Excuse Me Sir, But When Do They Eat?

First Day at Gan
First Day at Gan

My eldest son has now reached the grand old age of 3 and a half and is off to gan (nursery or kindergarten). Not because I actually think he will learn anything of any importance, but because I think it will be good for him to leave the house for a few hours, gain a little independence, speak hebrew, and learn to communicate with small hebrew speakers his age. Personal opinions on childcare are divided, and are a constant subject of debate, but my personal stance on daycare for 3 year olds is this — a few hours of good, loving, daycare a day, is unlikely to do harm, and possibly a little good (for reasons mentioned above) but more than this is detrimental. In his book “Raising Babies”, Steve Biddulph has a decent list of sources on the developmental, physiological and behavioural effects of extended daycare on young children. This has always been my gut feeling, since my first child was born, and it appears the research has come to the same conclusion. Ilana Strobinsky from Life Center, “The Israel Center for Attachment Parenting”, also argues that extended hours in a group setting is harmful to young children.

I am also of the opinion that if a child is not enjoying daycare, or school for that matter, or showing signs of stress or illness which appear to have no pathological cause, this needs to be investigated, and the child should always feel they have a choice — to be with mummy, to go to another school, etc.

That said, I am happy for my son to try out our local gan, which has a good name. Unfortunately it’s a black and white option. He has to be there by 8am and he has to stay till 2pm. No exceptions. These are the rules of the Office of Education. The ganenet (nursery teacher) does not like children leaving at different hours. Apparently it also interupts the curriculum. No one in the history of time has ever been given permission. Please bear in mind these children are three years old!

First Day at Gan
First Day at Gan

I think 6 hours a day, 6 days a week is too much for a little one. It’s too much social contact, with no rest. Too much noise and not enough breathing space. Gwen Dewar discusses this in her article, “The Darker Side of Preschool”. When is his “personal” time? When is his playtime? Until 2pm is actually the majority of a 3 year olds 12 hour day. Aside from this, I think as much as Israelis think that “socialisation” is the most important thing for a tiny person, I disagree. I think it’s also important to learn how to be alone. How to entertain yourself. What to do in a garden with mud and stones. What to do on a rainy day. How to have fun with an old cereal packet and some crayons. How to snuggle up with a book. In this day and age, this is an important skill. People who have no idea of how to entertain themselves, often spend their free time on Facebook, or watching television. This is not what I would want for my child.

Recently, I was at a swimming pool where my youngest son was having his swimming lesson. My eldest son comes along and watches. We sit together, have a little snack, watch the babies, join in with the singing, sometimes I remember to bring him a book and sometimes he “helps” the teacher by throwing toys back in the pool. Often he likes to play outside on the little kiddy table or tiny rocking boat, and makes me “tea and cake”. One of the teachers at the pool commented on how nicely he plays alone. How she sees other kids here, who don’t really like to sit around. Indeed, I often see parents constantly plying kids with vile snacks at these places and it’s great to see a kid who doesn’t need to be entertained. I told her it’s most likely because he doesn’t go to gan. And I found myself wondering whether it’s a good idea to send him at all.

I remember a few years ago, a friend telling me how her 2 year old needed constant stimulation. How she needed to be played with and entertained during all her waking hours. “You’ll see.” She told me, confidently. When your kid gets to that age, he will be the same. It was her belief that all children should be in gan by the time they are 18 months. I found myself nodding along, not really being able to imagine my son at that age, but thinking she must know what she is talking about. From what I can see, the Israeli opinion is much the same.

Still, as annoying as a 2pm pickup time is, (right in the middle of my youngest sons nap) I would consider it if he were happy. Then I heard the real bombshell.

They don’t get lunch!

That’s right — 8am until 2:30pm (by the time they walk home, wash their hands, sit down at the table) with no real meal!

Ok, so they get aruchat eser (a snack at around 9:30 – 10am, but this is just a sandwich or something that I manage to send him with, assuming he eats it) then no real food for 5 hours. Except for a bit of fruit and some crackers at midday. Which some of the parents think is wonderfully healthy — fruit! It’s healthy right? Err, no. It’s not food. Unless it includes a large banana. But it’s not food. And no I do not want to train my child to eat crackers and fruit for meals; he is an active running-jumping 3 year old, not a swimsuit model.

Oh, hem mistadrim” (they all cope) say the other parents, reassuringly. Err, I don’t want him to “cope”. He is not in a Ceausescu-era Romanian orphanage, nor is he in the army, he is a little child, and thank god he has 2 loving parents who would like him to be healthy and happy, not just “coping”. Many of the working parents tell me it’s fine, the kids are fine, it’s all fine, but these children are not collected till 4 or 5 in the afternoon, and are given lunch in gan at 2pm. Who knows how they feel during the day?

There’s really no such thing as a good institution for an infant or young child.”


— Dr Nathan Fox, a child development researcher at the University of Maryland.

I know my child, and I know that he (much like his mum) needs to eat regular meals. That includes carbohydrates. He loves salad and fruit and tofu and beans and all that’s great, but he often needs to be reminded to eat carbs. If lunch is any later than around noon, I notice a sudden and dramatic change in him. His eyes start to roll around. He completely ignores me. And becomes angry. If I leave it too long he will tell me he isn’t hungry, and just wants vegetables, and I have to coax him to eat something with a bit of energy in it. On days where our routine is adjusted, it can be very difficult. I find that almonds seem to help him, and sugar is not something he can really cope with unless eaten after a meal, and I see this as unlikely to change. After all, I never “adjusted”, I found it very difficult to cope in school without food. I never ate properly in the mornings as I was given hefty dinners late at night which messed up my appetite. I have always found it hard to go for long periods without real food (fruit does not help me) and I have never been one of those superhuman types who can go off to shul on an empty stomach and manage on nothing until kiddush. I was always told that one day “I would get used to it”, now I realise that people are simply different.

When a baby is formula fed, parents carefully adhere to the instructions on the side of the bottle regarding amounts and frequency of feeding. The general assumption seems to be that many babies only “need” to be fed every 4 hours. Indeed, many of them “cope” on this, and so the pressure is on for parents to get their baby to fit the mould. Of course, many of them are not so happy with this routine. Indeed until recently a lot of crazy advice was given to breastfeeding mothers about frequency of feeding. Some babies feed a few times a day, sleep through the night, and seem to manage fine. Many don’t. But even if they can cope, does it mean it’s good for them? Is it really a good idea to train children to eat when it’s convenient for us?

I understand parents who have set meal times. We often do. Many parents find this more convenient. But if a kid needs a snack, they need a snack. They know what they need. There is no advantage in forcing them to wait. If my kids are hungry and it really is a short time till a big meal, I let them munch on the vegetables I am chopping, or give them a few rice cakes or nuts. When I was a child, I was told to have a biscuit (such was the health practices of the British — there is nothing that tea and biscuits cannot make better). This would often send my blood sugar soaring, and make me feel really ill, nauseous and often quite cross. It has taken me over 30 years to figure out that my body has certain requirements. Why on earth should I expect my little 3 year old boy to adjust? Add to this the fact that they’re sometimes given chocolate at gan — on an empty stomach — which leads to a very unhealthy scenario.

Although many of the parents (mostly whose who work and feel that gan is the only option) have told me that the 2pm thing is fine, they adjust, etc. Other parents (those who are at home in the afternoon with their kids) have confessed to me that actually their kids come home tired, hungry and often spend the rest of the day a bit cranky. It messes up their routines. Picture the scene. You are at home with a tiny one, or 2 tiny ones, who you feed and want to send off to nap around midday. Then you wake everyone up to collect your 3 year old from gan and needs a big meal at 2:30pm. Then 2 hours or so later your bigger kids get home from school and need food. Then an hour later your husband walks in … also hungry. It’s a bit annoying. After a while anyone would begin to feel like a waitress.

I have taken my eldest son to the doctor to get a note confirming his dietary needs (I don’t want some ganenet calling me up telling me my child has “behavioural difficulties” because for some reason at around 1pm every day he starts to become “anti-social”). I have overheard children his age in gan, screaming and screaming outside, and being told they have to calm down by the ganenet, when all I hear is a tired child that needs a bowl of decent food and a nap. I don’t want to put him through that, it is not his fault he has sensitive blood sugar. Apparently, a note to the ganenet is not enough. We have to get permission from the council. So we send our request and doctors note to the council, who forward it on to their head of education. And we wait. Then my husband informs me, almost laughing, that our request has been forwarded to the Office of Education!

This is what we pay our taxes for? For the government to micromanage the timetable of a 3 year old?

There is strong opinion that none of this in the childrens interest anyhow. They are simply pawns in a political game, championed by the education ministry:

According to reports, it has threatened to punish teachers who allow their parents to retrieve children early on a daily basis. A mother writing in the alon Olam Katan accused the ministry of Bolshevik tactics, effectively keeping their children prisoner to a long day that adversely affects their development.”


Hannah Katsman, “Is a Long Day of Gan Good?”

In her article Hannah Katsman includes results of an opinion poll from parents struggling with this issue.

My son has said he wants to go to gan, so he will go along and try out the first few “informal” days. I hope we will have our answer by then. If not, he’s staying home. I’m not fussed about socialisation. He is a very friendly child, people often tell me this (unless they have an axe to grind about him not being in gan). Meanwhile I wait for some random person to decide whether my son has a right to eat when he needs to. And they call Britain the nanny state.

About the Author
Deganit made aliyah in 2010. She is a full-time earth-mother and an aspiring writer living quietly tucked away on a hilltop in Northern Israel. Her writing features encounters with Israelis, her advice (wanted or otherwise), living with small children and animals and her family's attempted eco-living against the odds. The views expressed are her own.