Why do Parents send Sick Kids to School and Daycare? What can we do about it?

One day care centre manager remarked to me "We are not a hospital! We are not qualified to look after sick kids. Sick kids should stay at home."

One daycare centre manager remarked; “We are not a hospital! We are not qualified to look after sick kids. Sick kids should stay at home.”

I was strapping my kids into the car outside daycare last week when a newbie mum came up to me to ask a few questions, quickly progressing to the meat: “And what about…germs?” “Oh, yeah,” I nodded ruefully, ‘There’s LOADS of those.’

She groaned when I told her the ugly truth; that, time after time, parents send their sick kids to daycare. All daycares, anywhere, everywhere. No where seems to be exempt. Fevers, recent vomiting with diarrhoea, tenacious, snotty green noses – once daycare starts, winters of pretty much constant illness can be expected. At least that was the experience of both myself and close friends. I tried comfort her with the fact that each successive winter is slightly improved on the one before, but she was of course still gutted. So why do parents do it?  Why are sick kids still sent to daycare and, while we’re at it, school too? And if we can work out why, can we action plan action ways to reduce it?

Here are five reasons that I could think of:

1. Ignorance: These parents don’t fully understand the germ/infectivity cycle. They may also not realise how long their children are infectious for post acute onset of symptoms.

Suggested Action: Frequent Parent education about common infections and seasonal illnesses. This can be done through school and centre newsletters and posters. Also, daycare centre managers have an opportunity to have this conversation with parents on orientation.

2. Lack of empathy: These people rank themselves and their activities as more important than those of people around them. This erodes any feeling of empathy they may have for others who may get unwell because of their own sick kids. I like to think that there aren’t many people like that around, but in busy cities with nameless- faces-not-people, lack of empathy itself spreads like a disease –

Suggested Action: I can’t really think of any actions and I blame this on loss of social conscience (here are my thoughts on Selfish City Living and Germ Spread). I hope that less densely populated areas may fare better because people know each other but I have no research or personal experience to back this up. Ideas welcome.

3. Some empathy present but ultimately  sees self/own activities as more important: These people may have a flicker of guilt at the prospect of causing their kid’s illnesses to spread to others but are able justify it by viewing it as a ‘one off,’ that it’s not something they would usually do. There may also be an element of  seeing oneself as a ‘victim’ here too, see point 5.

Suggested Action: Frequent illness reminders and parent education could help to increase the potency of the flicker of guilt which may help reduce the chances of a sick kid being sent in sick.

4. Believes in the value of germ spread (i.e builds immunity, didn’t do me any harm!), belittles the impact of what these germs may have on others: These people have decided that germs are good for everyone (when it suits them) and will happily spread their germs around regardless of the fact germs affect people differently and to different extents (see Are Daycare Germs good for us? A look at the 21st Century Sickly Child).These people will often expect that a illness that is mild to them, will be just as mild to everyone else and will ultimately make them stronger.

Suggested Action: Again, Education. Although, often people with this mindset can be quite resistant to change and often believe their anecdotal evidence supersedes the medical evidence base, but there is no harm in trying this approach.

5. Victims of circumstance, these parents see themselves as having “No Choice”in sending their sick kids to daycare and school. These people don’t see that they have any power to keep their children at home, preventing germ spread due to the pressure of their own external circumstances. I’ve heard people at the playground speak of their sick kids (playing next to mine on the slide) “Well, I can’t keep him/her inside all day can I, what would we do?” or they may believe or claim that they have no control over missing work to look after their sick kids. Instead, they impose the responsibility for their sick kid upon the community; other mums and kids who are exposed at the playground, and the daycare/school who suddenly find themselves being used as a substitute sick bay.

Suggested Action: This is a tricky one. There is no doubt that working parents in particular have it very hard when their kids get sick. The decision to take time off work to look after unwell children can be affected by employers, the attitudes of colleagues, financial issues, deadlines, clients, business reputation and much much more.  On the other hand, in the interests of maintaining the health of the population, it is unacceptable to permit disease spread for this reason.  Nor is it at all fair on the families that are highly conscientious in minimising their own germ spread.

In a caring society that has the interest of kids in mind, it may be well to consider whether other options could or should become available for children technically unwell enough to go to school when parents can’t/don’t want to miss work in order to 1. Protect the sick child (who should be resting) and 2. Protect the healthy kids. But what? By the way, it’s also worth highlighting that it’s not always the stereotypical ‘working mum or dad’ that leaves sick kids in care or school. A friend witnessed a mother packing her very snotty and unwell kid to daycare so she could take her older ones to the cinema as it was school holidays. Nice 😦

Can you think of any other reasons why a parent would send their sick kids to school or daycare? Do you have any ideas for solutions or action plans we could consider that may reduce this in order to improve the wellbeing of all families, working or not? I’m still thinking of possible solutions AND I have couple of ideas that I’m working on. They won’t change the world but they’ll start a conversation, I hope. I’ll share them when they are closer to actualisation which, fingers crossed, will be soon…

You may also like to read:

Are Daycare Germs Good for Us? A look at the 21st Century Sickly Child

RE-Respect the Germ: A Call to Modify our outdated attitudes to Illness 

Daycare and Germs Article for Platinum Newsletter

Rest at Home for 48 Hours after Gastro: Does Social Conscience still Exist?

Fight against Antibiotic Resistance Week and Why We need to start Respecting Illness Again

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  2 comments for “Why do Parents send Sick Kids to School and Daycare? What can we do about it?

  1. Mary V
    December 2, 2013 at 8:28 am

    AAArrgghh!! People’s attitudes are so hard to change, this is where part of the problem lies. I really do understand working parents, yes you need money, we all do, however, I really don’t think you can raise children without some sacrifices, particularly when it is in the best interest of your child. I have seen mothers take their snotty, pale, sick children to school because God forbid they miss a yoga class or some time by themselves. If you’re not prepared to sacrifice, don’t have kids. A little harsh I know, but if you have spent any time in hospital watching your child really struggling to revive themselves from a virus it might change your mind on why parents should keep sick kids at home. We really are a selfish society. Starting a conversation about it is a great start. Go nurse Naomi!

    • Naomi R Cook
      December 3, 2013 at 12:00 am

      Thanks so much for these thoughts Mary and it’s such a relief to find that others are also disturbed by this. At the moment it is only a conversation, but I really hope that it could develop into more. I guess it depends on whether or not we find we are in the majority or the minority…

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