Mister Rogers on Distracted Daycare: What He Would Say

Mister Rogers probably would have had plenty to say about distracted daycare.  We know that, because in 1983, a 30-minute special entitled “Mister Rogers Talks with Parents about Daycare,” was broadcast on U.S. national television. Hosted by none other than Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood fame, the program advised parents on topics germane to the placement of children in daycare, including

1) managing separation anxiety,

2) transitioning from home life to the daycare environment, and

3) choosing a daycare that works best for parents and child.

Unfortunately, Mister Rogers’ daycare special was filmed prior to the advent of mobile internet technology. So, it did not broach the subject of distracted caregiving and its dangerous consequences for child wellbeing.

If the show were aired today, it would need to address the risks of entrusting the health and safety of children to daycare workers who regularly check their portable internet-enabled devices to the point of distraction.

In the present article I define the problem of distracted daycare, explain its ramifications for child welfare and imagine a similar contemporary television show, “Mister Rogers Talks with Parents about Distracted Daycare.” In this fictional show, Mister Rogers would offer advice to parents concerning how to protect their children against the threat posed by distracted daycare workers.

What Is Distracted Daycare?

‘Distracted daycare’ indicates those distracted caregiving behaviors displayed by workers in modern daycare businesses, behaviors that potentially endanger the health and safety of the same children these workers are paid to educate, care for and protect. It can also indicate a daycare business where distracted behaviors are rampant among the caregiving staff.

Distracted daycare and distracted parenting are manifestations of a more general phenomenon: distracted caregiving. So, let’s start by defining that term.

Distracted caregiving is a form of escapism. With the aid of a smartphone, tablet or other internet-enabled device, caregivers flee to social media sites in order to escape the daily grind of household chores and the banal duties of child rearing. The receipt of push-notices (or pings) immediately draws the caregiver’s attention away from the child’s needs and towards a virtual world of titillating adult experience.

Surge In Distracted Caregiving

The past ten years have witnessed a surge in distracted caregiving and studies documenting the phenomenon:

  • In a Boston Medical Center study,caregivers were observed interacting with children while dining at restaurants. Of 55 caregivers, 40 were distracted by their portable devices to such an extent that, according to the researchers, their “primary engagement was with the device rather than the child.”
  • Another study found that regular distraction undermines a caregiver’s ability to properly monitor children’s activities, provide educational instruction or prevent accidents that lead to physical injury.
  • A third study links unintended physical injury to children with poor caregiver supervision or caregivers with high-risk personality traits.

Maximizing Profit

In today’s predominantly private daycare ecosystem, the problem of distracted caregiving is magnified. In order to maximize profit, childcare businesses employ low-paid, contingent workers from the most “wired” generations. These daycare employees, often called “teachers” or “teacher’s assistants,” typically feel:

1) Resentful towards daycare owners and clients for their low wages;

2) Entitled to use internet-enabled devices during work hours even if there is a policy against it;

3) Blameless for any accidents that could have been prevented had they not been distracted; and

4) Convinced that they should protect and be protected by fellow daycare workers when accused of distracted caregiving, even if the coverup involves lying or other forms of deceit (what I call “distracted daycare workers’ omerta”).

How Does Distracted Caregiving Harm The Child?

Distracted caregiving in private daycares is a pressing child welfare issue. The harms children suffer as a result of distracted caregiving are very real. They can be divided into three categories: physical, cognitive and emotional.

Physical Injury

The most obvious harm children suffer as a result of distracted caregiving is physical injury. Between 2000 and 2007, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission compiled statistical data that support the claim that caregiver inattention causes physical harm to children:

1) Playground injuries involving children less than 5 years old spiked 17%

2) Nursery accidents went up 31%

3) Swimming pool injuries jumped 36%

However, in specific cases, it proves difficult to assign blame for these injuries. Distracted caregivers will typically minimize or deny the distraction, refusing to acknowledge that the child’s injury could have been prevented if but for the distracted behavior.

According to Wally Ghurabi, the director of the Nethercutt Emergency Center, “Folks are not going to admit the fact that—look I was doing this [e.g. texting or posting on social media], and that’s why … [the] kid fell off [the playground equipment] and broke his arm.”

Cognitive Damage

Distracted caregiving can also undermine children’s cognitive development, resulting in postponed speech acquisition, social-emotional delays and, in extreme cases, the onset of psychopathological disorders. 90% of brain development occurs in a child’s first three years of life. Neglecting to interact with the child during these formative years can cause lasting cognitive damage. Children can, as a result, develop an array of pathologies that survive into adulthood, including an aversion to healthy relationships, anti-social behavior, and several psychopathological disorders, such as oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder.

Emotional Harm

A third harm distracted caregivers inflict upon children is emotional trauma. In the Boston Medical Center study of caregivers dining with children, researchers observed regularities in the caregivers’ distracted behavior and the child’s emotional reactions. When the child attempted to gain the caregiver’s attention, the most common caregiver reaction was to reject the child’s intervention and express irritation.

These negative and insensitive interactions between caregivers and children can produce deleterious long-term effects on a child’s emotional well-being. One study finds that a lack of attentive care in the first three years of a child’s life makes the child more prone to emotional disorders, especially depression, in their adolescent years. Distracted caregiving can effectively stunt a child’s capacity to develop healthy emotional relationships with others.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that distracted caregiving endangers children physically, cognitively and emotionally, distracted daycare is nevertheless an under-reported child welfare issue. Many childcare businesses seek to deny, obfuscate and cover up incidents involving harm to children in their care. Likewise, due to under-reporting, most state and county agencies tasked to regulate private daycares have yet to realize the full magnitude of the problem.

Mister Rogers Talks With Parents About Distracted Daycare

Mr. Rogers on distracted daycare
What would Mr. Rogers have said about distracted daycare?

Imagine a contemporary television special entitled “Mister Rogers Talks with Parents about Distracted Daycare.” What advice might Mister Rogers offer parents concerned about the dangers of distracted daycare?

Selecting A Daycare

While no daycare is perfect, parents should select a childcare facility that minimizes the dangers distracted daycare workers pose to their children’s safety. In Mister Rogers’ special, he took a tour of several daycares, speaking to owners, directors and workers.

Four things that parents should look for are (1) an open-door policy, (2) a no-internet-enabled-devices-during-work-hours policy, (3) a camera surveillance network in all rooms and areas (including the playground) where children stay (not including restrooms) and (4) public complaints and notices.

Open-Door Policy

  • Open-door policy. The daycare that parents eventually select should have an open-door policy. With such a policy, parents can show up to the daycare at any time unannounced to observe daycare activities and worker behaviors (for an example see Toddler Town Chicago’s Open Door Parental Policy). Parent coach and author of The Nanny Whisperer, Tammy Gold, also recommends intensive parental monitoring of “babysitters, daycare workers or nannies [who] are on their smartphones, texting, emailing and otherwise distracted.” However, not all daycare businesses will open the doors for parents to make surprise inspections, citing the parent’s presence as a disruption to the flow of student activities.

No Internet-Enabled Devices

  • No-internet-enabled-devices-during-work-hours policy. The daycare should also have human resources policy forbidding the use of internet-enabled devices by workers during operating hours (for an example, see Kinder House Day Care Technology Policy). While some daycares have a no-portable-device-in-the-classrooms policy, others adopt a more laissez-faire approach, only banning recordings of children that daycare workers might post to social media sites. The daycare owner and/or director should be able to produce the no-internet-enabled-devices-during-work-hours policy on demand, explain how it is enforced and report how many violations of the policy have occurred in the past year.

Camera Surveillance

  • Camera surveillance network. Ideally, the daycare should have cameras recording all activities in the child areas during working hours. However, most daycare businesses still do not accommodate the request for camera recordings on the grounds of employee privacy. The reason for this is that direct surveillance of daycare businesses makes it difficult for these businesses to attract and retain low-paid daycare workers. Such workers may see the easy access to their portable devices as a trade-off for low wages. Even where there is camera surveillance, many employees know the blind spots of these cameras, the places where they can check internet-enabled devices without fear of detection.

Public Complaints And Notices

4) Public complaints and notices. At the very least, parents should contact the public agency (usually state or county) that regulates private daycares and ask how many complaints and notices the daycare has received in the previous 12 months. If there are many, or if they are serious, give that daycare a miss.

Demanding Accountability

Parents should hold daycare workers, directors and owners to account for any harms to their children that they believe resulted from daycare workers’ distracted behavior. A significant obstacle to making these allegations stick is the inability of parents to easily gather evidence that the worker’s distracted behavior contributed to the harm or that the harm could have been prevented if the worker were not distracted.

In most U.S. states, daycare businesses must complete an incident report and inform the parents when a child is physically harmed on daycare premises. Claims that repeated injuries were self-inflicted is a possible warning sign that the harms were the result of daycare workers’ distracted behavior.

If the child is pre-verbal (can’t yet speak), it is difficult to determine the truth of these claims. Parents should interview the director and the worker to determine the exact circumstances under which the injuries occurred. Lodging a complaint against the daycare with the state or county agency that regulates private daycare businesses is always an option.

Communication is also essential. Parents should talk to other parents about the problem. Sharing incident reports allows them to detect patterns of distracted behavior among specific daycare workers. Parents need not be ashamed to withdraw the child from the daycare if they suspect that it is a site where distracted behaviour is rife among the caregiving staff.

Last Resort – Suing The Daycare

Although no parent plans to sue their child’s daycare, in cases where a worker’s distracted behavior causes severe injury to a child, filing a lawsuit is a perfectly reasonable response. It can also be employed as a last resort, in case satisfaction cannot be had through less formal channels.

Following the example of Mister Rogers, it helps to consult experts on technical matters.The Injury Claim Coach is a good resource. Here, legal experts explain that most daycares require parents to sign waivers of legal liability. The waivers, however, are not an adequate defense in a court of law. Indeed, they are commonly struck down by courts as contrary to public policy.

Distracted Daycare: A Story

Injury Claim Coach offers an example of a child injured by a daycare worker because of “lack of supervision” and distracted behavior (cell phone use). In the example, 12 three-year-olds were left alone as the caregiver spoke on her cellphone. While the caregiver was distracted by her phone conversation, one of her charges repeatedly bit a second child on his back:

Later that evening, when the child’s mother was bathing him, she noticed several deep bite marks on his back. The mother applied an antibiotic to the wounds and bandaged them. The next morning, the child had a high fever. The emergency room physician diagnosed the child with a staph infection likely caused by the bite marks.

The parent alleged in court that the daycare was negligent and breached its duty of care to protect her child. The court agreed and ruled the daycare center was negligent. The court said the teacher breached her duty by leaving the children alone. “But for” the teacher’s actions, the child might not have the infection.

Satisfying Legal Standards

The standard legal elements that must be satisfied for a distracted daycare injury claim (civil suit for negligence) to be successful include:

1) The daycare center shoulders a duty of care (obligation) to prevent the child from suffering undue harm

2) The daycare center breached (violated) its duty of care

3) The child’s injuries were directly and proximately caused by the breach;

4) The daycare staff or management could foresee the injury

5) The nature and value of the child’s injuries must be proven.

The major roadblock for parents alleging that the children’s injuries were caused by a daycare worker’s distracted behavior is satisfying the threshold of proof required by a court of law (usually preponderance of evidence). Evidence that distraction contributed to the harm — in other words, “but for” the distraction the harm would not have ensued — is often difficult for parents to gather and easy for daycare owners, directors, and workers to hide.

Surveillance Cameras

Since parents wish to avoid sending their children to distracted daycares, naming and shaming these private businesses is a valid option. Another option is petitioning state and local governments to actively police distracted behavior in private daycares by, for instance, requiring surveillance cameras.

Keeping daycare workers, directors, and owners accountable for distracted behaviors and the harms they cause to children is of utmost importance to society at large. Harming children physically, cognitively and emotionally has terrible long-term social costs, from delinquency to addiction to incarceration.

Communities ought to honestly address the problem of distracted daycare, not minimize, deny, and cover it up. Parents, lawmakers and child welfare professionals should regularly broach the issue with the daycare business community. In the end, as Mister Rogers would remind us, open discussion of the problem and cooperative efforts to resolve it will make us all better neighbors!

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Shane J. Ralston, Ph.D., is an ethicist, educational philosopher and human resources professional who writes on issues of child welfare and public corruption. He is a parent of three small children. He is currently an Affiliate Advisor at Woolf University. To read related works, see his Academia.edu page or contact him by email.