‘This Is A Business. I’m Not A Babysitter’: How An LA Child Care Influencer Became A Role Model For Providers Across The Country
Erykah Badu’s 1997 hit “Next Lifetime” may have originally been about unrequited love, but filtered through the TikTok performance of Hawthorne child care provider Tonya Muhammad it’s a message to families that pull their children out of her care when she increases her rates.
Badu croons “No hard feelings” while Muhammad waves from her front porch. The caption on the screen reads “Know your worth.”
Between TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and the social audio app Clubhouse, Muhammad has more than 160,000 followers.
@daycarechronicles101 Skit: When a parent takes child out of daycare because if rate increase. Everything has gone up & so are my rates die to Inflation!!8daycarechronicles101 #daycareprovider #daycareparents #inflation ♬ Next Lifetime - Radio Version - Erykah Badu
Keep scrolling through her feed and you'll see her break down how she notifies parents of tuition increases (in writing) and how she justifies the cost to skeptical parents (her years of experience, nutritional meals, varied activities for the kids).
In 2019, Muhammad started creating videos inspired by more than three decades of child care experience under the name “Daycare Chronicles 101." She acts out skits of scenarios providers encounter, from mysterious rashes to missing underwear. She offers practical tips on diaper changing, setting up an outdoor classroom, and interacting with parents.
“I want the children to have quality care and I want them to have providers that are knowledgeable about this business,” Muhammad said. “Licensing will give you a license, the referral agencies will give you a contract, but nobody prepares you for the day to day.”
“Everything that you run into, Tonya addresses in a humorous way and reminds you that you can be good to your parents, good to your children, but it is a business,” said Virginia child care provider Lisa Will, who has followed the L.A. County provider for years.
‘This Is A Business. I’m Not A Babysitter’
Muhammad said she started Lil Critters Family Day Care when she was 23, in part to stay home with her own children.
The business has transformed her house. Sleeping mats line the living room for nap time. One room of the house is a classroom and library. The day I visit, the backyard hosts a pop-up lemonade and taco stand, and a kitchen — Muhammad rotates the activities to hold the kids’ interests.
“There [are] no limitations in here because I understand that their minds are so great, greater than what my mind is at 54, 55,” Muhammad said.
There are more than 5,000 licensed family child care homes in Los Angeles County. Many of these small businesses are run by women of color and serve families who need close-by care with flexible hours.
Home-based child care providers may have an assistant or two, but many wear multiple hats. They are the teacher, cook, custodian, and accountant.
“This is a business. I’m not a babysitter,” Muhammad said. “I’m not opening my door in rollers, and slippers and a house robe on … Everything is done before that doorbell rings around 6:30 in the morning.”
California requires anyone caring for children from more than one family other than their own to complete a background check and health and safety training to get licensed by the state.
Child care providers operate on thin margins. In 2019, the median wage for California child care workers was $13.43 an hour.
Home-based providers, who are more likely to be Latino, made less than their counterparts at child care centers, according to a 2017 L.A. County assessment of the workforce.
As much as daycare is about the kids, providers must also navigate relationships with their adult caregivers. Conflicts with parents aren’t just awkward, they can damage a provider's earnings.
“What if they take their child out?” said Philadelphia child care center owner Ineeze Gainey, voicing a common concern among providers. “The thought of losing a kid, of course, means losing income.”
Gainey follows Muhammad online and now considers her a friend.
“I love the realness of it," Gainey said. "She doesn't really sugarcoat. This is really what's going on.”
‘She’s Given Me A Backbone’
“When I first started, I didn't have many rules and regulations, because I didn't know,” Muhammad said.
For example, Muhammad said she started out collecting tuition for the previous week on Fridays.
“There were some Fridays when parents were like, ‘Well I don't have the money,’ or they would just take their children out of daycare because they couldn't afford it and not tell you.”
Now she charges in advance for the following week.
In her videos, Muhammad speaks candidly about her financial policies, like collecting payments when families are out of town.
“When they go on vacation they still have to pay their rent or mortgage, they pay car insurance whether you use it or not,” Muhammad said. “So with daycare it’s like, you’re going to pay this to secure your child’s spot.”
Child care policies are also meant to keep kids safe.
A few weeks ago Virginia provider Lisa Will noticed a child in her care had blisters on his hands. She suspected a contagious virus called hand, foot, and mouth disease. At first, Will said the parents made excuses when she asked them to pick up their child.
“In the past I have knuckled under and felt bad about it,” Will said. Instead, she told the family they could return with a doctor’s note.
“I wasn't rude. I was just, not even authoritative,” Will said. “Just firm, just firm in the fact that this is the way it needs to be.”
Everything that you run into, Tonya addresses in a humorous way and reminds you that you can be good to your parents, good to your children, but it is a business.
She credits her ability to stand up for herself to Muhammad, who even before the pandemic was adamant that sick children had no place in daycare where germs spread quickly from one sniffly nose to another.
“She's given me a backbone,” Will said. “Something that I really needed.”
Will lives in rural Virginia— while we talked, a herd of deer ran through her yard— and is one of only a handful of family child care providers in her region.
Once, during a particularly challenging time, she messaged Muhammad and received a phone call in return.
“It's kind of nice to know that somebody clear on the other side of the country has the same issues that you have, that you're not out here alone,” Will said.
‘It’s Time To Transition Out Of Daycare’
In the half day we spend together, the only time Muhammad sits down is while the kids are down for a nap. And even then, she bounced a fussy child on her lap and had to get up to check on the infants every 15 minutes.
“It's time to transition out of daycare,” Muhammad said. “I've been doing it 37 years, you know, I want to do something different.”
She’s part of a new L.A. group supporting Black child care providers. Over the summer, she hosted a paid lunch-and-learn seminar at a Redondo Beach restaurant and said she wants to create a training institute for providers.
Muhammad said she sees her role shifting from caring for children to mentoring the next generation of providers.
One example in L.A. is Sabrina Duran. The mom of two decided to open a home-based child care almost two years ago after earning a bachelor’s degree in child development.
“Six months ago, I was giving up,” Duran said. “I was like, ‘I'm not getting any kids, like, what am I supposed to do?’ And Ms. Tonya's like, you have to have patience.”
Muhammad stepped in to help, reviewed Duran's contract line-by-line, encouraged her to add paid holidays, and answered her questions about interacting with parents.
Today, Duran said her daycare is nearly fully enrolled.
“What I would want providers to know and to take away from the information that I give every day,” Muhammad said, “is to know their value, their worth, to know that they are just so amazing.”