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.