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Monday, February 27, 2006
On Lax Parenting and Biting My Tongue
I just dropped ST off at daycare this morning. It is a positively gorgeous morning here, full of sunshine, a slight breeze, and that perfect hint of chilliness that lets you know that it's not quite spring yet, but that spring could burst forth at any moment. "It's a beautiful day today!" ST exclaimed as we walked to his carer's house, stopping every now and again to examine the brown grass along the sidewalk. When we reached his daycare and went inside, he told his carer about how much he wanted to play outside today, and his carer was enthusiastic. "Sure! We'll go outside before lunch, OK?" she said, much to ST's delight. Then her mother, who operates the daycare with her, said quietly to us, "Well, we'll wait and see how Emma is dressed."

"Emma" is the oldest child at daycare, a sweet and cute girl who is soft spoken but who has a serious naughty streak. She is over four years old and should be in preschool -- she is clearly bored at a daycare meant for the 0-3 year-olds. Emma's mom usually brings her to daycare just a few minutes after I arrive with ST. I sometimes see them as they pull in the driveway, Emma seated -- without a seatbelt -- in the front seat of their littered minivan. ST's carer says that while Emma's mom is "a perfectly nice woman," she's also "one of the laziest parents I've ever met." And it's true, to a frightening degree.

A few mornings I've been there chatting to ST's carers when Emma and her mother walk in, and Emma runs up to give one of the carers a hug. Sometimes Emma's breath is so bad that I watch the carer recoil after the hug, nearly gagging from the smell. "Whoa, sweetie, did you brush your teeth today?" the carer will ask. Emma shakes her head. "Oh, I guess we forgot to do it this weekend!" Emma's mom will say nonchalantly. This weekend? An entire weekend without brushing? Other times Emma's mom will tell the carers that Emma had a big breakfast -- of Chips Ahoy cookies, Cheetoes, and Sprite -- and will not need a snack. And, on days like today when the weather is not committed to winter or spring, Emma's mom will send Emma to daycare in jeans and a short-sleeved t-shirt (no coat), which means that unless another child has brought an extra sweatshirt, Emma will not be able to go outside.

This makes me incredibly angry, not just for Emma's sake, but for the sake of all of the kids at the daycare who either 1.) have to smell Emma, who is sometimes so stinky that our carers have to give her a bath since Emma's mother tells them she bathes her only once a week (!); 2.) have to stay inside because Emma does not have the proper clothes to go outside, and the carers do not want to leave her out; or 3.) watch longingly as Emma eats her lunch of cookies, chips, and soda while the other kids eat the nutritious meal our carers provide (always a starch/protein, a vegetable, fruit, and a small dessert like a cookie or a pudding cup; Emma's mother does not make Emma eat anything she doesn't want to eat). It also makes me angry that Emma's mom is so nonchalant about everything, almost bragging about her lax attitude when it comes to her children (she has two older sons in addition to young Emma). She laughs when she reports to the carers that Emma hasn't had a BM in several days, blows it off when Emma complains that she's itchy "down there," and acts offended if the carers request that she bring an extra sweatshirt or light jacket for Emma. For her, being a parent to a young child is a burden, something to "get through."

I am not a perfect parent by any means -- none of us are. It's hard work. When kids are young they need your help for almost everything, and it's easy to let things fall through the cracks. But as a parent it is my responsibility to ensure that ST has fuel to get through the day, is clean, and has the supplies he'll need to participate in daycare activities. It does not take a lot of extra effort to ensure that ST has a bowl of oatmeal and some grapes for breakfast, that he has a bath and brushes his teeth every day, and that he has the right shoes and outerwear to play outside at daycare. When I see or hear about parents like Emma's mom, I just want to explode -- it's hard for me to bite my tongue, and I'm not even sure if I should. There's a huge part of me that wants to treat Emma like a stray puppy, to bring her into our home where, just for a few days even, she'll have good meals, warm bubble baths, and clean clothes. It tears me up inside to look at cute little Emma with her stained clothes and greasy hair -- she always looks sad, neglected. She comes to give me (and some of the other parents) a hug every day, and she absolutely clings to me, not letting go until ST gets jealous and pushes her away. It breaks my heart.

But what to do? The carers have given Emma's mom not-so-subtle hints that Emma is not clean, that Emma needs to brush her teeth, etc. The carers even bought a toothbrush for Emma to keep at the daycare and have on occasion called the pediatrician to ask what to do about a yeast infection in a four-year old girl after the infection went on, untreated, for over a week. The carers feel powerless, the other parents feel powerless. But I'll bet no one feels as powerless as Emma.
Posted with care by Prof. Me @ 2/27/2006 09:11:00 AM  
9 Words of Wisdom:
  • At 12:42 PM, Blogger trillwing said…

    This is so sad. It sounds like it's time to bring in child protective services. If this is the stuff you're seeing at childcare, imagine what you're NOT seeing in her home and life outside of childcare. Have you spoken with the carers about contacting such authorities?

  • At 1:11 PM, Blogger Peri said…

    I'm wondering about the recurrent yeast infections in a 4 year old girl. I have a 4 year old girl and I wonder about the conditions that allow this. I hope there aren't any indications of sexual abuse. If there are, that would definitely mean the caregivers MUST call child protective services.

    Even if it's not all that bad, I totally relate to your issues with Emma. I would feel EXACTLY the same way. The worst part is that good childcare is so hard to find and I'm sure you don't want to leave before you have to. It might make me rethink that, though if my kids weren't able to do the things I want them to do because of Emma.

    Oh, one other option. Has anyone considered getting a cheap coat from Goodwill for Emma to wear there? Perhaps that would be the path of least resistence. This is the season to get them even cheaper... Just a suggestion. You can tell I feel for you!

  • At 1:16 PM, Blogger MusicalMom said…

    Your post breaks my heart. Poor Emma! I know it happens, but I just can't believe parents who neglect their children like that. It's so very sad.

  • At 1:28 PM, Blogger Prof. Me said…

    Thanks for your comments, Trillwing and Peri!

    I know that our daycarers have spoken with Emma's mom on several occasions -- sometimes in a playful way so she wouldn't feel like they were having a go at her, but sometimes also in a "you-have-to-do-something-about-this NOW" way. Emma's mom just doesn't respond. She truly believes that the child should be able to do as the child wishes, and if that means eating Cheetoes for breakfast, not taking a bath, and sitting unrestrained in the front seat of the car, so be it. She's admitted before that she just "doesn't get worked up over things," but at least she did eventually get Emma to the doctor about the yeast infections and got some medication for her (this was in late summer).

    The woman who runs our daycare knows Emma's family and has been to their house to visit Emma when she had a nasty case of the flu last year (she always brings balloons for the kids when they're sick). She said it's messy but not totally disgusting (well, it would be disgusting by my standards and by our carer's, but we're both neat freaks), and that the three kids basically watch television all day long. I honestly think it's just an issue of laziness on the part of the parents, and what can you do about that?

    I don't think sexual abuse is an issue. At least I hope not. I think the infections "down there" were due to lack of proper hygiene (e.g., wiping back to front instead of front to back, infrequent baths).

    Since our daycare is literally blocks away from our house, I popped over with an extra sweatshirt for Emma after I wrote the original post. And our daycare provider hunted down an old jacket from one of her daughters. So I think Emma will be OK outside today, and everyone will enjoy the fantastic weather. (Everyone except me, that is, who is stuck inside with Chapter Six!)

    Thanks for your concern!

  • At 1:31 PM, Blogger Prof. Me said…

    Thanks to you, too, MusicalMom! You must've posted while I was typing earlier. Indeed, especially when you look at your own well-cared for children, it's hard to believe that people can be so lazy with their own. Sad.

  • At 1:35 PM, Blogger ABDmom said…

    Emma doesn't just *look* neglected--she IS neglected. This may sound bossy, but I am so upset I am shaking right now and I have to say this: in most states, your babysitter has a LEGAK responsibility to inform the authorities. You, however, have a MORAL one. No, it may not be your "job" to get involved. It is the sitter's, but she isn't doing it. Someone has to look out for Emma, and that has been left up to you. You need to get involved and contact child and family services. I believe you can do so anonymously, if you are concerned about that issue.

    It would be one thing if it was the food. I mean, junk food for breakfast is poor parenting, but not negligent, since she is being fed.

    But a child who is almost always dirty? Recurrent yeast infections--which as peri noted can be a sign of sexual abuse--left untreated? No coat? This is neglect, and that is illegal. I also strongly suspect that there is far more going on at home than you are aware of.

    Please, please, PLEASE contact the authorities. I beg you. The neglect alone is bad enough; the suspicision that something far more sinister maybe at work makes it even more urgent. *Please* help this girl.

    I am sorry for sounding so bossy and forceful, but this post is so alarming I can't even put it into words. I wish I was part of your real life, as I would call the authorities myself.

  • At 2:48 PM, Blogger Prof. Me said…

    ABD, I will talk to the carers more about this this afternoon when I pick up ST. This post was written based on my impressions of this girl, my brief interactions with her mom, and what the carers tell me.

    For me, the difficult thing is where to draw the line between accepting that someone's standards are drastically different from mine and deciding that those abyssmally low standards amount to abuse. Deep down, I don't believe that Emma lives in an abusive household -- I do think that she lives in a dirty one, and a permissive one where she is basically allowed to do as she pleases, when she pleases. I have absolutely no reason to suspect sexual abuse, for example, and no reason to suspect that Emma is being beaten or hurt in any physical way. If either of those things were happening, I am 110% confident that my daycare providers would contact the relevant authorities in our state (they have done so once before, for a child who was in their care before I began to bring ST there).

    It's also difficult for me to assess the seriousness of this situation from such an outside position. I see Emma for a few minutes three or four days a week, and I hear about the bad things from the carers, who get pretty frustrated with Emma's mom. The yeast infection bit was the most disturbing to me (and the carers!) just because I know how uncomfortable and painful that can be, but that has happened on two or three occasions over the past three years, and our carers are certain it's a hygiene issue (they've retaught Emma how to wipe -- she wasn't doing it right -- and the lack of baths no doubt contributes to the problem). So while I think Emma's mom is irresponsible and while I would never subject my child to these lax standards, I don't think Emma's mom is "abusive" in a way that she should have her child taken away from her. Honestly, I just think she's lazy and used to letting the kids parent themselves, dealing with "issues" only when she has to.

    Personally, I think Emma is in the most danger in the car. She is unrestrained in the front seat -- still too young to be protected when an airbag deploys, small enough to fly through the windshield if it doesn't. And I have mentioned that to Emma's mom in the past, telling her that she could get in serious trouble for having a child of carseat-age and weight in the front seat unrestrained. That was a few weeks ago, and I haven't seen whether or not that made a difference.

    I don't mean to sound like I'm backpedalling here, or like I'm defending Emma's mom. I'm not. I still think Emma's mom is not doing right by Emma, and I think Emma is sad. But I also don't think that Emma is in any immediate danger that would warrant official intervention -- please, please believe that if I or Emma's carers suspected anything, we would take action. My original post was a frustrated one, written because I cannot imagine treating my child like this and cannot understand why anyone could be so lax about parenting. I didn't mean to write such an alarming post -- just an exasperated one.

  • At 7:32 PM, Blogger ABDmom said…

    But Professor Me, neglect is not necessarily a matter of "immediate danger," yet neglect is certainly illegal. What you have described here is hard to think of as anything but neglect: not enough clothing, not enough medical care, the child is dirty and unkempt, etc.

    Getting help for Emma doesn't mean she'll be placed in foster care; it means she--and her mother, quite frankly--will get the help she needs. The mother sounds overwhelmed by caring for the family, and some intervention with CFS could help her get on the right track. That isn't about "taking away" kids; it's about getting help for a family that clearly needs it.

    I pulled up some states' definitions of neglect, and it is hard for me to make the argument that what you describe here isn't neglect. Take, for example, the definition of neglect in Iowa: "The failure on the part of a person responsible for the care of a child to provide for the adequate food, shelter, clothing, or other care necessary for the child’s health and welfare when financially able to do so or when offered financial or other reasonable means to do so." The situation you described falls well within the care necessary for her health and welfare.

    This is how Kansas defines neglect: "Neglect may include but shall not be limited to: • Failure to provide the child with food, clothing, or shelter necessary to sustain the life or health of the child• Failure to provide adequate supervision of a child or to remove a child from a situation that requires judgment or actions beyond the child’s level of maturity, physical condition, or mental abilities and that results in bodily injury or a likelihood of harm to the child • Failure to use resources available to treat a diagnosed medical condition if such treatment will make a child substantially more comfortable, reduce pain and suffering, or correct or substantially diminish a crippling condition from worsening." Again, the treatment you described falls within these bounds.

    BTW, I grabbed the laws from these two states because I know you're in the Midwest and they were close together alphabetically.

  • At 9:17 PM, Blogger Prof. Me said…

    Thanks, ABD.

    I did speak with our daycare providers for almost half an hour today when I came to pick ST up this afternoon. I told them that I'd been bothered by Emma's situation all day long, and I just asked them bluntly, "Is Emma being neglected at home? Is she all right?"

    Our carer assured me that Emma was OK -- she's known Emma's parents for over a decade, and they're just, as she put it, "different." And the parents DO provide the necessities as outlined in both of the laws you quote here -- they have a nice (albeit messy) house, Emma is clothed (although sometimes not appropriately for the weather), and she is fed (although not always with the most nutritious fare). I asked if our carer ever felt like Emma wasn't safe, and she gave me a resounding, "No!" She said that although Emma's mother's standards are far below what SHE considers acceptable and correct, Emma is not "abused" or "neglected." She also said that I was not the first parent to inquire about Emma's situation.

    I trust our carer's opinion. She's known Emma's parents since before Emma was born. As I mentioned earlier, she has called CPS once before for a child she felt was truly in need, so she's not afraid to deal with unhappy parents who are endangering their children or not adequately providing for them.

    Our carer said that Emma's mother just has a very laissez-faire parenting style, a style Emma's father also endorses. Apparently, Emma's brothers were just the same way as small children (Emma has two brothers who are at least six or seven years older than she is) -- always a bit dirty, unkempt, watching TV all day, eating junk food whenever they wanted. That's what the parents allow. It's not how I parent, but I know (and I'm sure you know, too) that Emma's parents aren't alone in doing things this way. And as far as I know, being a little dirty, having bad breath, and eating Cheetoes for breakfast isn't illegal. (If it is, some of my undergrads should be locked away forever!)

    Our carer put it to me this way: Emma's parents have chosen to raise her and their other children this way. It is a conscious choice, just like my choice to cloth-diaper ST and bathe him daily was/is a choice that I thought was right for us. I don't think Emma's parents are making a good choice, of course, or I wouldn't have written the initial post. But, after hearing our carer describe Emma's parents in greater detail and the situation in their home, I feel a little guilty for judging. Emma may not be cared for according to my standards (or yours, or my daycarers), but our carer assured me that Emma is very much loved and has a stable (but messy) homelife. If anything, our carer said, Emma's family needs a housekeeper. "They're total slobs," she said.

    I pointed out the carseat issue, and our daycarer said that she has mentioned that to Emma's mother on several occasions, as has our carer's husband. Apparently, Emma was in a carseat in the back of their minivan this morning for the first time in months, much to everyone's surprise. That makes me happy, since I spoke to Emma's mom about it not long ago. It makes me feel like I made some small difference.

    I know you're passionate about this, ABD. I've read your posts about child care, I know you're an excellent and compassionate mom. And I think you know that I'm the same way. You're just going to have to trust me on this one, though, in the same way I have to trust my carer. Know that if I had that slightest twinge of motherly intuition that something sinister was afoot, I would take action. But I don't think so -- I think Emma's parents are just as I originally described them -- lazy. But not dangerous.

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