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Child Care Pick-up Problems: Why Your Child Dawdles at Day's End
Have you ever found yourself an unwilling actor in the following drama:

Every time I go to pick up my daughter at her day care, it is hard to get her to leave and go home with me. She might run to the computer and start doing something, calling out “Look, Mommy.” Or she will go and get a puzzle, dump out all the pieces, and start to work it. And, of course, we can’t leave until they’re all back in place. Or she runs to the indoor climber and tells me to watch. Or she wants to show me the fish, the bulletin board, the assignment board, or something else. The worker on duty doesn’t like it any more than I do, but if I try to rush her out it usually leads to a scene. It hurts my feelings because she acts like she doesn’t want to go home or isn’t glad to see me.

This kind of behavior occurs with such regularity that it can ruin the drive home and taint the rest of the evening. You’re tired after a day at work and are mentally making a list of all you have to do after you get home. Furthermore, you have to make another stop to pick up another child! And you know the person on late duty at the child care center has a lot to do to get the facility ready for the next day and doesn’t want to prolong the departure routine any more than you do.

Very early in my career as a child care director and program developer, I became aware of this behavior. I used to refer to it in speeches and articles whenever someone would claim that children in child care hated to be there and didn’t do anything but sit around and mope or cry all day. (We don’t see those claims very often any more, but 20 years ago there would be at least one in every issue of a popular magazine.) “Unhappy in child care?” I would protest. “Why, most of the time they don’t want to go home when their parents come to get them!” My assertion that the children didn’t want to go home immediately was unquestionably true, but my understanding of the situation was superficial. It took more observations and more careful thought to figure out what was happening. And I had some help from a little 3-year-old named Nicholas.

What I became aware of was that there was a definite pattern to those aspects of the daily routine that the dawdling children went through after their parents arrived: they repeated things they had done during the day. In however much time they could persuade the pick-up parent to remain, they would re-cap their day in mini-episodes. For example, in the above episode, the computer demonstration wouldn’t satisfy the child unless she could have the same software she had used earlier in the day. The dumped-out puzzle wouldn’t be just a random puzzle taken from the shelf; it would be the one she had worked during the morning. And you could be sure that the assignment sheet she pointed to would have her name on it.

But let me relate the help I got from Nicholas, one of the children attending the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Child Care Center when I was director. His mother was on the faculty of the School of Nursing at the university, which meant that her to pick-up time was of necessity a bit erratic. She was always wonderfully patient with him, even though on some days he was a little bit agitated when she got there. No matter what time she arrived, he went through his little routine of repeating the day’s activities and resisted leaving. One day I happened to walk through the classroom when his mother and the aide on duty were trying to persuade him to put on his coat so he could go home. He broke free from both of them and tried to open the door to the playground, saying excitedly “Jungle gym, jungle gym.” I was in just the right spot to intercept him, and, as I did, I said, “But, Nicholas, it’s time to go home now. You climbed the jungle gym this morning.” He looked at me in all earnestness and said, “I want Mommy to know.”

And with that announcement—“I want Mommy to know”—I had a sudden insight as to why this behavior was so common in young children. They live an interesting and exciting day when they are fortunate enough to be in child care of high quality, and they want to share that experience with their parents and are not just being dawdly and difficult. Since the parents can’t be there when the events actually occur, and since their reporting language is still too limited to allow them to give a full verbal report, this action re-cap is the best they can do.

So, as parents, how do we handle this? Well, there are a lot of things about parenting that aren’t exactly fun—like waiting for a seeming eternity for a determined child to dress himself, or wiping up high chair tray, face, table, and floor as self-feeding begins—which we tolerate (or maybe even enjoy) because we know they are important indications of developmental progress. So put pick-up resistance in that category and accept it as a positive sign. It doesn’t mean that she isn’t glad to see you or that she would rather stay in her child care than go home. What it does mean is that she is demonstrating how much you mean to her by sharing her day with you. Furthermore, she is giving you a wide-open window to what she is doing in her child care. You can probably learn more about her level of participation, the variety of things she is learning, and whether she truly enjoys what happens there by observing her re-cap than you can from a teacher conference.

So what if dinner has to be pushed back 10 minutes! All too soon you’ll be asking, “What happened in school today?” and get the reply, “Nothing.” So enjoy it while you can.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education