Why Do Fewer Stay-at-Home Moms = Less Neighborhood Play?

Ever since I started writing about the lack of children’s play in neighborhoods, the “fewer stay-at-home moms excuse” has always perplexed me. It says: Since fewer moms stay at home, more families leave their children to paid caregivers. This (somehow…) results in kids playing less in the neighborhood.

OK, I get this if the care is taking place at a different location, outside the children’s neighborhoods. However, parents who leave their kids at their homes with nannies or babysitters also use this excuse.

Huh? Kids are home. Why can’t they play outside, just like they might if their parents were at home?In fact, in my childhood neighborhood in the 1960s and 70s, one family, the Weisses, had five kids and a working mom who worked regular 9-5 weekday hours. So, they had a full-time “housekeeper,” as we called her back then, named Ann. The Weiss kids were among the most active players in the neighborhood. Ann had no negative impact at all on their neighborhood play lives.

So, what’s different today? What I’ve come to realize is how important parents’ relationships are to kids’ neighborhood lives. Decades back, kids were the first in their families to make neighborhood relationships. Neighbor parents would meet each other once their children became good friends.

Today, it’s usually the other way around. Parents no longer just send their kids outside automatically, from the time they’re toddlers. Instead, when they do let their kids play outside in the neighborhood, it’s only after they’ve gotten to know many of the parents and kids who live there, and feel comfortable with them.

In other words, kids used to make friendships first, then bring their parents along. Today, it’s the opposite.

Can nannies and babysitters make friends in the neighborhood with other nannies and babysitters, too, or with parents? Of course they can, but for the most part, they don’t.

I’ve seen a few instances in our neighborhood where nannies took little or no interest in neighborhood relationships. One ran away from us a couple of times when my kids and the kids she was taking care of were saying “hi” to each other. I surmised later that she had appointments to meet her nanny friends and their kids, and was quite determined to avoid us and keep those appointments.

In another example that happened recently, a babysitter took a neighbor boy to a party at our place, and the boy and my son Marco were playing very well together for the first time. The babysitter sat by herself, talking to no one, while over a dozen parents were having a great time talking. Then, scarcely a half hour after she and the boy arrived, she vanished with the boy. I’m sure the boy’s parent would have figured out a way to stick around longer, but the babysitter clearly didn’t care about his budding relationship with Marco.

Why don’t nannies or babysitters make an effort to establish relationships in the neighborhoods of the families they serve? First, they no incentive to invest on their own in relationships in the neighborhood. Unless they happen to live on your block, they have no expectation of hanging out in the neighborhood outside of work time. Besides, practically no nannies or babysitters expect to be working for the same family for many years.

On the other hand, parents can expect both to spend lots of leisure time in their neighborhood, and to spend many years in their neighborhood. Thus, they have far more incentive than their nannies to develop relationships with their neighbors.

The second reason that nannies or babysitters don’t make an effort to establish neighborhood relationships is that, typically, families don’t explicitly tell them to do this. Instructions almost always cover eating, sleeping, and safety. Perhaps they add in educational time like arts & crafts or reading. (In another article, I wrote about how most parents think “quality time” with their kids is instructional time, but kids disagree.)

How about telling nannies or babysitters to let kids play? Sure, some parents do, but most are OK with any play their kids have. To them, play just fills time. On the contrary, I would argue, play with neighborhood kids is an investment in long-term friendships and a rich neighborhood life. Play with nannies’ friends who live outside the neighborhood is far less valuable, long-term. It helps the nannies maintain their friendships, but because the kids can only see each other with their nannies, they are unlikely to gain much lasting, positive effect.

My point here is that we parents should not blame nannies or babysitters for not working on their own to establish neighborhood relationships. They have very little incentive to do so, either on their own or from their employers – i.e. parents.

We can and should ask them to spend their childcare time with kids and parents in our neighborhoods. My wife and I did this with our previous Au Pair (live-in nanny) and when she got married, she invited about four of our neighbor’s families to her wedding party.

No matter how hard we push this, though, we parents will always be the best at creating neighborhood relationships for our kids. We are the ones who have the incentive to invest in neighborhood relationships. Besides, other neighborhood parents are more likely to be friendly to us than they would be to our nannies or babysitters.

So, if both parents in your family work and you employ a nanny or babysitter to take care of your kids at your house, you can do two things to enhance your kids’ neighborhood life. You can explicitly ask your nanny or babysitter to spend time in the neighborhood with other families, rather than taking your kids outside the neighborhood to meet with her nanny friends. Most important, though, you can make a point to work on your neighborhood relations when you are home in the evenings and on weekends. Otherwise, it’s very unlikely that your kids will have any neighborhood life at all.

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7 Responses to Why Do Fewer Stay-at-Home Moms = Less Neighborhood Play?

  1. T says:

    You’re missing a huge piece of the picture here–parents who don’t want their children to play with children while they are under the care of the nanny. Believe me, the message comes across very clearly to the nannies, who pretty quickly learn that it’s a lot simpler to stay with those nanny friends. So instead of telling your nanny to approach other families, how about asking those other families to embrace the nannies?

  2. Barbara_Saunders_FB says:

    I also think you’re being too hard on the nannies. (The implication that these employees are neglecting the needs of the children to socialize with their “nanny friends” is a little insulting actually.)

    How many nannies are nervous – because of the parents’ overprotective attitudes – about danger to the kids “on their watch”? How many nannies are trying to avoid the political minefields among the families where this mom and that dad don’t get along, or this one’s vegan and that one eats junk food, or this family doesn’t allow the kids to play with toy guns, or there’s some kind of snob problem among families with different kinds of jobs or different ethnicities, or whatever?

  3. Mike says:

    Barbara – It’s a fact that many nannies take the kids they serve to meet with their nanny friends and the kids they serve. In my opinion, nannies who choose to do this rather than find other kids to play in the neighborhood are not acting in the kids’ best interest, but my perspective is as a strong neighborhood advocate. Those nannies have a different perspective.

    It’s a fact that some parents let their kids watch lots of TV. My wife and I don’t let our kids watch any TV. We have different perspectives as to what’s good for kids, you could say…

  4. lr_khaimovich says:

    Replace “nannies” with “teachers” and we have even more food for thought… Yet I am afraid that replacing nannies and teachers with parents will help less than replacing them with… nobody. I am back to the importance of unsupervised play. The “housekeeper” you are writing about probably had her hands full with the chores like cleaning, preparing meals, etc., and just couldn’t supervise children all the time. She was there for children to come if they seriously hurt themselves etc., but she wasn’t watching them all the time.

  5. Barbara_Saunders_FB says:

    Mike – i understand. However stay-at-home mommies (and presumably daddies) also go to mommy-and-kid activities – in part to serve their own needs for adult contact – rather than allowing kids to play outside. Some of the tone of what you wrote read – to me – as condescending.

  6. Tom_OLeary_FB says:

    As I see it, there are three primary reasons that neighborhoods are quieter today.

    1. Over 60 percent of households are dual income today, compared to 1/3 of households when I was growing up in the 1970s. As a result, children are enrolled in after school and weekend programs until dinner time, when mom or dad are home. I don’t know too many people with live in nannies and see more parents using organized, structured activities as babysitters after school and on weekends.

    2. An unjustified perception of fear. Even though national crime rates are actually lower today than they were when we took to the streets freely when I was young, more parents are reluctant to let their children explore their neighborhoods without adult supervision. 24-hour sensational news coverage ensures that these fears are perpetuated, however unwarranted they may be.

    3. Media consumption by young children is on the rise. According to recent studies, children between 6-11 spend over 7 hours a day connected to some electronic gadget (i.e. mobile phone, video game, etc.) Many children are happy sitting in the same spot for hours at a time. When I was a boy, we didn’t sit still for 5 minutes. If we were sitting around the house on a nice day, our mothers would say “I’ll give you something to do.” That would be enough motivation for us to skid off to an adventure.

  7. lr_khaimovich says:

    Just wanted to add to Tom’s comment that sensational stories we gobble up from media wouldn’t do so much damage if we were not so mobile. If we knew all our neighbors for 10 years or so, we wouldn’t overact so badly on a news story. But if we have no idea who lives next door either because they moved recently or WE did, there is no specific information to confront our media-induced perception of fear.