You want someone who's kind, but not permissive; competent, but not officious; loving, but not gooey; conscientious, but not neurotic. You want your child to learn, but not feel pressured; to be disciplined, but not intimidated; to have room to run, but not run wild.
You're probably one of the thousands of working parents who make, or change, their child care arrangements around this time of the year. Here are some questions to ask yourself as you shop for a day-care center or family care:
* How does this facility look and feel? Is it clean, open, well-lighted? Is the temperature comfortable? Are the floors non-skid?
* What's the ratio of children to adults? Most child-development specialists recommend adult-child ratios of 1-to-3 for infants, 1-to-3 for 2-year-olds, and no more than one adult for every eight children aged 3 to 6.
For family day care, recommended ratios are a maximum of five children under age 2 for every adult, and six children aged 2 to 6.
* Is the facility licensed and inspected in accordance with your state's requirements? How are staff members screened? Are the children at the facility always supervised when they're in the presence of custodial help, bus drivers, substitute teachers, other parents?
* Are children provided with interesting, imaginative toys? Are they also safe and appropriate? Is there a fenced, well-equipped outdoor play area?
* How concerned does the caregiver seem to be about your child's safety? Are there uncovered electrical outlets, detergents medicines, sharp knives or scissors left where children can reach them?
* What's the staff's turnover rate?
* Is the person in charge willing to give you at least four references from satisfied clients? If she acts surprised or defensive, watch out.
* Is the facility well-prepared to deal with emergencies? Is there a well-maintained first-aid supply? Does the caregiver insist that parents supply proof of a physical examination within the past year, plus proof of up-to-date immunizations?
* Does the caregiver seem comfortable talking about discipline? Are her methods positive, consistent and appropriate, or punitive?
Corporal punishment is never OK, say the experts, but it's important to know what she plans to do instead.
* Do the adults in charge seem eager for ongoing communication with you? Are there regularly scheduled meetings? Would you be welcome to drop by unannounced?
Are parents encouraged to call?
* Are the children at the center or in the home bright-eyed and happy? Do they seem to accept direction from these caregivers without fear?
* Does the person in charge seem to be interested in your child's individual tastes and habits? Did she ask about your child's toileting and before-sleep rituals?
If your child is an infant, pay special attention to how the caregiver holds the babies during crying spells and feeding times. Check to see if the babies tend to establish eye contact with her (a sign of trust), or tend to squirm and look away.
* Finally, and most important, what do your own good instincts tell you about these people, this place?
Questions and comments for Niki Scott should be addressed Working Woman, Features Department, The Sun, Baltimore 21278.
- Universal Press Syndicate