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Raise Your Own
May 7, 2002
by Cathy Cuthbert

Our children have taken dance lessons since they were four years old at the local private dance studio, which gives me the opportunity to observe many young children and how they respond in class. At one time, the studio had difficulty finding a permanent instructor for the very youngest students, the three to five year olds. This had a disastrous effect on the program, because every time a temporary teacher left and a new one took over, most of the children--and by this I mean, nine out of 10--were so upset that their mothers stopped bringing them. Some of the children would cry and beg not to go into the studio; some went in but refused to participate with a new teacher. "Why is this so upsetting?" I pondered. "Why do they miss the previous teacher so much? She was merely a stranger at 45 minutes once a week."

Contemplating this phenomenon reminded me of Mrs. McGinty, a babysitter we had when we were very young. She rarely came to mind us, my mother being at home, yet we all loved her. One day when Mrs. McGinty couldn’t come and another little, gray-haired lady appeared in her place, I cried bitterly, begging for her. I was inconsolable, even when my mother arranged for her to come the next week. I sobbed all through that next visit. No picnic, no games, no amount of Mrs. McGinty’s sweetness and light could make things right again.

Adults use the catch-all phrase that change is upsetting to young children in such situations, but I’ve come to understand the child’s response as more significant. After all, my family has moved four times in the past 10 years and our children haven’t found these more significant changes in the least upsetting. Mrs. McGinty’s absence didn’t merely unsettle me; I was not being cranky that day. I believe I felt betrayed because I had been abandoned, and I think these young dancers felt that way, too. To children--say eight and under, but maybe older--anyone who steps in to mind them or teach them is taking on mom’s or dad’s role and becomes a surrogate parent. For this surrogate to then not return is, of course, traumatic.

This observation has consequences far beyond dance studios and babysitting services. Not only does it predict disruption for families who can provide little continuity in whom looks after the children, it predicts trouble for those who provide even what we might today consider the normal level of continuity, what my sometimes correspondent Valerie Moon calls "serial parenting."

In a speech she gave to an association of child care workers, Valerie coined the term serial parenting. She is referring to the employment of multiple babysitters, after school programs, and electronic wizardry to maintain our children until we show up after work, that is "our society’s new habit of having children and then farming them out to be raised." "Although almost everybody has someplace they have to be," she told her day care worker audience, "in our society being with the child is rarely that place--it’s as if the child is a hot potato who keeps getting passed around."[1]

Consider this: if being abandoned by one very-part-time surrogate mother/dance teacher is traumatic, what is it to be abandoned by a whole succession of surrogate mothers? And what is it to be abandoned by mom, the Real Thing, when forced to go to day care and school?

Am I waxing nostalgic for that Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to Beaver sort of life of a by-gone age? Well, yes, in a way, but not for nostalgia’s sake. My concerns are based in child psychology and human nature and are aligned with experts in the field, although not completely.

One of the most important articles on children in our society ever penned is Karl Zinsmeister’s "The Problem with Day Care."[2] That this article is not known by heart by every mother in this country is a scandal of profound proportions. In it, Zinsmeister relates the experience of William and Wendy Dreskin who owned a high quality day care facility in the San Francisco area. In their book, The Day Care Decision, the Dreskins wrote:

"For two years we watched day care children respond to the stresses of ten hours a day of separation from their parents with tears, anger, withdrawal, or profound sadness," the Dreskins write, "and we found, to our dismay, that nothing in our affection and caring for these children would erase this sense of loss and abandonment." They found themselves in a dilemma: "The problem was not with our facility… It was with a problem inherent in day care itself, a problem that hung like a dark storm over ‘good’ and ‘bad’ day care centers alike. The children were too young to be spending so much time away from their parents. They were like young birds being forced out of the nest and abandoned by their parents before they could fly, their wings undeveloped, unready to carry them into the world." " We were so distressed by our observations," the Dreskins conclude, "that we closed the center."

Zinsmeister goes on to report that nearly all experts on child development agree that it is harmful for children under three to be separated from their mothers, but my question is what is this magic that occurs on a child’s third birthday? Do four and five year olds really take playing the role of hot potato in stride? Do 12 and 13 year olds? Likely, age three is an arbitrary cut off correlating with pre-school enrollment rather than having true developmental significance, for clearly children of all ages need close contact with their parents, though the nature of that contact changes as children grow. Serial parenting interferes with necessary parental involvement at all ages, with teens often the most short changed of all.

John Taylor Gatto, who taught preteens, not toddlers, writes:

Just beneath the veneer of superficial good manners, these [children from comfortable families on the Upper West Side of Manhattan] were a group of angry kids, furious I think at the shallow waste of time academic schooling had become, furious at their parents for their dereliction from family life, their historic role as father and mother replaced by an endless string of surrogate parents in the form of private television sets, phones, computers, closets full of games and toys, and private lessons in music, art, dancing, singing and anything imaginable. What made these kids most angry was the way the school and the home had conspired to make their lives insignificant.[3]

The School Conundrum: Is Separating School and State Enough?

Libertarians like to talk about the free market solutions that will spring up once government schools are put out of business. There would be an explosion of choices spanning all teaching methodologies and espousing every world view. I am confident of the virtues to come from free market education, so much so that I choose to volunteer in the movement to separate school and state.[4] Yet despite the anticipation of a glorious free market triumph, I am not completely optimistic. I don’t foresee the abandonment of full-time, institutional schooling and the serial parenting that has risen around it, a prodigious hurdle barring true education reform. Why? Because child rearing is not an activity that should be hired out. The relationship between mother and child is not economic; it is deeply personal. Simply put, the division of labor cannot be applied to matters of the heart. Just as I would not hire a surrogate wife to fill my place in my husband’s bed, nor hire a surrogate sister or brother to console a sister in need, I could never hire a surrogate mother to raise my children. And central to the raising of children is their education.

The true nature of education is not, or at least not solely, the development of intellect. It is the development of character, which is why it can never be reduced to the mere transmittal of information from teacher to student. Whether the experts admit it or not, and regardless of our opinions as parents, all education results in the student being immersed in the teacher’s philosophy (or religion, or world view). Education is a shared experience for the student and teacher in what is implicitly their search for truth, wisdom and virtue. Our culture’s deepest tragedy is that a thing so vital, so intimate, and so spiritual as the education of our children has been left to hired hands, however well meaning, and predominantly government agents and electronic gadgets, at that.

This radical experiment of institutionalizing children--all day and on a mass scale--although from the beginning monstrous, has taken on grotesque proportions in recent years. Was our generation not the first to have our very worth as human beings defined by our academic achievements and reduced to a numeric score by ETS? Is it not in just the past 40 years that the term "drop out" has become synonymous with "criminal in training"? And have we not as parents dogged our children with schooling, not only by day but also by night, on weekends and during vacations by demanding greater homework loads at ever-younger ages? Despite research showing that early academics and institutionalized schooling are detrimental to children’s ability to learn--we can only guess at the affect on their ability to love, to be secure and to find happiness--education institutions from state to state can be heard constantly beating the drum to "get ‘em while they’re young": start DARE at fifth grade; extend Head Start to the middle class; lower the compulsory school age; begin the homosexual tolerance lessons in kindergarten, institute mandatory pre-school, and on and on.

Why parents seriously consider any of these proposals is beyond comprehension. Perversely, the typical parental response is, "Take ‘em while they’re young," even and maybe especially among the upper middle class. In well-to-do neighborhoods where the financial wherewithal exists for mom to be home for her children, it is a minority that eschews pre-school these days, and a smaller minority still that says no to kindergarten. "Got to get him into the right pre-school if we want little Johnny to go to Harvard." There is no opposing force of any weight on the education/political scene demanding the abolition, or even the delay, of institutionalization, or the attenuation of serial parenting, despite the rise of such free market phenomena as homeschooling, Mom’s Clubs and periodicals catering to stay-at-home mothers. Yes, even in homeschool circles, few question institutional schooling for other people’s children.

This is not to say that a math tutor or a co-op class puts children in imminent danger, or that teachers other than parents can’t offer valuable insights and experiences. Rather, it is the daylong institutionalization of children of all ages that must be condemned. Through daylong institutional schooling, America’s parents have rendered themselves utterly impotent. Having farmed out the rearing of our children, we are not parents at all, but boarding house proprietors, providing little more than room and, if the children are lucky, three squares a day. We are in danger of becoming, wholly unwittingly, the next Spartan race with our children this country’s first generation to be raised not by parents, or even part time parents, but by a procession of strangers. The wide acceptance of serial parenting is a Gordian knot that free market education alone cannot cut. Liberating education from the dead hand of government is a laudable goal, but is nevertheless only one of many stepping stones on our way to abandoning the institutional school and attaining intellectual freedom for our children.


1. "What Do We Want for Our Children?" Unpublished speech by Valerie Moon.

2. "The Problem with Day Care," by Karl Zinsmeister. The American Enterprise, May-June 1998 http://www.theamericanenterprise.org/taemj98m.htm

3. "A Curriculum beyond Money," by John Taylor Gatto. The LINK, vol. 5, no. 3.

4. The Alliance for the Separation of School and State, 559/292-1776, http://www.sepschool.org.

Cathy Cuthbert is the editor of The School Liberator, an email newsletter published by the Alliance for the Separation of School and State. She is also a wife and homeschool mother living in California.

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