Child Care

Where Kids Feel Right at Home

Nothing triggers parental guilt like leaving children to go to work. Knowing they are in a place that feels comfortable can make all the difference.

By Sarah Markel

For some parents, the standard daycare center, with its rows of cribs and rigidly scheduled day, holds little appeal. For others, whose workdays stray into the evening or weekends, or even who just want to be able to provide input for how their children are cared for, there are alternatives that offer flexibility and room for a more customized approach. Finding the right daycare solution requires matching each family’s individual needs with the strengths of a particular approach.

Cooperative Care for Hands-On Parents
Brian Ray was on the waiting list at Reston Children’s Center (RCC) for a year before his 9-month-old son Nate started there. “We knew we wanted something a little less cookie-cutter, a little more personalized,” remembers Ray, 38, a middle school administrator in the District. “That was what kept us at RCC more than anything.”

At first glance, Reston Children Center looks like simply a fancy daycare center. They offer full-time care for children 6 weeks to 5 years. There is also before and after care for older kids. Yet, there is nothing institutional about RCC.

A parent-led board works to ensure that the center comes as close to a homelike setting as is possible in a place that contains over 100 small children. The windows are low. Soft furniture fills the rooms. There are laundry facilities and a kitchen, albeit larger than most homes offer. Staff cook homemade meals for the kids, catering to tastes, allergies and parental preference. “Parents are involved in all decisions made at the school,” says Fahemeh Pirzadeh, executive director of Reston Children’s Center for over two decades. “They make sure that what is happening is the best for the children.”

The annual cost of care at RCC is about the same as traditional daycare, yet families feel they are getting better value for their money. “We are not trying to make money,” says Pirzadeh.

Other cooperative programs across Northern Virginia hold similar appeal. Both Beverley Hills Church Preschool in Alexandria and Arlington Unitarian Cooperative Preschool offer hands-on programs. While many RCC parents leave their children full-time, Arlington Unitarian director Dianne Vaugh points out that her program works best for parents looking for part-time care. “There is an infant room, but that was designed so parents of siblings could co-op.” Beverley Hills does not offer infant care.

The obvious downside to cooperative care is that already-busy parents must commit to a certain amount of work time annually. At RCC, they do everything from cleaning the furniture to balancing the books. At other programs parents work in the classrooms.

The volunteer time does offer one key payoff for busy families. While working for a common purpose, relationships are formed—no small thing in the hectic lives of working parents. “There’s a sense of involvement,” says Ray. “It creates a community.”

Just Like Grandma Would Do
When Liz Bubacz, an attorney in Centreville, began looking for care for her 11-month-old daughter Reilly, she toured the traditional daycare centers. She wasn’t impressed. “It was hard. There were so many children. … There were always one or two babies crying,” Bubacz, 32, recalls. She was put off also by high staff turnover rates, inconsistent levels of CPR training and potential language barriers.

She wanted something more personal. She found it with Gay Anne Shulte, a mother of three (the youngest, Erin, is 14 and helps out during school breaks) who has been providing licensed child care out of her Centreville home for 12 years. “With Gay you could just tell it was a family atmosphere. It was just a better feeling.”

Some home daycare providers offer levels of training and education unseen in center-based care. Shulte, for instance, has a college degree, raised three children and keeps current on child-rearing and nutritional theories. Running a daycare business works for her and the needs of her family, plus she loves the kids. “For me to get a nanny like that, with that level of training and experience would cost a lot more,” points out Bubacz.

Home daycares represent about 7 percent of all daycare situations, but because there are fewer children in each daycare, there are literally thousands of them just in this region. And not all are the same. But for parents looking for something flexible and highly personalized, home daycares offer the benefits of a close relationship with a loving caregiver in a relaxed setting. Children spend their days in the home of the provider, interacting with her and her family, learning from the older kids.

The mixed-age interaction is one of the chief attractions for another of Shulte’s parents, Jenny Lee. When her children were in a daycare center her son Greg, 3, missed his sister Becca during the day. “Having them together relieves my guilt about leaving them,” says Lee.

Shulte’s families appreciate that she teaches manners, potty-trains the toddlers and that they pray before meals. “We are like a family,” Shulte, 48, smiles, as an infant dozes by her side on the patio. “We take care of each other.”

Although her daycare is very different from Shulte’s, parents at Maria Desaba’s daycare in Arlington have a similar emotional reaction. While a day with Desaba might include a “curriculum” of mini-golf and movement exercises, her care is just as loving.

“She is a very maternal figure,” says Elizabeth Cho-Fertikh, whose daughter started at Desaba’s program, Maria Teresa’s Babies, when she was 11 months old. “She was very confident and gentle. It was reminiscent of what you might expect of a traditional grandmother.”

These close bonds are crucial to child development, say childcare experts, such as Dianne Stetson at the National Toddler and Infant Child Care Initiative, Zero to Three. “For infants and toddlers, their whole development is based on relationships with people. Parents really do need to stay involved and understand what is going on, in much the way parents do when they send children to school.”

Many of the attractions of home daycare are difficult to quantify. A state license is a good start, but can only reveal so much.

“A state license means that the child care situation is inspected regularly, background checks have been run on the provider, potential hazards in the home have been assessed and addressed,” says Jenifer Nalli, Fairfax County licensing administrator for the Virginia Department of Social Services.

No formal training programs exist for home daycare workers. The state does not require training, although change is underway. Many jurisdictions, such as Arlington County, do require their home daycare workers receive education that covers developmental issues as well as safety. The best providers seek out educational opportunities on their own.

Referral agencies can help in several ways. Infant Toddler Care, which serves all of Northern Virginia, matches licensed providers with families and serves as a liaison between the two over time. Agencies such as this provide an additional layer of screening and caregiver training. After that it is still up to the parents to ask questions.

Finding the right provider takes time and patience. Nalli recommends parents start by going online to view the state records associated with a given provider and even then, do a little extra digging to ensure a good fit. “I would encourage parents to do their own unannounced inspections,” she adds.

The Au Pair Option
Krista and Philippe Depeyrot hired their first au pair eight years ago for their then-2-year-old son Julian. “We could never do any kind of daycare situation because we are hairdressers. We work on Saturdays.” The couple tried using a nanny, but found the issue of an annual raise kept coming up, explains Krista, 37.

Au pairs provide up to 45 hours a week of childcare in exchange for a small stipend, room and board, and six credit hours of college coursework. Cultural Care, an au pair agency, says the total cost to families is $340 per week regardless of the number of children, but not including the expenses of essentially having an additional family member.

Critics of the au pair system point out that many au pairs are essentially untrained babysitters. They are often improperly screened and too immature to handle the demands of full-time childcare. Depeyrot admits that managing the au pairs can sometimes be a job in itself, but being able to train them herself has allowed her to ensure that her children get exactly the care she wants for them.

In the end, what works for one family, may not always be ideal for another. “You can’t generalize when dealing with this issue. You really need to look at your own family and your children’s needs,” says Stetson at Zero to Three. “It all comes down to the relationship between the caregiver, child and parents.”


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(January 2010)