The school day for kids customarily ends earlier than the workday for grownups with the kinds of regular, 9-to-5 hours we like to pretend still exist. That’s nothing new, and for whole entire generations it has posed challenges for single parents and working parents in two-income households, who must make some arrangement that keeps their children safe and cared-for in the gap between the end of school and the end of work. Not every family has or can have a stay-at-home parent. Afternoon childcare is expensive. As things stand now, an abbreviated workday simply is out of the question for most working people.
Because of how shit goes in America, this has been a particular challenge for moms, onto whom society traditionally heaps all the practical, immediate responsibilities of parenthood, whether they have careers outside of child-raising or not. (Not for nothing, but the wage gap acts as an enforcer of this: A family with two working parents likely will default to expecting the mom to make career sacrifices if circumstances require any, as she’s more likely to make the smaller share of the family’s income.) And, America after all being a deeply stratified society that hates and despises the vulnerable, what is a challenge for moms is a bigger challenge for working-class and poor moms. And because America is, on top of and above all else, insanely racist, what is a challenge for working-class and poor moms is disproportionately a challenge for moms of color, and therefore reinforces basically all of this country’s structural inequalities. This is a problem.
But what is the nature of the problem? Try out phrasing it in one sentence and see what sounds right. "The existence of dependent children makes it too hard for poor people to spend all their time at work." No, that is not it.
“These damn lazy teachers think they can just clock out and go home at the end of a normal workday instead of providing day care for other people’s children into what would ordinarily be considered a normal dinnertime, and that’s all messed up.” Still not it!
“Every afternoon, roving packs of feral children descend upon the peaceful neighborhoods of America, destroying all in their path from 3 to 6 p.m.” Close! Very close. I too am alarmed by the roving packs of feral children; as everybody knows, society’s gravest responsibility is to make sure that children never go or exist anywhere — even their own homes! — without constant adult supervision. But I think this is not quite the heart of the problem.
The thing is, if it were in any way a viable option, most parents would choose time with their kids over having a couple extra hours to file TPS reports or dispose of fryer grease.
How about this one: “It’s unduly expensive for working parents to store their children someplace while they finish their workday.” That seems like it’s almost it, right? Kamala Harris and the Center for American Progress apparently think that’s it. Broadly, it’s a true statement. Childcare is, in fact, too expensive.
Is that the root of it, though? The thing is, if it were in any way a viable option, most parents would choose time with their kids over having a couple extra hours to file TPS reports or dispose of fryer grease. I do not want to dismiss the lived experience of insane workaholics and strivers and careerbots, but probably it is safe to say that, where the average person’s workday does not conveniently align with their children’s school day, they are more likely to wish that gap would close in favor of their home life — to wish that the conditions of American working life did not force upon them the demeaning requirement that they dully exist in their workplace for a certain set number of hours per day or risk destitution — than they are to pine for more time to get this dang User Acceptance Testing analysis finished and sent off.
And then there is also the matter of the kids themselves, who after all are whole actual people being shuffled among harried caregivers like so much sodden garbage in all these formulations. The problem, for kids, is not that from the hours of 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. they lack for the presence of an underpaid, overworked guardian casting a bleary and deeply resentful eye over their haphazardly structured time-spending. The problem for kids is that the constraints of American life categorize them as an expensive drag on their parents’ work productivity, and values their parents solely in terms of that work productivity, and that arrangement is fundamentally monstrous, immoral, and anti-human.
Okay. So how about this: “Too many kids can’t just go home at the end of the school day, because no loving caregiver can be there to receive them and get them a snack and set them to doing their chores or whatever.” That seems closer to the thing, to me. It is natural and good for families to be together, for parents to be children’s primary caregivers; it is good for kids to be with their parents and siblings; it is healthy for them to spend more waking hours among the people who love them than among the haggard laborers tasked with wrangling and suppressing the emergent anarchism of 30 little kids into a job-saving standardized test results curve.
And anyway, fuck school! Have you been to a school lately? Schools are prison-like, security-choked nightmares, even good ones. The idea that school is a safe place to store a kid for extra hours, in a society that has actively chosen to allow those schools to function as shooting galleries — where someday soon the overextended functionary reading Horton Hears a Who to your kid might be packing a compulsory .38 inside their cardigan in case they need to win a shootout against a psycho with a machine gun — rather than pass and enforce reasonable gun laws is insane on its face. Schools are hell. Every hour in one is too many hours in one.
And for that matter, fuck work, too! So long as we’re legislating changes to the contours of American life, is there some particular reason why these changes must extract yet more childhood from children, rather than liberating workers from the stultifying, dehumanizing ritual of occupying a boss’s line of sight long enough to loosen his grip on each next paycheck? Can literally any American generation be the one that doesn’t pay for its cowardice, inertia, and lethargy by stealing from the next one? (The answer to that one is "no," but it feels good to ask.)
So how about, even better: “The workday is too long.” I’m into this one. Productivity gains long ago made the eight-hour workday excessive and pointless in the vast majority of the 9-to-5 type industries; employers preserve it by cutting jobs, to render the remaining workers ever more insecure and servile. If you have a 9-to-5 type of job in America in 2019, you likely already know that half or more of your workday goes to needless make-work bullshit and soul-destroying hour-long meetings covering 30 seconds’ worth of ground. Even worse, telework and the omnipresence of smartphones have already harmfully blurred the edges of the workday for laborers across vast sectors of American life; even when you’re not at work, you’re almost never completely not at work. The eight-hour workday, even more than the six-hour school day, is a relic, a ritualized performance of subservience. Asking kids to spend 10 hours a day in school so that their parents can carry it out with fewer distractions is child abuse. The solution to any of this is not to crumple capitalism’s shit up into a ball and eat it.
Okay, so, best of all: “American life is a nightmare.” What it lacks in specificity it makes up for in accuracy. Let the kids be kids, while they can, before they wake up into it.