My first big mistake happened on the first day: using the wagon on the walk to school.
My daycare wasn’t the all-day deal, with naps and babies and gates on the stairs; I was taking care of school-aged children before and after school. It was a part-time gig to provide a bit of income while I transitioned from a full-time reporter to a freelance writer.
I thought the wagon was a smart move. Two of my charges were four-year-olds who walked at a snail’s pace and got distracted by every dandelion they passed. The idea of wrestling them into their jackets and shoes and urging them up the street like a herd of turtles to make the morning bell wasn’t appealing. I figured I could pull them in the wagon and make it there on time. The other two kids, aged six and seven, could walk.
But logic doesn’t rule in the world of small children. In fact, it’s still a bit strange to me, two years removed, that I actually ran a daycare. It’s a huge cottage industry in Toronto, where institutional spots are pricey and in short supply. The private daycares tend to be run by women, and they’re easy to spot in the schoolyard after the bell, doling out snacks and guarding backpacks while their charges play. I felt good that, in a small way, I was busting a gender stereotype. See, folks, guys can do this, too!
I had four kids for the hour or so before school, two of whom were my own daughters. After school, the group grew to six—all girls. The kids called it “Daddy Daycare,” which is a cliché and a rip-off of a bad Eddie Murphy movie, but it stuck.
But even though I consider myself a good and committed dad, I was a rookie at professional childminding, and the wagon was my first big lesson. It wasn’t long before the complaints started from the older girls. No fair! Why do the little kids get a ride? Because they’re younger and you’re big and strong, I’d say. That went nowhere, with constant complaints and sulking shuffles that imperilled our on-time arrivals (note: it’s a daycare no-no to fail to punctually deliver the children to school).
I tried to defuse things by letting the big kids ride one day while the younger kids walked. This, I soon realized, was ridiculous, as I ended up hauling two perfectly mobile, smirking kids while the two youngsters who’d had the rug pulled from under them wailed.
For the after-school period with the larger group (where there was more time to saunter home), I’d established that the wagon would be used for backpack transportation only. But I made another mistake when I took pity on one of the girls after a nasty-looking fall she had at school and let her ride home. Now it was an ambulance, and phantom injuries began appearing—limps materialized in kids I had just seen in full sprint. I took the nobody’s-fool approach and forced the thespians to walk, limps and all. They usually gave in at this point, but sometimes one of them would really commit and stagger home, screaming and clutching bushes for support while the rest of us walked ahead. Honestly, I’m surprised no bystanders called the police.
As a male child care provider, I also stood out at the school, mostly with encouragement from other parents and caregivers but not without the odd moment of random, unsolicited bystander advice in the vein of “My, a little chilly for no coats, isn’t it?” I resisted pointing out that I didn’t go to their offices to offer tips.
This isn’t to say that crisis was a daily occurrence. Far from it, amid the lessons, there was also a lot of joy. It was a job for sure, but one that kept me outside during the warmer months—though the deep freeze of winter was no fun and I harboured the constant fear that someone would lick a subzero metal fence post on my watch (I brought a thermos of warm water on really cold days just in case). They were also a group of truly nice kids, and I kind of respected the commitment to the faked injuries (after the fact).
Every day is casual day Moving from an office job to a daycare situation means a big drop in formality, and I was more than fine with that. I got to be silly and not feel like I was wasting time. And kids are funny.
End-of-the-day feeling I’ve had many jobs where I’ve gone home and questioned whether anything I did meant anything. This wasn’t one of those jobs. Minding children may not be complicated, but I found it fulfilling. There’s a feeling that good and bad decisions you make can have consequences, and the good days (which were most of them) were, indeed, very good.
Spending more time with my kids The bonus was the involvement of my daughters. Any time with them is time happily spent, even when they’re misbehaving. I did have to work to find the sweet spot of parenting my own kids while minding others. I don’t know if I ever found it, but I’m still friends with the parents, so that’s something.
Food arguments I was foolishly undisciplined early on in my snack distribution after school. Who wants cheese sticks? I have crackers—come back when you’re hungry! Pretty soon, it was open season for claims of 5 p.m. starvation. A better plan would have been the zookeeper approach: You get a certain amount at a certain time and that’s it. Fortunately, I had understanding parents who never complained to me about spoiling their kids' appetites.
The noise Little kids—especially girls—have fearsome vocal powers and will use screams aggressively to drown out other voices or express anger. I would rank the sound somewhere near the full rev of a Boeing 747 in terms of volume. It cuts straight to the brain.
Dispute resolution With three four-year-olds, two six-year-olds and a seven-year-old, the girls tended to break into two groups of three. Three can become political, and my first instinct was to step in on arguments over whose turn it was on the slide or the monkey bars. The problem is, the rage quickly turned on me and my unfairness in sorting it all out. The fact that my kids were part of it made it more complicated, both with the urge to take their side if I thought they’d been wronged and the fact that I had latitude to punish my kids in a way I couldn’t with the others.
In the end, I kept the daycare going for two years, until my freelance work picked up and one of the families moved away. There was also a bit of emotional fatigue: Kids being kids, the stress of dealing with arguments among my charges wore on me a bit. I am in awe of people who do this kind of thing year in and year out. But it was a memorable and satisfying personal chapter and, if I ever do it again, I’ll leave the damn wagon at home.