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The Price of Parenting

Local experts and parents weigh in on the costs and benefits of paid and in-home child care.

Child care isn’t just a hot topic for current and future parents; it was even a focal point for 2016’s presidential election. In fact, the issue was deemed so important that it came up early in last year’s first debate between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the eventual winner, President Donald Trump.

While both agreed that action was needed on child care, there were differences in their specifics, but the conversation alone tells us that many Americans struggle with the costs, including here in Greater Orlando. Per data from the U.S. Department of Labor, Floridians pay an average of $8,694 per year for infant care—nearly double what in-state students at Florida’s public colleges can expect to pay per year on average for tuition—and despite the high-minded talk from presidential candidates, there’s no concrete relief on the horizon.

“All I know is, we can barely cover our [child care] costs,” says Monica F., who with husband Brian currently has three children in some form of daycare. “We’ll get some relief when our oldest can start looking after himself in a few years, but we’d love to see more in the way of financial aid or tax relief today.”

No wonder, then, that some families choose to have a parent stay at home rather than pay to have others watch their children. At the same time, high-end daycare offers advantages that a parent or grandparent might not be able to provide, but perhaps without the same close bond and intense care that comes from a parent.

What’s the right choice for you and your family? Only you can answer that—but it’s in your kid’s best interest that you understand the pros and cons of all options before committing fully to any form of child care.

Counting the Costs

Greater Orlandoans in Orange County can expect to pay approximately $8,681 per year for an infant, $6,684/year for a 4-year-old child, and $5,348 for school-aged children in families that need year-round child care. Those figures come from the Orlando-based nonprofit Community Coordinated Care for Children Inc., which puts costs for child care in Osceola County at similar albeit lower levels.

Per a Heart of Florida United Way Study of Financial Hardship in our state, this data means that local families with an infant and a 4-year-old child can expect to spend more on child care than housing, transportation and food. What’s more, given Greater Orlando’s median household income of $51,077 for 2015, the last year for which U.S. Census Bureau numbers are available, local families on average are paying more than 16 percent of their annual income on child care, while the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says that affordable child care shouldn’t cost more than 10 percent of a family’s earnings. Greater Orlando’s overall costs certainly give pause to some residents, particularly when they have more than one child.

“Natalie is our second and final child, and I wanted to be with her while she was a baby as much as I could,” says local mother Melissa H. of her and husband Ian’s children. “We also had my older daughter [Brynn] going to preschool/daycare, and we didn’t think having to pay for both of them to be cared for while we both worked would be worthwhile or cost effective. Daycare for infants can be pricey.”

Of course, averages are exactly that, with some area daycare facilities costing much more or much less, which ideally means there should be a financially affordable solution for everyone. When reality doesn’t match up with statistical expectations, though, some families have no choice but to pay up.

“We really do pay more for child care than we’d like to,” admits Monica F. “But with our careers and other commitments being what they are, we don’t have much of a choice in it.”

Families who are struggling to make ends meet should note that most local child care facilities offer some form of financial assistance and scholarships, and quality church-run programs can often be found at a fraction of a for-profit school’s costs.

Weighing the Benefits

What do families—and more importantly, the kids—get in exchange for paying for child care? Depending on what kind of program your child is enrolled in, the benefits can far outweigh the costs. For example, Peter Zimmerman, co-founder and religious leader of StarChild Academy, says his facilities can be more properly described as a school rather than child care. “We have an advanced academic curriculum,” he says, “and that’s really what we’ve developed a reputation for.”

Zimmerman says that StarChild’s focus on education means that enrollees often learn at a more advanced level than their age range requires; for instance, 3-year-olds might do a pre-K-level curriculum, and so on.

Similarly, Anne-Marie Boverie, owner of The Learning Center, says, “We believe that getting the children ready for kindergarten starts in the infant room, and thus [we have] age-appropriate lesson plans starting with 3-month-old babies.”

Rachel Robertson, vice president for education and development at Bright Horizons, says her centers take an emergent approach to curriculum. This means teaching what children are interested in, rather than coming up with a lesson plan and hoping the kids latch on.

“For example, if children are outside and see construction going on across the street, a teacher will take that and run with it in math and science and language,” she says, “and the social development can all be built around this construction interest that they have.”

In addition to offering advanced curriculum, paid child care can help develop social skills in a way that home-care alternatives frequently can’t. Says Zimmerman, “Being with other children, learning from other children, and also the variety of extracurricular activities and foreign languages we offer to children—there are some great advantages to going to a preschool like what we have to offer.”

Finally, paid child care can even expose your children to new cuisine in a way a family lacking a skilled chef probably can’t. “Our school still cooks food from scratch,” says Roselene Guex, director and CEO of Top Kids Academy, “and our menus are assessed and approved by the Department of Health.”

Eyeing the Alternatives

So, what are the alternatives to paid child care? Free options are sometimes available through churches, but for many, the answer is keeping mom or dad at home. And while a parent might not be able to provide the fully featured curriculum offered at Greater Orlando’s top child care providers, there are still advantages to be had.

“The biggest benefit for my 5-year-old is me just being there,” says Melissa H. “She just turned 4 when the baby was born, [and] she was definitely jealous of how much time and attention Natalie required.”

If having a parent stay home isn’t possible, a loving grandparent, aunt, uncle or even older sibling might be able to step in. “It’s great to be with your parents or grandparents,” Zimmerman acknowledges, but he also notes that it can be very expensive for a relative to provide any kind of solid curriculum or skills training.

To that end, says Robertson, the child should be involved in a playgroup or other organized activity to help develop those attributes. “The other thing a parent should focus on,” she adds, “is reading and using rich vocabulary. Teachers know to do that, and parents should do that if the child is home.”

Babysitters are another option, especially after school, but experts strongly recommend being 100 percent certain about anyone you entrust with your child.

Ultimately, the most important consideration when choosing child care should always be what’s best for your kids, and there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Just don’t think for a second that so-called educational toys or smart devices can be a substitute for real learning. “Really minimize technology,” says Robertson. “Those things, in most cases, don’t contribute to development.”

This article originally appeared in Orlando Family Magazine’s February 2017 issue.

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