Monday, March 10, 2014

The Daycare, the Toddler, and the Cheese Sandwich

I am sure you've all heard about the debacle at an Ottawa daycare centre last week, where a two year old girl was automatically suspended for three days for carrying a wrapped cheese sandwich into the room in her pocket. The daycare has a strict no outside food policy. And apparently a zero tolerance policy (written or not) and no room for a consideration of circumstances around an event. (I guess you can tell where I stand on the matter.) If you aren't familiar with the situation, you can read news coverage all kinds of places, including here, here, and here.

Boo's daycare also had a strict no outside food policy. They provided snacks and a hot lunch, and it was awesome and nutritious and delicious. And there were severe allergies to peanuts, sesame, and other food allergens among the kids. Because we were a busy family, with a commute ahead of us, and because Boo was never ready to eat breakfast right when he woke up, he had his breakfast in the car on the way to daycare most mornings. He ate in the back seat, and we were careful to never give him anything containing nuts (not even Honey Nut Cheerios, which he loved). When we got to the daycare we always made sure he finished what he was eating before entering the building. Did we check his pockets? No. It would not have occurred to us. Maybe it should have.

When I first heard of this story I thought the father had deliberately sent in a lunch with his child, flouting the rules. Not cool, Daddy. But then I looked into the details and realised the toddler had just shoved her dashboard dining breakfast into her pocket, instead of eating it. There was no premeditation or desire to break rules here. No making a point or protest.  A little kid hid a sandwich from her dad.

I can see how this might go down. Should the dad have ensured she ate her sandwich in the car? Checked to make sure she wasn't carrying it? Probably, but a harried parent on daycare drop-off of two young children can sometimes miss a detail. (Her 4 year-old brother was there as well.)

In law there's the concept of the "reasonable person" test. What would a reasonable person do in a given circumstance?  In this instance, picture the daycare worker helping the two year old girl hang up her coat. She notices some plastic sticking out of the pocket, maybe while tucking away her mittens. When she pulls out a sealed cheese sandwich, what would you expect to be her reaction?

Given the age of the child, and the fact the sandwich was in her pocket, not carefully placed in her napsack, I would expect a "reasonable person" would understand there was no ill-will here. Perhaps the worker would bring the sandwich to Dad, since he's still at the daycare and say something like, "Looks like someone didn't like their breakfast this morning! Could you maybe give her a little frisk for contraband before she comes in tomorrow?" Apology from dad, maybe they both laugh. Dad takes and disposes of sandwich and no harm is done.

This two year old is too young to understand what's going on. Suspending her will not teach her. It will give her three days to sleep in and stay home to play with her parent. Yes, a mistake was made. Yes, the daycare has a responsibility to protect all the children in its care. But there's a big disconnect here between the punishment and the ... I can't even call it a crime.

In general, I am not in favour of zero tolerance policies, as they ignore special circumstances and remove the ability of decision-makers to really assess a situation and place appropriate consequences that can encourage learning. I'm surprised in this case that a daycare worker could think that a three day suspension would be developmentally appropriate for a two year old. Did they really believe that the parent sent in that sandwich on purpose? I can only hope that was their assumption. Dad has now pulled both kids from the daycare and is looking for alternate care. I don't blame him. This is not about the no outside food policy. It's about a rigid application of black and white rules without consideration of specific circumstances.

What do you think?

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