Guest Commentary

Dan Harris


My first job in 1995 was working with toddlers and preschoolers for $6.75 an hour. Challenges? You bet! In the summer program I had to prepare afternoon snacks for one hundred kids. Try slicing up mango for one hundred kids every day. I never want to see another mango as long as I live.

Few challenges are as rewarding as teaching children to count to ten, or tie their shoes, or spell their name. I think most childcare workers love their job – I did – but it is a grinding experience, like parenthood. It is exhausting and the responsibilities are daunting, and little value is placed on the work.

Nobody would pay a dog walker less than $10 an hour, yet childcare workers are expected to tend to preschoolers for that kind of pay. I think Canadians would value childcare workers more if levels of care were standardized.

When the New Democratic Official Opposition released our $15-a day childcare policy I was saddened to read the avalanche of comments on certain websites: “There’s no way in hell I’m paying for your kids.” It’s selfish. Money spent on early childcare builds our country and helps families. Critics value people by the amount of money in their wallet; I think that diminishes us as Canadians.

The children at our preschool were unforgettable. They were co-operative and polite, and cranky and fussy. There were kids who refused to settle at nap time, and others who liked to provoke playmates. One child liked to hide behind a bookshelf and throw things at the other kids.

I remember an autistic boy in our school; he was the sweetest child one moment, then would strike out in frustration. He’d offer random hugs. The boy did not speak, so we posted signs that depicted a picture of a toilet; we could teach him to stand by the photo to signal he had to go to the bathroom.

I remember another child, I’ll call him M. He was from a Muslim family, very patriarchal, and he was often rude to the female staff. When I walked in the room it was, “Yes, sir!” One day M made a mess and refused to tidy up; he went out for recess convinced he’d hoodwinked the staff till he realized I’d called his parents, and he was to wait for them to pick him up. We never had any more troubles with M for the next three years.

Children need boundaries. They understand consequences. Of course parenthood doesn’t come with a manual, and every child – and every family – is unique.

Many of our children came from homes on social assistance, with single parents struggling to dig out of poverty. Other parents worked two and three jobs, hoping to make a better life for their children. I saw families that would do anything to spend more time with their children, and parents who would studiously avoided spending any time at all.

The daycare experience taught me I love children. Taking care of one or two children as opposed to 15 does not sound hard to me.

(Editor’s note: the author is former New Democrat MP for Scarborough Southwest, Ont.)

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