings are being born, when their parents have to work all night or Christmas Day, and through a host of family crises.

I have taken day care children camping and canoeing, on astronomy field trips in Minnesota and Wisconsin, train rides to Duluth, on over 3,000 field trips!.

Our child care home provides stability to children through divorce, changing jobs, moving, changing schools; day care is the one constant in their lives. I like that, and I think it's really good for the children.

Twice a month a group of former clients, ages 8 to 22, equal numbers of male and female, assembles at my home to play Advanced Dungeons and Dragons®(1). This rare multi- generational activity is made possible through the stability offered by a long running family child care home.

Former day care children stay in touch in other ways, too. I have spent many hours on the phone and trading e-mail with teens and young adults who formerly attended our child care. We chat about school, friendship, dating, parents, "life, the universe, and everything." (2)

Again and again, working with the children and their families has been highly rewarding. Emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually... but not financially or socially.

The Bad: Family Child Care is NOT a good career; at least not for me. I wish I could recommend home-based child care for your life's work. I especially would like to steer men into this work. But I can't.

The pay is awful; beyond awful into embarrassing. I earn less than minimum wage, just above poverty level. The hours are long, 10 to 14 hours a day (no breaks) plus 4 to 16 more hours every weekend. We have 10 vacation days a year, half of which are spent doing paper work to pay taxes. About 40% of our income goes to pay taxes.

As a licensed child care provider, I get little respect in the larger community. I have been caught off guard again and again to see how new acquaintences are taken aback and put-off when I tell them that I am a child care provider. I have learned to say that I am a business man who owns a small child care!

I have little savings for retirement. Buying health care is hard and getting harder. Ironically, doing child care has been excellent for my health. Good food and daily excercise are job requirements. But when I retire I will be completely dependent on Medicare and Medicaid, if they still exist.

Vacations are infrequent and tend to be modest. I have never been able to afford a new or slightly used car. We recently replaced our 17 year old day care van when we received a private grant. Only the grant made this possible.

I meet fewer and fewer men working as Licensed Family Child Care Providers. The pay (adjusted for inflation) has decreased! My best child-care friend, a younger man whom I have mentored, attended nine months of computer school. Very wise. I've congratulated him on his good sense. His pay jumped 300% with his first non-childcare job!

This is how ultra-low wages hurts child care: a talented person can earn much more money in just about any other profession. Why stay in child care? Why start?

The Ugly: The hardest thing for me, even worse than the long hours or poor pay, has been the indifference and hostility of government, at all levels, to the well being of child care providers.

Various levels of government collectively spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to help parents afford child care. Yet wages for providers are stagnant and working conditions remain poor. The child care work force probably has the worst turnover rate of any occupation.

Roughly half of my "after hours" discretionary time every year is used either following or struggling against unnecessary and harmful government regulations. This is stressful, discouraging, and wasteful.

We've had so much trouble with government that it's hard to know where to begin. I could fill a sizeable book with detailed horror stories. Here I will summarize a few.

In the late 70's a Minneapolis zoning inspector, mis-interpreting the law, phoned every Group Family Child Care Home in the city to tell them that they must immediately expel their school-age children. We asked for 10 days grace period while we applied for a variance. He refused the grace period, but reluctantly supplied a variance application.

We called our Minneapolis City Councilor, a liberal, Democratic, feminist supporter of children and families, seeking her aid. Her response was to phone our licensing worker demanding that our license be summarily revoked! Only the intervention of an influential child care parent saved our license. Eventually, after much expense to us, the City Council clarified the zoning law in our favor.

In the 1980's building inspectors across Minnesota began to enforce the E-3 School Building Code onto child care homes. No residential home can meet this code. We could not get a building permit to add a ground level playroom, nor could we renew our license if we moved to a larger house.

All of Minnesota's 14,000 Family Child Care homes were to be gradually eliminated. As existing licensed homes closed, no new ones could open.

After a bitter two year battle, hundreds of meetings, $5,000+ for substitute teachers, the Minnesota State Legislature granted residential status (R-2) to all Child Care Providers. New homes could once again be licensed, and we could move across town, to a larger house. That caused another nightmare.

The IRS assesses capitol gains tax on the sale of your day care home, even if you spend all the money from the sale on a new home. The imaginary "capitol gain" precipitated a tax bill greater than my annual salary; greater than my entire life savings. In reality the "gain" was wholly fictitious. Moving actually cost us money and increased our mortgage.

Paying that "capitol gains" tax bill was the worst thing I have ever had to do. I still feel angry, frustrated, and cheated fourteen years later.

Another fascinating incident occurred during a picnic lunch at Lake Nokomis, just after the children's swim classes. We were eating, digging in the sand, and wading when five Minneapolis police officers grabbed me! Two elderly women had called the police and reported that "a man on the beach is kidnaping and molesting children." Scary!

Although not dramatic, nor highly visible, the time lost to government is staggering. 200 to 250 hours each year (5 to 6 weeks!) doing tax paperwork. This does not include the
paperwork necessary to run our child care. Such waste is corrosive to morale.

These stories are but a fraction of the strange tales I could tell. It's time to ask ourselves about solutions. What can be done? What should be done?

The Future of Child Care

The Ideal: Many have written elegantly and persuasively that children deserve high quality care provided by secure, well-rewarded care-givers working under excellent working conditions."The working conditions of the providers are the living conditions of the children."(3)

I will add that children deserve men in their lives. Certainly men are not better care givers than women. We are however, in my opinion, different. Whether that difference is inborn or inbred (or both) the different approach of men to children and child care seems both real and valuable.

I will go far out on a limb and suggest some possible differences. Men working with kids seem to take more risks, be more intrusive, more stimulating, more playful; we tend to be a bit less detail oriented, less patient, less calming. I observe that men often challenge children to enter the adult world; women seem to nurture children within the child's world.

Make up your own list of differences. I say vive' le difference!

So how do we attract men into child care? How do we make this a good career for women and men? I have no idea.

The free market fails because we have so many people who are willing to work for peanuts, including me. Government might help increase pay, but universal government paid child care would be institutional, inhibited, political, bureaucratic and very expensive.

My prediction is that change will be slow if it happens at all. I see no future wherein large numbers of men choose child care as a career. I have little hope for decent wages or acceptable working conditions for women or men working in child care.

Brief Bio of Michael Kauper

Mr. Kauper has a degree in Physics from the University of Minnesota and completed most of the work toward a doctorate in geology. He is a Bush Leadership Fellow, and he shared the United Way Volunteer of the Year Award with Marian Turner.

Michael Kauper has also co-produced The Family Day Care Radio Show for 21 years and currently is web master for The Family Child Care Page on the web, at http://RadioChildCare.org.

My Life as a Child Care Provider was first published in Views, the journal of The Minnesota Association for the Education of Young Children, Spring 1999.

Copyright 1999. This article may be reproduced freely, but you must give credit to Michael Kauper and M & M Child Care of Minnesota.

1. AD&D is a fantasy/adventure role playing game from TSR, Inc.

2. "Hitchhikers Guide the Galaxy", Douglas Adams, BBC, 1986.

3. Quoted from The Alliance of Early Childhood Professionals, Minnesota.

Addendum, 2000:
My talented young friend (described above) who quit family day care to work with computers has bought a beautiful new car, his first, and huge astronomical binoculars. His family has fully paid health and dental care, and he is earning stock options.

Although he loves computers and computer programming, his computer job is not as challenging or interesting to him as working with kids. It does, however, pay a great deal more than child care work. Not to denigrate computer work, but is it really worth so much more than working with our children?