Bonnie Arnold was showing to a group of 22 women a series of self-portraits done by children. Most of the pictures were of smiling faces with captions that say "I'm happy" or "I'm giggling."
But at the bottom of the pile was a portrait of a child who is, literally, steaming mad: His face is red, his mouth open in a scream of anger and steam has been drawn in so that it rises in a curl from his head.
"Would you want to sit down and listen to what this child has to say?" Arnold asked her class. "Would you? I wouldn't, but that's what you have to do. Because that's what separates the professionals from the amateurs."
Professionalism is a word that comes up often whenever Arnold talks nowadays. That's because she teaches a popular 30-hour course sponsored by Fairfax County for people who want to open mini-day-care centers in their homes.
Although she doesn't consider experienced mothers amateurs in child care, Arnold is quick to say there is more to day care than simply entertaining children.
"Even people with good instincts need training in child care," Arnold said, explaining her concept for the course. "And I'm not interested in leading people in finger play. What I'm talking about is teaching people how to meet the emotional needs of young children."
Fairfax County has fewer than 100 day-care centers, and most are filled to capacity, forcing working parents to depend upon friends and neighbors to care for their children. The Fairfax County Office of Children estimates that 6,000 to 10,000 children are cared for during the day in the homes of people they are not related to, and that the number is increasing steadily.
Because Fairfax County does not regulate home day care for homes with fewer than six children, Arnold said, the Office for Children decided to offer free training for day-care providers as a way of upgrading home care in the county.
Nearly 1,000 people have taken the training since it started six years ago. But recent cuts in federal funding will limit enrollment this year to 130. The course is filled through next summer, she said.
Arnold calls her course a smorgasbord and says it incorporates ideas from child-development specialists such as Erik H. Erikson, techniques she learned as a special education teacher, business advice, first aid training and suggestions for dealing with parents.
"I try to emphasize that it is not necessary to provide an academic environment but that it is important to help children build trust, independence and a good self-concept," Arnold said.
"We are often more forgiving with adults than with little children. If I can teach people what they can expect from kids, then it makes it easier for them to avoid putting a child in an impossible situation."
Taza Dennis, a mother of two who also cares for three other children as a way of earning money, said the course has helped her see the world from a child's point of view.
"That's the message behind the words," Dennis said. "Adults get so wrapped up in how things should be done we forget how they could be done. This course has helped me look at child care as more creative than custodial. And that's exciting for me. It means I can have a creative outlet of my own. You can't do just dishes and diapers forever."
Most women in the course say they are taking in other people's children because they need the money.
"I tell them that, as professionals offering a service, that's nothing to be ashamed of," Arnold said. "It's almost harder to get them to charge high enough rates. Many only clear a $1 an hour" for each child.
Arnold takes time to talk about discipline, asking each person to remember how she was disciplined as a child and giving them a chance to brainstorm with others for new approaches and ideas.
For parents who leave their children in tears of rage and confusion every time they go out for a movie, Arnold counsels that separation anxiety is a realistic fear that usually occurs when a child is 6 to 8 months old and then again when a child is between 17 and 18 months.
"Never sneak out on your child, and don't let a mother do it," Arnold told her class. "A child needs to know he won't be abandoned. If he can't tell time, let him know his parent will return after they go outside, then have lunch and then take a nap. They can connect things to the rhythm of a day, and it makes them feel more secure."
There are other problems, too, such as how to deal with the child who feels guilty because he had a fun time in day care and didn't miss his parents. Arnold also reminds day-care providers to reassure parents who fear that their child prefers the day-care home to their own.
For those who cannot get training, Arnold said much of what she teaches "is just good human relations."
It also can be obvious.
"Sometimes people ask me what a good home day care looks like," Arnold said. "And I tell them it should look like a big, extended family."
Persons interested in the Fairfax County home day-care course may contact the county's Office for Children. Alexandria's Division of Social Services also offers a course but has room for only 40 persons a year. Arlington County's Child Care Office dropped home day-care training in December because of federal funding cuts.