Nearly half of the children in day care in the United States are cared for in private homes, according to a four-year study conducted by the Day Care Division of the US Administration for Children, Youth, and Families.
There they drink Kool-Aid, eat Twinkies, and watch Looney Tunes all day, while paying exorbitant fees to their caretakers, right?
Wrong, says the 1981 study, one of the most comprehensive in this seldom-examined field. The nearly 800 care-givers the study's researchers observed in Los Angeles, Philadephia, and San Antonio spent a full three-quarters of their day in indirect or direct contact with their charges, for a median annual net income of $2,614. Furthermore, the parents of these family day care kids spoke in glowing terms of the children's social and cognitive development, and of the advantages of using this more relaxed, home-style version of day care for very young children.
It's a use that has grown dramatically beyond the ''Mama goes to work while Grandma keeps the kids'' tradition in America. For one thing, the need for day care itself has jumped - since 1950, the number of employed mothers with children under 18 has gone from 20 to over 50 percent, with the most dramatic increases occurring among those with children under six.
And one of the most popular choices of day care for these children, the study revealed, continues to be informal arrangements with friends, neighbors, relatives, or acquaintances - outside the scrutiny of the law.
That scrutiny, which typically covers items like health and safety regulations, is at present a hodgepodge of often-conflicting state and local red tape, the study admits. The complaints of a licensed day-care mother in Montgomery County, Md., speak for many: ''The county doesn't have time to check up on those who are registered, let alone the unregistered. So those of us who have bothered to follow the rules are bearing the brunt of those rules.''
She chafes under a restriction that limits her to taking in only four children besides her own - a restriction she could easily sidestep by moving to another county, which allows a maximum of five children. If that seems small, consider the national average: 3.5 children per household, according to the 1981 study, or 3.8, if you include the caretakers' own children.
Restricting the number of children a caretaker can take in is a good idea, the study concludes, ''to protect young children, limit care-giver burden, and create flexibility for school-aged chidren.'' The sort of restrictions they had in mind, they say, would limit these homes to six or fewer children - a limitation that already exists in 90 percent of the family day-care establishments.
They further recommend an increase in ''care-giver training'' of the sort some government offices are trying. One, established by Virginia's largest county - Fairfax - gives a free 40-hour course to those willing to become home providers.
In return for studying such items as nutrition, discipline, record-keeping, arts and crafts, and physical education for young children, the course's graduates are put on the county's list of available care-givers, and their names are given out to parents who call for help.
The graduates also hook onto a nongovernment, family day-care association, designed to provide an atmosphere where care-givers can air grievances, share tips, get group rates on items like insurance, and overcome the isolation often found in this career.
The isolation, in fact, is seen as one of the chief disadvantages of this business. As one family day-care expert put it, ''These women suffer from low status bordering on invisibility. They are isolated from each other, and often feel that, because they stay home, they've been left behind. Yet they are business professionals offering a necessary service, and deserve community support.''
''These are professional women,'' says Bonnie Arnold, head of Fairfax County's Family Day Care Program. ''They're not in this job to buy lipsticks and bangle bracelets.''
With incomes that hover well below the national poverty level, according to the government study, bangle bracelets may be all they can afford. White care-givers receive a median wage of $1 per hour, the study reveals, while their black counterparts pick up 44 cents for the same amount of work. And yet many of these caretakers use this job as the primary source of income for their family.
If the pay is bad, the hours are worse, say the care-givers. Many work 12 -hour days to accommodate the eight-hours-plus commuting time of their clients, and tales abound of late parents who drop by the grocery store - or a friend's place - before picking up their child.
Parents, in fact, are the chief complaint among care-givers. Says one, who runs a 24-hour day-care arrangement in Washington, D.C., ''I don't have any problems with the kids - the kids are great.''
Most care-givers seem to echo this thought, according to the study. In fact, those who make it past the first rugged year (with no holidays, no sick leave, no insurance, no paid vacations, and no tangible benefits) seem to stick with the profession for years. Many say they genuinely enjoy long hours with their ''short people'' and cite the advantage of being able to work from their homes.