Day care is the new American way of child rearing - but is it good for the kids? Step inside Miss Charlene's room and see for yourself

7:04 a.m. Jeanette has a cough. She coughed all night last night, and after her daddy kisses her goodbye and leaves for work, Jeanette drags herself to the table and sits, staring absently, getting her bearings. When she coughs, she is very good about covering her mouth. For a 4-year-old, almost a 5-year-old, she is proper this way. After a few minutes, Jeanette gets a pencil and a piece of paper. She draws a tiny duck sitting alone on a tiny nest beneath a tiny sun. The duck's name is Priscilla, and her eggs are still inside her. So Jeanette doesn't draw any eggs. She doesn't draw the daddy duck either. He is at the store.

Jeanette's classmate Erika arrives at 7:21. Her father is an insistently happy man, and he waves and says hello to Miss Lee, who handles the day-care center's morning drop-off, and Miss Sabrina, the kindergarten teacher, who is getting ready for class. It's awfully early for relentless cheerfulness, but the kids, a dozen early drop-offs of various ages, don't seem to know this. They are laughing, jumping, rolling, eating and talking all at once, and Erika -- with her wide, beautiful smile -- looks as bright and sunny as 3 o'clock in the afternoon.

Finally, at 7:23, Miss Charlene arrives. She pulls the 7-to-4 shift. But she often stays late, works nights on lesson plans, organizes her room on weekends. Nobody will complain about the 23 minutes. Nobody better -- or Miss Charlene will tell 'em good. She's not much for chatting with the other staffers, some of whom see her as arrogant. Miss Charlene could care less. She figures they're jealous that her room of 4-year-olds -- which includes Jeanette and Erika and 18 others -- is the very best room at Kinder-Care Learning Center No. 1,178 in Laurel, across from the Greater Laurel-Beltsville Hospital.

Miss Charlene says her quick hellos, and then goes into the center's little glass cubicle of an office to copy pages from one of the zillions of preschool workbooks she's collected over the years. Eight kids tag behind. They climb the office chairs, chatter, giggle. All the while, Miss Charlene turns and copies, turns and copies pages, saying not a word. When she leaves the office, eight kids again tag behind. It's as if Jeanette's imaginary duck eggs have hatched.

Miss Charlene is mother duck. EVERY DAY, IT BEGINS LIKE THIS. WELL, NOT EXACTLY LIKE this. The waffle breakfast might be a cereal breakfast, for instance, or the orange juice might be grape juice. Or it might be show 'n' tell day, and the kids might have balls, planes, books, cars, trucks, tape recorders, dolls and Ninja Turtles to toss around or share or squabble over. Or some of the kids might be out sick with the usual array of day care's contagious maladies -- conjunctivitis, viral pneumonia, ringworm, impetigo or chickenpox.

But more or less, it begins like this every day, not just here but all across America. Because day care is the new American way of child rearing. About this, the debate rages: Is it good or bad for kids? Maybe yes, maybe no. Depends on who you talk to. But for many parents, the academic debate is moot: They must work -- or they believe they must work -- and so their kids must go to day care, good or bad. The day-care experience, as you might call it, is here to stay. This year, Congress may pass legislation that would expand the availability of day care by helping poorer families with the bills, which at Kinder-Care run $85 a week for one child, $161 a week for two.

Charlene Anthony's is simply one room in one center in one Middle American neighborhood. Her room wasn't singled out because she was known to be an exceptional day-care worker, which she turned out to be, but because her kids were pleasant and talkative during an initial visit. Likewise, Kinder-Care's Laurel center wasn't chosen because it seemed extraordinary, but because it seemed ordinary, just one more of the thousands of places where parents, sometimes after little or no investigation, drop their kids off in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon, with little or no idea of what goes on during the 8, 10 or even 12 hours in between.

This story is about what goes on in between, about the endlessly complicated interplay of children, day-care workers and parents. It's a reminder of how subtle and intricate is a child's day, a child's life, and how little busy parents know about those complexities. Day care is a child's world. But it's a child's world forever changing for better or worse because of the personalities and commitments, strengths and failings of adults. Matthew, a funky little kid with hip clothes and rapper tracks shaved into the right side of his buzz, is crying. He hasn't cried at drop-off for a long time, and his mother, Lisa Ward, a thin woman with long blond hair, blue jeans and a casual shirt beneath a dark blazer, adopts the forced pleasantness of an adult trying to distract a child. "You've gotten a red face every day this week!" she says effusively. "You're going for a perfect week! Now go play with Andy."

It's a good strategy, because red faces are the valued currency of Miss Charlene's domain. Each day, each child earns a red, blue or green face for his or her behavior: Red = excellent, blue = good, green = fair. But all the kids and their parents know that blue really means fair and green really means bad. Matthew, who was a terror until arriving in Miss Charlene's room a few months ago, is hot for those red faces, which do not come easily to him.

But this morning, Matthew isn't moved by the inducement. He has a competing worry on his mind: Instead of playing with Andy, who was once Matthew's best friend, Matthew bluntly tells Andy he doesn't want to play with him. Matthew, almost 5 now, says Andy, who is a young 4, is too little. Andy cries.

"That's not nice," says Matthew's mother. "Tell Andy you're sorry."

Reluctantly, with an angry, pouty face, Matthew does. Then he fusses some more -- hangs on his mother's leg, cries, says "Bye, Mommy" so forlornly that his mother cringes. After five minutes of this, after Lisa's repeated false starts for the door, Miss Charlene walks over and asks sweetly, "What's wrong, Matthew?" She stands behind him, holds him to her body. Matthew goes limp under her affection and attention. Lisa slips out the door.

Charlene is a black woman, and when Matthew, a white boy, first came into her room, he was frightened by her dark skin. She noticed this, and wondered why her dark complexion scared some white children and not others. But Matthew isn't bothered by Charlene's skin anymore. He leans against her quietly, and she strokes his cheek gently, smooths his hair. In the background, the "Sesame Street" theme song plays on the record player.

"Okay, what's the matter?" Miss Charlene asks Matthew.

"Ahhh, my head hurts."

"Where?"

"Ahhh, in the back."

"You want to lie down?"

"Uh-huh." Two minutes later, from his cot in a quiet corner, Matthew, a glutton for center stage, hollers, "Hey, Andy, come on over."

Says Charlene, "He'll be all right now." MISS CHARLENE'S ROOM, HER CHILD'S WORLD, IS 40 BY 22 feet. To a standing adult, it looks small and spare. But kneel at a child's height, and it looms large and complex. The grayish vinyl floor, though clean, is permanently dingy. (From your knees, it looks even dingier.) The ceiling lights are fluorescent, very bright. The bathroom, with two regular-size and one teeny toilet, is clean. The room's windows are not. One end of the large room has two tables for meals and work time. The other end has a red game-motif rug (hopscotch, checkers, tick-tack-toe) on the floor with the kids' names taped to it in orderly rows. This is for story time -- or any time the whole gang must be calmed en masse. On the wall are the alphabet, a "Happy Birthday" display and a list of Miss Charlene's rules of behavior ("Ears to listen," "Hands for helping," "Feet for walking . . ."). The room also includes a "building center" with blocks, a "reading center" with books, a "science center" with pictures of the planets and a "housekeeping center" with dress-up clothes, dishes and a play telephone.

Miss Charlene's room is organized, which grows not only from her philosophy of child care, but also from her personality. Charlene, whose father is a Seventh-Day Adventist minister, was raised in a strict household, and she's, well, pretty compulsive about everything being in its proper place. At 27, Charlene hasn't yet had children, and the Kinder-Care center's director, Deborah Harrison, occasionally jokes to Charlene that she'll be laxer with her own children than she is with her room kids. Charlene, with the confidence of inexperience, does not believe Deborah -- she believes Deborah spoils her own two kids.

But no matter, because when Charlene came last year, Kinder-Care's 4-year-old room needed compulsive organizing. So did the whole center, which Prince George's County child-care officials had recently cited for having too few qualified staffers. Deborah was installed to fix what was broken. Says Charlene, "She really whipped the place into shape." Deborah discovered that the center, which pays a paltry $5 to $8 an hour, had a revolving-door staff of disgruntled workers. She found what she considered a custodial center, where staffers were little more than babysitters. When Charlene arrived, parents were so angry about the center's disorganization that many wouldn't even talk to her. One mother told her angrily that she was the ninth woman to work in her son's room in eight months. "How long are you gonna be here?" she asked.

Charlene dug in. She scrubbed the walls and the floor, the tables and chairs, all the toys. She set up the play centers. Kinder-Care, a chain with more than 1,300 centers nationwide, has a program for 4-year-olds that emphasizes getting along with one another, sharing, working in groups, learning to listen. Kinder-Care wants its 5-year-old children to print their first names, say the alphabet and count to 20, Deborah says. That wasn't enough for Charlene, who hopes to finish her BA in elementary education next year.

Kinder-Care allows its directors considerable freedom in running their centers. So with Deborah's blessing, Charlene began to build a program atop Kinder-Care's own preschool and day-care programs. She patterned it after what she had seen working in other day-care centers over the years. She emphasized unstructured play within struc- tured limits, consistent discipline and greater academic prowess. Deborah, who has a master's degree in adult education, recognized the approach as similar to that used in Montessori schools. Even though Deborah herself prefers a less structured approach, she knew that nourishing Charlene's enthusiasm and commitment was far more important than what she taught, because her excitement would rub off on kids, parents and staff.

Ignoring the parents' anger toward her and the center, Charlene set up conferences with all her parents. She didn't ask if they wanted a conference -- she told them they'd have a conference. She passed out her home phone number, and she didn't hesitate to call parents at home in the evenings if she had a problem with their child.

Over the objections of some parents, she divided her kids into three academic work groups, from advanced to not-so-advanced. It seemed to Miss Charlene that a child's ability to count, write or read usually had more to do with attention span than with innate smarts. So Charlene worked 20 minutes a day each with groups 1 and 2, while her aide, Jane Marshall, spent the full 40 minutes with the less advanced group 3. Jane worked five minutes with the kids, then let them play five minutes, then worked with them five minutes. That meant the children with short attention spans got 20 painless minutes of academic work each day.

A year after all this began, Miss Charlene's expectations for her children are high. She wants all her kids to meet Kinder-Care's goals of counting to 20 and knowing how to print their first name by age 5. But she also wants her advanced kids to print their first and last names and count to 100. And she wants her really advanced kids to be reading simple sentences, which they are. Parents, who at first thought Miss Charlene might be pushing their children too hard, are now elated. For instance, Alex, a quiet, thin little boy, comes home talking about plants, animals, dinosaurs and planets all the time. His father, Angelo Delis, says Alex has blossomed, with a new curiosity about everything. Half a dozen parents -- all with very different children -- echo Angelo's remark: "Miss Charlene gets all the credit." The lesson plan is on the board: pledge of allegiance, art time, make flowers, make potato prints, work on small and large block construction, free play, stories to read, table toys, math and musical chairs. Right now, they're doing musical chairs, round and round to the ABC song. Matthew is eliminated first. Alex and Erika follow. Then Annique, a beautiful, prim little girl with three pigtails and three yellow barrettes. Then everybody else -- except Worthell, in his white T-shirt and baggy tropical shorts, and Jeanette, still with that awful cough. It is sudden-death musical chairs. The kids surround the finalists -- jumping up and down, squealing, calling instructions: "Keep your hand on the chair, Worthell!"

The music begins. "A, B, C, D, E, F, G . . ." And stops.

Worthell hesitates, Jeanette swivels, slides, lands, wins!

For a moment, she's mobbed by cheering kids. In another moment, she's alone, still smiling, in her lime T-shirt and her pink tennis shoes with lime laces. Erika notices that Jeanette's shoe is untied. Jeanette, who can read, cannot yet tie her shoes. So Erika, who cannot yet read, kneels down and ties Jeanette's shoe. Jeanette, who's having a hard time remembering to cover her mouth every time she coughs, says thank you and coughs in Erika's face. Miss Jane sits down with the kids to read a story -- "Are You My Mother?" by P.D. Eastman. Or, as the kids know it, "Are You My Mother by P.D. Eastman."

Miss Jane, 27, has two daughters of her own, but she never really knew kids as she does now, after working at Kinder-Care for a few months. Jane marvels at how much they know about their compact world -- about each other, their eccentricities, their likes and dislikes. They know that Matthew shows off. They know that Worthell loses his temper, that Erika likes to talk on the play phone, that Annique always manages to stay clean on the dirty playground, that Jeanette is quick to report infractions to the teachers. They know it all. In her months working at Kinder-Care, after taking the state's 64-hour certification course for day-care workers, Jane even believes she's a better mother at home, because she now appreciates the individuality of children.

Miss Jane isn't a disciplinarian. She's sweet and talkative, and she believes Miss Charlene can sometimes be a little tough on the kids, too demanding, sometimes forgetting they're just kids. As when Miss Charlene says sternly, "If I talk to you one more time, you're going to spend the whole day at a table by yourself!" Sometimes, Jane even pokes her head into Deborah's office and says Charlene is on the warpath today. "She can be what I call overbearing," says Deborah. "She sometimes forgets that because a 4-year-old can do something today doesn't mean he can do it tomorrow." Deborah will wander over to Charlene and crack a joke. "Is this your PMS day?" she'll ask. And Charlene will laugh and cool out.

"I need everybody to help me today because I don't feel good," Miss Charlene tells her room on a day when she has been a little grumpy.

"What's the matter?" Annique asks.

"It's impetigo," says Miss Charlene, who has probably caught the highly contagious skin rash from one of her several room kids who've already had it. "It's like little bumps that you can catch, so I can't give you any hugs today." Technically, Miss Charlene should be at home, waiting 24 hours for the medicine to kick in so that her rash is no longer contagious. But, as is often the case, the center is short-handed, and Deborah has told her to cover the rash completely with gauze, tape it shut and not touch anybody.

"I used to have it around my toes," says Erin.

"I used to have it around my ears," says William.

Sometimes, the rules get bent. Besides ignoring the impetigo quarantine, there's not always one staffer for every 10 kids in Miss Charlene's room, as the state of Maryland requires. In fact, if Miss Jane is sick or covering for a staffer in another room, Charlene would rather not have a replacement, because a new person in her room can confuse the atmosphere. At other times, the reason for ignoring the regulation has been less noble. Before Deborah took over last year, Charlene handled her room alone for several months because the center couldn't keep enough staffers to fill its required jobs.

Sometimes common sense also reigns over strict procedure, as when Miss Charlene couldn't get Matthew and Worthell to stop hitting and shoving. Finally, she refused to hear any more tattletale reports. "Go deal with it," she said, tacitly endorsing the children's hitting back, which is against day-care guidelines. Well, when Worthell and Matthew discovered the other kids were now defending themselves, the boys suddenly began keeping their hands to themselves.

There's art and science in this day-care thing. And for all the doubts about whether it's good or bad for kids, quite a few parents are blunt in saying they believe their children are better off because of day care. Matthew's parents, for instance, have had a hard time resolving their different views about how to discipline their only child, and Miss Charlene helped them bridge those differences. In a reversal of the usual roles, Stephen Ward is the parent who feels deeply guilty about Matthew's going off to day care. He sees the ideal boyhood as one like Tom Sawyer's, and he's suspicious and fearful of his son's being forced to comply with a day-care center's institutional need for orderliness and conformity. "There will be plenty of time to learn business," Stephen says. His father was authoritarian, and he has always sworn he wouldn't be that kind of father. He's prone to long talks with his son after he misbehaves. But his wife, Lisa, believes you should lay down the law, tell a child something once and expect him to obey. Trouble is, Matthew doesn't easily obey, and when he refuses, say, to get dressed unless he can watch TV in the morning, Lisa often gives in rather than get into a nasty tug of war.

They knew Matthew was having trouble at day care. In the 3-year-old room he was the ringleader of rowdiness. He threw tantrums, threw chairs. He often refused to take a nap -- something his father preferred to see as stubborn independence in the face of the institutional demand for nap time, but which also disrupted the room. "Hey, everybody, don't go to sleep!" Matthew would yell. "Look at me!"

You have only to meet Matthew to see that he is smart, charming and fun, in an impish Tom Sawyer way. Stephen and Lisa were often called about his antics, however, and they were whipsawed by their confusion about discipline and their distrust of a corporate conformity they suspected prevailed in formal day care. Yet they also needed a place to put Matthew during the day and feared his behavior might lead to his being booted out of the center. About this time, Matthew graduated to Miss Charlene's room. Lisa chuckles and says, "She was very positive about it. Although she grew less positive about it."

Says Charlene, "He was very stubborn."

Matthew kept up his rebellion for weeks. Deborah was thinking of "disenrolling" him or asking his parents to have him tested for clinical hyperactivity. But then, out of desperation, Miss Charlene told Matthew he could have a table of his own, where he could make up his own rules of behavior. "Good," Matthew replied, as if in triumph. At first, Matthew loved it. But he was less happy when he heard the other kids talking about an upcoming field trip, and Miss Charlene politely told him he wouldn't be going because he had a table of his own, with his own rules. He was less happy still when he wanted to come over and play blocks with William and Franklin and was politely told, no, he had his own blocks at his own table with his own rules.

After three days, with the rest of the kids beginning to ostracize Matthew, Miss Charlene was about to give up. "I started to feel bad, like I was torturing him." Then, on the fourth day, it happened: Matthew walked in and told Miss Charlene, "I'm going to listen. I'm going to work. I'm going to sit on the rug. I'm going to get a red face." That was it. Matthew's mother is still incredulous. "It stopped overnight," she says. "We wondered what Charlene had done, and she wondered what we had done. But we hadn't done anything."

Today, Matthew is still impish and theatrical, still loves the limelight. But he doesn't stand out in Miss Charlene's room as a rowdy. He gets a lot of red faces. Says Stephen, "Charlene has done wonders." "I'm going to count to three, and everybody is going to be quiet, right?" Miss Charlene says.

"Right!" the kids cry out in unison.

"Okay, let's do some songs. Ready . . . Old McDonald had a continued on page 33 DAY CARE continued from page 19 farm, e-i-e-i-o. And on his farm, he had a . . . Brian Patrick?

"Bullies."

"What?"

"Bullies. The things with horns."

"Oh, bulls! And on his farm he had a bull . . ."

Out of the blue, Jeanette stands up, kisses Miss Charlene on the cheek and sits back down. "Thank you, Jeanette," Miss Charlene says. In the meantime, Miss Jane washes the tables and sweeps the floor, gets ready for the kids to go outside and play.

It has been a busy few days. Patrick chewed staples, but without damage. Alex asked why they hadn't studied comets when they had already studied the planets. He and William played Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

"Cowabunga!" William yelled.

"Excellent," Alex responded.

"We gotta get the bombs set," said

William.

Melissa baked a sand cake. Brian got in trouble, and when Miss Charlene put him in "time out," he whispered: "I don't like her. All I care about is ripping up paper." Everybody won a prize in the dance contest, but Matthew was miffed because he thought he should have won by himself. Jeanette, in a turquoise dress-up gown, lay in the housekeeping crib and played baby. Annique wore an apron with an apple on it and played mommy. She kissed Jeanette on the forehead. Annique said her mommy had put the cat out last night after he peed on the rug and that the cat wouldn't come back in because he's got a girlfriend. She wondered why her daddy called him Fritz the Cat, even though he's already got a name.

Rachel played mailwoman and then colored a purple and green flower. Erika, in a baggy blue dress-up, talked on the play phone. Annique, Jeanette and Erika all hid from a daddy who was coming over to kill them. "He's a mean daddy from California," said Jeanette, whose own father is from Texas. Jeanette earnestly explained that she and Erika aren't friends, but that Erika is Rachel's friend and that she is Rachel's friend and that's why she and Erika play together, even though they aren't friends. Christopher threw a plastic plate across the room. Erin crunched an orange crayon on the floor.

All in all, pretty routine.

What amazes Miss Charlene about the remarkable complexity in her little room is how individual her children's per- sonalities and needs are. If Matthew was extremely assertive, for instance, Annique was extremely submissive. So Miss Charlene talked to her mother, Sabrina Barber, and asked her to encourage Annique to speak up for herself. The first time Annique did something aggressive that landed her in time out, Miss Charlene was glad to see it. Now Annique is much more assertive, especially with the boys who used to bully her.

When Erika came to Miss Charlene's room last September, she cried after drop-off in the morning for two hours. She hated the place and was afraid to take a nap unless Miss Charlene sat right next to her. It took months, but now Erika is fine. Her mother, Gwendolyn Dodson, laughs and says Erika would like to go to Miss Charlene's room on weekends too.

Even Jeanette, whose behavior is pretty close to perfect, had trouble when she began at Kinder-Care. She cried at drop-off, because she was afraid her parents might not come back to get her. Then, after a few days, Miss Charlene told her she couldn't earn red faces if she cried. Presto! Jeanette never cried again, which truly amazed her father, Steve Sapaugh.

Worthell is one of Miss Charlene's favorites. Like Matthew, he was rough with the other kids at first, and sometimes he still is. But now Worthell also boasts about the times he is hit and doesn't hit back, which is progress. Miss Charlene also noticed that Worthell's unclear speech wasn't improving and that he wasn't learning his colors. She was nervous as hell doing it, but she finally told Worthell's mother, Sheila Kornegay, that she believed her son should be tested. Sheila, who had argued that Worthell was just being stubborn in his refusal to learn, had him tested and discovered that he has trouble pronouncing some letters and that he has a short attention span. Now he's getting help in both areas.

Says Sheila, "I fell in love with Miss Charlene."

For Charlene, all of this is very rewarding. After two years at Temple University in Philadelphia, she quit college and held job after job that gave her an income while helping people. She worked with retarded children and learned that she could work for months to teach a child to color scratches on a piece of paper. She discovered she couldn't keep doing this, that she had to see more progress in return for her -- and the child's -- efforts. She worked for a hospice, sitting for eight hours a day with a single dying person. Sometimes the people never talked, sometimes they talked constantly. They all had a horrible fear of being left alone, of dying alone. Several times, Charlene watched a person die, walked into the other room and informed the family -- and then went outside and cried. She had to quit that job too.

At Kinder-Care, Charlene still believes she takes her work too personally. "I start to think like these are my own kids," she says. A while back, Charlene had left for the day when a boy fell and cut himself on the playground. The next day, Charlene was enraged at the woman who was in charge of the playground. She knew it wasn't the woman's fault, that it was an accident, but she couldn't help but blame her. After all, Charlene would've blamed herself.

The Laurel center is in shape now. The wages aren't any better, but the withering turnover has stopped; people are happier. The entire staff has taken the state's day-care certification course, up from only about 40 percent a year ago. But if there is one rule for parents seeking good day care, it is that they must be constantly vigilant because few things last in day care. Miss Charlene loves her work. But the money is so bad that once she gets her college degree, she'll quit. She'll probably teach elementary school. Oh, she could be a day-care director, but then she wouldn't be with the kids. No thanks.

So the wonder that is Miss Charlene's room at Kinder-Care No. 1,178 cannot last. The kids and their parents have had a good year, which came to them by coincidence, really, when Charlene walked through the door. They don't even know it yet, but director Deborah Harrison is leaving the center this summer to open a new, larger Kinder-Care in Lanham -- and she's taking Miss Charlene with her. For the kids and parents at Laurel, it will start all over again. Matthew pours gravel in Jeanette's hair.

"Naughty, naughty, naughty, Mat- thew!" Jeanette yells.

But she doesn't pause from her task, which is to fill a red plastic bucket with stones from the gravel playground. Melissa and Sara come over to help. Matthew, with Brian now joining in, stands back about 10 feet and lobs gravel at the girls, who ignore them. "Time for Mother May I," Miss Jane calls, and Melissa, Sara and the boys run off, but not Jeanette. She begins dragging her heavy bucket of gravel across the playground toward the only mud puddle around. She finds an old sponge and then dips water from the puddle into the bucket.

"This is for the boys," she says sweetly. "It's poison ivy stew."

When it's time to go inside, William says, "I have a stomachache. I get to stand in front of the line." Jamil says, "I want to have a stomachache too." Inside, Miss Jane reads Spot's First Walk. Matthew says he's hot and goes to the bathroom to change his sweat shirt for a T-shirt. He returns with his T-shirt over his sweat shirt.

"Hey, look at me!" he yells.

"Sit down and be quiet, Matthew," says Miss Jane.

"Look at my dirty pants!" he hollers.

"Matthew Ward!"

In housekeeping, Jeanette puts on the turquoise dress. A stuffed cat is her baby. A big man in a red-plaid flannel shirt walks past the entry to the room, and Erika cries out, "Oh, my gosh, a giant!" Everybody, including Miss Jane, turns to look, but the man has passed. Heads turn toward Erika in disbelief. "Really!" she says. "I saw a giant. I did. I did. I really did!" Annique says that at home she has a stuffed bear that is bigger than she is and that in real life Mickey Mouse can talk but he can't walk. Jeanette changes dress-up clothes, putting on a pink gown with six buttons, each of which she methodically fastens. It takes her five minutes. Worthell pushes Alex to the floor and takes his chair. "I was sitting on it this morning," Worthell says. Erika colors a picture with a yellow crayon and then draws lines on her neck. Erin sucks on a piece of plastic corn, saying it's a baby bottle.

Finally, parents start to arrive . . .

Erika sits down to do a dot-to-dot. Jeanette, who is playing the sister, complains to Sara, who is playing the mother, that she doesn't get to play the mommy often enough. Then she spreads a blanket on the floor for a picnic. "Yech!" Jeanette yells. "There's a booger on the blanket!" For five minutes, Jeanette and Sara scrub the blanket with a wet paper towel.

"Now can I be the mom?" Jeanette asks.

"Yes," Sara says.

"Oh, good!"

Just then, Alex's mother, Peggy, arrives, all smiles. She sits down on a tiny chair, patiently goes through Alex's paper work for the day and asks the one question every day-care parent seems to ask at the end of every day-care day: "Whadja do today?" Alex, who is complaining earnestly that the ears on a piece of bunny-rabbit artwork are attached upside down, casually gives what seems to be the universal day-care kid's reply: "Nothing."

Or, in other words, it's a long story.