Commentary

Who Should Decide What Amy Should Eat?

By Darcy Ann Olsen
This article appeared in the Arizona Republic on October 2, 1999.

Like most 4-year-olds, Amy has definite ideas about what she likes to eat and what she doesn’t. And she doesn’t like cereal. So for breakfast, Amy’s mom usually serves up a combination of toast, yogurt and juice. This alternative to cereal suits mother and daughter nicely. But place Amy in child care a few mornings a week and her no- cereal diet becomes a political matter.

In Arizona, for example, the law requires certain child care providers to follow rule R9-5-910, which stipulates Amy’s breakfast right down to ” 3/4 cup (6 oz.) fluid milk.” Politicians have even prescribed napping space and toys, from “dress-up clothes” to “musical instruments.”

Many child care regulations may seem reasonable, and no one questions the importance of having children well cared for. But who should decide whether Amy eats Wheaties or Yoplait? The heart of the issue is whether, beyond defining abuse, regulating child care is the proper function of government.

From a practical standpoint, government officials lack the intimate knowledge needed to tailor care to the unique needs of each individual child. Child rearing is an art, not a science. While one child may start reading by age 3, another may not be ready until age 4 or 5. Some children thrive surrounded by many playmates; others withdraw. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in child development to know there is no single right answer for what is best for every child.

Not surprisingly, most parents say quality is their top priority when it comes to choosing care arrangements. And more than nine out of 10 say they are happy with their children’s care. Why, then, are there so many reports of low quality care?

The discrepancy arises from differing definitions of quality. No consensus exists, even among so-called experts, on what constitutes high quality care. Some define quality by quantifiable measures such as teacher-child ratios, staff salary, and group size. Parents, on the other hand, often define quality as something less tangible, such as whether a caretaker is warm and loving, trustworthy and reliable.

For instance, one well-publicized report rated the care in more than 75 percent of child care centers studied as “mediocre.” The research team defined mediocre care as that which met the children’s health and safety needs and offered warmth, support and educational experiences. In all probability, had parents examined these centers, they would have found the care “very good” or even “excellent.” Perfectly reasonable people can disagree about what constitutes good care.

Advocates of expanding the government’s role in child care say caring for children is too important to be left to parents. Yet the importance of child care is partly what makes it unsuited to government control.

Consider an equally important influence in many children’s lives: religion. Few Americans, liberal or conservative, believe government should decide whether a child becomes Catholic, Mormon or Baptist. That is not because religious choice isn’t important, but precisely because it is.

For many, religion is life’s compass. It guides our selection of friends, our pursuit of education, our choice of careers and even our decisions to marry and raise children. From cradle to grave, few aspects of life are untouched by religious values.

We demand the separation of church and state, not solely because it is in the Constitution, but because religion is an important subject of personal conscience and belief. Child rearing, and its component child care, is no more or less personal. Like religion, it is a means through which we shape our children’s attitudes, behaviors and values. It deserves the same respect and protection from government intrusion for the same reasons.

Here is a pointer for our elected friends who continue to be overcome with activism: Relax. And for goodness sake, let Amy eat her Yoplait.

Darcy Olsen is director of education and child policy.