‘The kids need my best self…you have to model like the appropriate reaction to any emotion that you’re feeling…like instead of getting angry…it’s very draining…Children have a range of emotion throughout the day that we have to cope with and manage and help them with…It’s a big part of what we do.’ ~ Liz [White, center, 30s]

This section contains analyses of the data collected for this paper. It is organized in terms of the following themes. First, a discussion of ECEC skills and what they look like. Second, what it means to learn skills experientially or on the job. This section includes workers’ critiques of professionalization standards and credentialing. The subsequent section maps out how practices of skill are organizationally shaped across family and center-based settings. Finally, given the differential requirements for skills used with children and parents, the last two sections address these areas separately. Through these sub-sections, skills are discussed in relation to emotional labor.

ECEC skills

This section outlines the skills that teachers and providers identified as essential to their work. Interpersonal and emotional skills were given particular primacy, consistent with scholarship on the importance of emotions in ECEC work (Colley 2006; Fairchild & Mikuska, 2021; Vincent & Braun, 2013; Mikuska & Fairchild, 2020; Morris, 2018; Osgood, 2010; Elfer 2012, 2015; Ed. Langford, 2019).

As Martha, [White, center, 40 s] noted, ECEC work is ‘a job where you have to have lots of emotions.’ It requires embodied and experiential skills which are devalued societally and by the state. Caregivers emphasized the importance of experience in skill-building. They did not feel credentials were most important for the shaping of their most critical skills: managing emotions within themselves, children and parents (Colley 2006; Vincent & Braun, 2013; Elfer 2012, 2015). Teachers and providers emphasized the skills in the emotional labor of ECEC work, arguing that these are not acquired through credentialing and are undervalued by the state.

Managing emotions demands a range of skills. Patience is constructed as a skill; it is also a pre-requisite for effectively leveraging communication skills to manage children’s and parents’ emotions. In fact, Liz [White, center, 30s] stated her biggest challenge was to ‘cultivate patience’ while communicating with parents. Similarly, Alma [Latina-immigrant, family, 40s] noted ‘it’s harder working with the parents than the kids’—a sentiment echoed across settings. Ximena [Latina-immigrant, family, 40s], for example, felt you ‘need to be patient with parents more than with children’, and Rachel [White, center, 30s] noted that, ‘…the kids are the easy part’. She explained how she leveraged patience and judgment, conveying concerns to parents about their children’s behavior: ‘You want the parent right on board with you but they can’t always come along at the same rate. You have to be somewhat patient with what’s going on with them personally’. Thus, teachers and providers across settings, skillfully respond to parental concerns (Uttal, 2002) while managing their own emotions. Sometimes, says Jane [White, center, 40 s], you also have to be ‘a good politician with the parents’ especially when discussing sensitive issues like special needs. Lynne [White, center, 40 s] noted this requires patience, but also diplomatic management of ‘crying’ parents, often in denial about their child’s reality.

Learning skills on the job

Teachers and providers rejected gendered understandings of their work as ‘natural’ and therefore ‘unskilled’. Many highlighted experientially acquired skills, challenging the presumed natural quality of paid work in the ECEC sector. Marisol [Latin-Immigrant, Centre, 40s] noted: ‘people assume because you’re a woman you have the skills to be a teacher…you do not…the first time a child hit me with play-dough…I cried. I went home crying’. Such skills, required to manage emotions deemed inappropriate for the workplace, were identified as important across settings.

While some teachers and providers indicated you need ‘a certain amount’ of patience from the outset, almost all emphasized patience grows with experience. Carrie [White, Centre, 30s] points to these complexities in her work with children:

‘I did have a lot of it [patience] coming in but I’ve had to learn how to be more patient…teaching in a classroom…it’s changed my personality but it’s changed my skillset in terms of how I work with other people, how I communicate…using words to express feelings. Using manner…it’s a practice, it’s a practiced…thing that we do here every day.’

Patience is critical for the management of teachers’ own emotions. Far from being ‘innate’, this skill is acquired by ‘doing’, not from ‘a textbook’ [Sara, White, 20s]. Lindsay [White, center, 20s] noted: ‘In school you learn how to educate…[children] but you don’t learn how to…manage their emotional…kids are happy and the next thing you know two kids are fighting…you don’t learn that at school.’ This perspective, shared by several other teachers and providers, underscores how workers balance multiple techniques to manage emotions in others. They use discretion, making on-the-spot autonomous decisions in unpredictable situations.

Emphasizing experiential skills, workers begrudged having to ‘prove’ their competency through mandated professionalization that did not appear to guarantee increased remuneration. Worker critiques of the naturalization of care were inseparable from critiques of the state’s professionalization efforts. Though designed to raise the value of ECEC work as a profession almost all center-based teachers and providers viewed investments in education as a financial setback, fearing job loss when these were not possible.

Even when education was deemed valuable there was a tension between teachers’/providers’ conceptions of skill and the state narrative. Even those with formal qualifications stressed experience mattered more than credentials, or that the latter could not substitute for the former (Rodriquez, 2014). These perspectives were reflected in the data irrespective of educational status and are consistent with scholarship addressing the limitations of professionalization standards with regard to credentialing and quality (Armenia, 2006; Bolton, 2005; Cohen, 2010; Early et al., 2007; Ed. Langford, 2019; Fairchild & Mikuska, 2021; Folbre, 2012; Mikuska & Fairchild, 2020; Morris, 2021; Nelson and Abel 2000; Osgood, 2010; Payne, 2009; Taggart, 2011; Tuominen, 2003; Uttal, 2002; Vincent & Braun, 2013).

For example, Sara [White, center, 20 s], a college graduate, did not feel her degree should be valued over ‘hands-on-knowledge’, noting her colleagues resented having to ‘prove themselves’ to the state. Veteran teacher Ivonne [White, center, 50s] said, ‘I realize all I’m doing is proving…I’m proving what I’ve been doing all along’. Noting her Masters had not prepared her for the challenges of family-based care, Kimberly [White, family, 30s] indicated this work was ‘much more difficult than teaching’ in public schools. Similarly, Rachel [White, center, 30s] said: ‘I studied early Ed in school. I can’t tell you one thing that I learned that would be relevant to this, except for one day…we learnt how to make special snowflakes’.

Similarly, Marisol [Latina-immigrant, center director, 40s], with a Master’s, remarked, it might be ‘…quicker to get the skills but just because you have a Bachelor’s degree doesn’t mean you can actually have those skills’. She stressed, ‘…the main skills develop through working’ and experience…[that’s] what really gives you the ability’. Thus, credentials cannot be equated with skill. While they might make skill acquisition faster, translating knowledge into requisite skills is not automatic. Carrie [White, center, 30s] echoed this:

‘…being in their [children’s] world…having that subset of skills, creativity mindfulness, thoughtfulness, umm thinking outside of the box, those are things you can’t…I don’t know if sitting through the classroom and you know going through the paperwork and doing the test would make me a better teacher.’

Rachel, who having obtained communication skills experientially, lead experiential-based trainings, made a similar point. Her autonomy in this process reflected the centers’ recognition of teachers’ expertise.

Yet, in most instances center-based teachers and providers did not feel their expertise or skills were valued (Gass, 2004; Uttal, 2002). Carrie said: ‘I do believe that the job we have is one of the most important jobs out there, um, I do absolutely feel like it is not valued enough by the government [and] just the general population.’ She noted that because people end up ‘devaluing’ ECEC work, center-based teachers feel they are ‘merely babysitters’. Reaffirming other scholarship (Fairchild & Mikuska, 2021; Nelson & Lewis, 2016; Tuominen, 2003) center-based teachers and family-based providers commonly dis-identified with ‘babysitters’. Gabby [White, center, 20s] noted, ‘Some of my friends are like, oh you’re babysitting, and I’m like, no…I’m not babysitting…I teach them’. Like Gaby, many workers across both ECEC settings identified their work as more legitimate, dis-identifying with babysitting.

Organizationally shaped practices of skill

Contrary to conceptions about family-based care being less ‘skilled’ than center-based care which is considered to be more institutionalized (Folbre, 2001; Uttal, 2002), it is not skill degree that varies across organizational context, but its practice. Although family-based providers are self-employed, parents influence (but do not control) the practice of emotional labor—like employers, they extract workers’ emotional labor for a wage. While across settings workers have face-to-face client interactions, producing emotions in others by regulating their own feelings, neither family nor center-based care is characterized by rigid employer/client control. Autonomy not only allows for, but necessitates skill in the emotional labor of ECEC work, making it anything but ‘unskilled’. Irrespective of ethnicity/race, family-based care providers underscored nurturing aspects of care with accounts about skill in emotional labor. Consistent with Tuominen (2003), they adopted a ‘family style’ [Tina, White, family, 30 s] or ran their day-cares ‘like a family’ [Sofia, Latina-immigrant, family, 20s], but still viewed their work as skilled.

Center-based teachers (across race/ethnicity) emphasized a desire to care for children. They talked about making children’s ‘lives better’ [Tanya, White, center, 20s], wanting to ensure they were ‘comfortable’ [Rachel], rather than invoking family ideals. These accounts, more similar within settings than across ethnic/race-based groups, reveal organizational variations in care processes (Lopez, 2006; Stacey, 2011; Tuominen, 2003) and the practice of skill.

Neither setting represents coercive emotional labor or organized emotional careFootnote 13 (Lopez, 2006). Instead, each reflects emotional labor and care to varying degrees. Hegemonic feeling rules are not dictated by management. Management does not enable the development of amicable relationships between service providers and recipients; a condition required of organized emotional care (Lopez, 2006). Although family-based care providers come closer to embracing elements of organized care (bonding during sleepovers) they do not engage in fully unfettered relationships with children or parents. It appears, therefore, that family and center-based care fall most accurately within the realm of emotional labor and care (Lopez, 2006).

Emotional labor is typically viewed as unskilled because workers who perform this work are perceived to lack autonomy over the labor process (Payne, 2009). While this article reveals the importance of autonomy, it does not equate it with skill, arguing instead, that autonomy is a pre-requisite for the performance of emotional labor, necessitating much of the complexity in this work.

This manifested differently across settings with some overlaps. Both center-based teachers and providers had ‘a lot of autonomy’ [Tara, White, center, 30s] and considerable ‘freedom’ in their work [Belinda, Latina-immigrant center, 30s; Sofia, Latina-immigrant, family, 20s]. However, in ECEC centers, worker autonomy was more clearly mediated by organizational requirements and norms about professional and appropriate behavior. While some teachers shaped norms about ‘behavior management’ and ‘how to talk to children’ [Rachel, White, center, 30 s], all family-based care providers would self-direct and define organizational norms autonomously (Stacey, 2011). These norms guided the practice of skill in emotional labor, which was shaped differently across organizational context.

Autonomy is often conflated with a lack of standards, ‘professionalism’ and even skill in family-based care because of its location in the home (Folbre, 2001; Tuominen, 2003). This article’s findings challenge this assumption. While center-based teachers were more likely to invoke ideas about professionalism than family-based providers, they noted workplace communication norms/feeling rules were not imposed by management (Hochschild, 1983). Susanne [White, center, 30] noted center-based teachers were ‘asked’ to observe communication norms—not told to do so. She emphasized there is no ‘…list, but there’s a definite…be aware of how you’re talking to kids…do it in a positive way…there’s no, “say this and not this”…you hear it and you’re like, oh that works’. Many other teachers said communication norms were ‘informal’ and ‘unspoken’ allowing for worker agency (Lopez, 2006). Family-based providers also organized their workplaces using self-directed norms about appropriate communication. Tina [White, family, 30 s] said: ‘If I was sad or something I wouldn’t let the kids see it…It’s not for them’, indicating communication with children requires internal suppression and management of emotions (surface acting).

As sole representatives of organizations, family-based providers emphasized the burden of autonomy, noting ‘more independence’ means ‘more work’ [Patricia, Latina-immigrant, family, 40 s]. A Director of an ECEC center, and former family-based provider, remarked: ‘You have to almost have more skills’ [Ivonne, White, center, 50 s] when dealing with an age-diverse self-directed environment. Autonomy therefore enabled—or required—the display of tacit, embodied and discretionary skills. Most providers felt an absence of organizational support (or ‘accountable’ directors) made work more challenging. Rosa [Latina-immigrant, family, 40 s] noted:

‘I think the skills are the same. I think what changes is the responsibility. [In ECEC centers]… the responsibility is shared between the principal and other teachers. Here I am the only one. If the child gets hurt it is my responsibility. If the child comes home sunburned, it is my responsibility. I have to have the ability to serve all children equally. Give food to them, to teach them. I have to have those skills.’

Having full responsibility for “juggling” diverse tasks concomitantly distinguished the practice of skill in emotional labor from centers (Bolton, 2001).

Indeed, some family-based providers believed it was consequently ‘easier’ working in centers. [Rosa, Latina-immigrant, family, 40 s]. Sofia [Latina-immigrant, family, 20 s] emphasized: ‘When you’re working at home, you’ve got to do everything yourself. We’re doing the diapering, we’re doing the cooking, we’re doing the napping, we’re doing the nursing, we’re doing everything’. Alma [Latina-immigrant, family, 40 s] reaffirmed this:

‘I think we are jack of all trades. We do a lot of things…we’re nurses, we educate…we’re teachers, we’re mom, we’re psychiatrist…a little bit of everything because if a child gets hurt, who’s there to kiss their boo boo? We are. To put them to sleep, we are. To feed them, we are. We’re cooks…there’s only one person doing everything…’

Many echoed how the practice of embodied skill in emotional labor was shaped by workplace structure. Teachers juggling multiple roles received colleagues’ supportFootnote 14 and did not have to manage a crying child while cooking lunch, as Carrie’s [White, center, 30 s] experience revealed:

‘I think we have to wear multiple hats…when you talk to a child about…misbehaviour or discipline that is an entirely different set of tools that I have to use because that’s not time for me to be silly…that’s time to use a certain voice, to use different negotiation tactics and skills to figure out solutions, so even within the context of being a teacher, there are lots of different jobs within that…it takes skill to know which hat to wear.’

This highlights differences in roles performed by family-based providers and center-based teachers. The ‘multiple hats’ worn by teachers—while skilfully selected/discarded situationally—pertained more narrowly to classroom management. Workplace structure shaped the practice of skill in emotional labor distinctly with parents too. Across ECEC settings, discretion and task complexity characterized skill in emotional labor.

The practice of skill in emotional labor with children

Across ECEC settings, workplace-specific strategies were used in performing emotional labor with children. Sara [White, center, 20 s] noted her trainee experience taught her while working with children you must: ‘Maintain your own balance…when I got really crazy that showed…my verbal communications and my non-verbal communications were off…weren’t appropriate…I started unfortunately like yelling at the kids’. This underscores the demands of surface acting (suppressing anger and frustration), guided by implicit organizationally institutionalized norms. Rachel [White, center, 30 s] elaborated: ‘…you try to keep your…cool…inside your head you’re like “oh my god, like argghhh” if they do it one more time…’. Each morning, Rachel said, she took a deep breath saying, ‘OK, I can do this’. She recalled a conversation with an observer of her classroom:

‘This is your break? And I was like, I just I just need some quiet time. She’s like, what’s going on? I was like it’s just a crazy morning, she was like, you were so calm and I was like, if you knew what was going inside my head (laughs)…’

These accounts suggest Susanne and Rachel engage in surface acting (Hochschild, 1983); modified facial expressions reflecting workplace ‘feeling rules’ shaped by implicit, non-imposed norms about professionalism. Teachers ‘juggle’ multiple roles, managing their emotions and others’, consistent with literature on skill in service work (Bolton, 2001).

Lindsay [White, center, 20s] reported having to ‘put on that happy face’ while being ‘strict’ and ‘serious’, while Carrie [White, center, 30s] noted that, ‘…balancing that respect’ and affection is ‘absolutely…a skill’. Similarly, Gabriella [Latina-immigrant, center, 20s] remarked: ‘You gotta show them that you’re …the one in control not them…[you] also wanna balance that with sweetness… I’m always smiling to them…always…’. Given children’s unpredictable behavior, tacit and discretionary skills are required to balance authority with a ‘caring’ disposition.

This is also true in family-based care. Alma [Latina-identified, family, 40s] noted when children were upset she used to ‘cry with them’, while today she can ‘control’ children’s emotions, running her day-care on her own terms. The age-diverse nature of family-based care also shaped the practice of skill distinctly from centers. For instance, Amy [White, family, 30s] reflected on her experience in public schools: ‘I feel like people don’t understand how hard this job is, it’s much more difficult than teaching ‘cos the age groups are all different…you have the babies that just cry. It’s exhausting’. With a toddler in her lap and an infant in her arms, during our interview, I watched Amy anticipate and ‘juggle’ unpredictable behaviors of children of varied ages. She stressed that ‘being able to address their emotional needs’ simultaneously and without assistance, required ‘so much managing’ and ‘so many skills’. Yet, she obscured her frustration by surface acting, maintaining calm in tone and behavior.

Teachers and providers exercised discretion about when to ‘perform’ or genuinely display smiles. During classroom observations, I watched Susanne [White, center, 30s] react to the stress of managing children during a challenging naptime. Retreating briefly to her office space, Susanne’s smiles vanished. She took a pill, speaking about how challenging her group had been; yet she kept cool amongst children. Family-based providers balanced emotions differently; since workplace structure offered ‘no relief’ or ‘anyone to talk to’ [Amy, White, family, 30s], isolation would sometimes lead to post-work breakdowns [see Cohen, 2010; Vincent & Braun, 2013)].

Teachers used institutionalized boundary work as a strategy; family-based providers performed self-directed boundary work. Both used bodily communication (exaggerated head shakes, disapproving looks) to distance emotionally from children. For example, Liz [White, center, 30 s] recalled using reflexive discretion to discourage tantrums:

‘I think about the loooonnnng battle I had with someone who was having a meltdown, knowing when you have to walk away…wondering when are they going to be ready to, to come talk about it, that discipline always feels like…the most exhausting part of the day.’

Setting boundaries therefore requires managing emotions internally and in children simultaneously:

‘A common strategy is to ignore the behavior to some extent…I’m not emotionally involved…I am and I do get like frustrated and upset sometimes…people tell me I don’t look upset but I am (laughs)…it’s a skill…to be able to do that and not let the kids always see that you’re feeling that frustrated.’ [Liz, White, center, 30s]

This form of surface acting, guided by norms about professional workplace culture, required teachers to use ‘detached attachment’ strategies (Nelson, 1990; Zelizer, 2005).

Teachers said they must ‘kind of be happy’ for children when they move on, as telling them they will be missed is ‘not going to help’ [Dasha, White, center, 40 s]. While providers did not experience these transitions as often, they also managed feelings of ‘withdrawal’ [Kendra, White, family, 50 s]. While some reported blurring boundaries (kissing, attending birthdays) like in centers—in Rachel’s [White, center, 30 s] words—most established ‘some kinda distance’. Across centers and race/ethnicity, as expressed by Rachel, ‘…it’s hard to distance yourself…you love them [kids]…[but] you’re not their parents, you can’t…fix everything in their lives’. Therefore, irrespective of race/ethnicity, only some teachers felt like ‘second mothers’. This was also true of providers who sometimes identified as ‘grandmothers’ [Rosanne, family, 40 s] or an ‘extension’ of parents [Tina, White, family, 30 s]. As Morris (2021) notes, ECEC work requires navigating the tension between an embodied care ethic and the pragmatism of self-regulation. Doing so, requires what Jools Page (2018) calls “professional love”. This act of balancing ‘love’ and boundary work to avoid role confusion (Nelson, 1999; Zelizer, 2005) requires considerable skill.

These requirements for skill, elaborated upon below, are in tension with the way in which ideas about professionalism have been constructed in ECEC sectors. As Taggart (2011) notes, for instance, in the U.K. discourses of professionalism exclude an ‘ethical vocabulary of care’ despite relying on workers’ gendered dispositions towards emotional labor. On the one hand, the skillful display and management of emotions are part of the job, and on the other hand, standards of professionalism don’t value these emotions. This dynamic reinforces the critiques of credentialing requirements leveraged by ECEC workers in this paper, consistent with scholarship on the constructed nature of professionalism norms in the industry (Bolton, 2005; Cohen, 2010; Ed. Langford, 2019; Fairchild & Mikuska, 2021; Mikuska & Fairchild, 2020; Morris, 2021; Osgood, 2010; Payne, 2009; Taggart, 2011; Vincent & Braun, 2013). Navigating this tension can be disadvantageous for workers, placing requirements on them to perform an undervalued form of caring labor. In this context, the following section examines how practices of skill in emotional labor are organizationally shaped in family and center-based care settings when it comes to interactions with parents in particular.

The practice of skill in emotional labor with parents

With parents, skill in emotional labor is performed uniquely across settings; its practice is shaped by parents’ distinct roles. Relational, boundary work (Zelizer, 2005) is required to manage unrealistic parental expectations. This perhaps reflects assumptions that care is motivated out of love, not money (Folbre & Nelson, 2000; Tuominen, 2003; Uttal, 2002), particularly for family providers and/or women of color. Yet, Alma [Latina-immigrant, family, 40 s] complicated this dichotomy by asserting that, ‘…I love the kids, you know, but I need the money’.

With parents, presenting ones ‘best self’ is key said Liz [White, center, 30 s]: ‘You can’t just say, “oh yeah I’m having a crap day” to a mom. She doesn’t want to hear that. You’re taking care of her precious thing all day long. She doesn’t want to know you had a bad day’. Strategies of institutionalized boundary work are therefore required to maintain authority, said Susanne:

‘You try to be professional and friendly…occasionally you have a parent act, inappropriately….had a parent like really yell at me…it was really not ok……that’s like much more challenging to me than a child having a tantrum……you have to maintain professionalism…I did tell them it’s not ok to talk to me like that….sort of setting a boundary… I’m not going to yell at them…you have to maintain professionalism.’

Concealing negative emotions by performing neutral ones, Susanne simultaneously advocated for herself while observing norms of professionalism. She equalized unequal relations where, as a worker, she enjoyed less courtesy than parents (Hochschild, 1983; Wharton, 1990). Others, like Gabriella [Latina-identified, center, 20 s], experienced similar challenges:

‘I had a parent that she would talk very dry to you..I would just you know keep straight…smile….I’m trying to help you and I’m not your enemy, I’m your friend…you can’t be too friendly neither….you have to keep it professional…’

When boundary-setting with ‘rude’, disrespectful parents, most teachers sought organizational support: ‘…we just go with the flow ‘cause we can’t argue with them…we talk with them and if they’re wrong…we go to the supervisor’ [Ana, Latina-immigrant, center, 40 s].

Family-based providers did not enjoy support for boundary work. For instance, Amy [White, family, 30 s] struggled to negotiate paid overtime with a client:

‘[She] is a teacher and so you know at the end of her day at school the bell rings and the kids all leave and then she thinks she can…come here at 4:30 to pick her [child] up, or 4:29, and she’s the…first one here in the morning and the last one to leave…’

Elaborating, she revealed the interconnectedness of self-identity and organizational identity:

‘…it’s a reflection on my business…if I don’t give her…the whole amount of time…she’s gonna be like well it’s so expensive…[or not] sign another contract…bad news travels faster when you’re a business than good news…’

While holding two crying toddlers, she added: ‘I feel it’s a reflection of how giving I am…and it’s really hard’. Amy’s combined guilt and frustration, together with her livelihood concerns, demonstrates this work is indeed done for both ‘love and money’ (Folbre & Nelson, 2000).

Like Amy, Alma [Latina-immigrant, family, 40 s] struggled with ‘very emotional’ dilemmas when trying to protect children from perceived parental neglect, while respecting boundaries:

‘It’s hard…you’re in between two people, I do the right thing or

stay shy and just turn my face away and…what if something happened, it’s gonna be on

your conscience because you let it go. So there’s a lot of emotion going on….’

Providers must therefore creatively balance demands of ‘morality’ and the ‘market’ (Zelizer, 2005). While teachers also bear the burden of conscience, Directors might mediate such situations, shaping the practice of skill in centers distinctly from in family-based care.

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