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CHILDCARE: WHO’S IN CHARGE? NANNY’S NOT YOU!

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by Karen Kaufman, Ph.D.

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As more middle class and affluent families become dual-career households, the pressing question arises: Who will provide childcare coverage? For parents with daytime work schedules who cannot share this responsibility, many hire in-home child care, viewing this as preferable to day care. In many instances, this is the least disruptive and most consistent care for a baby or young child since there is no concern about holidays, illness, or the child being roused from sleep to travel to another location in order to accommodate the parents’ work schedules. This arrangement can, however, pose other problems.

Responsible parents check former employment references, some do criminal background checks, and others install video cameras. But none of these measures explores a nanny’s emotional resources or addresses the reality that she is not the parent in terms of consistent childrearing and her authority with the children.

Many nannies have left their own children behind in other countries in order to provide income, which they send home regularly. These women may see their children once or twice a year, if at all. Their living conditions as live-out employees are often haphazard; some may share an apartment or depend on the generosity of extended family or friends to provide a room. Their lives outside work often do not provide the needed replenishment of their emotional resources, yet they are employed in jobs that require emotional and physical availability throughout the day and sometimes beyond. They are often depressed and feel marginalized in our society. Caregivers who live with their own families locally rather than with their employers may sacrifice much time with their own children, given the long work day. What may seem like an occasional request for the nanny to work late for the parent-teacher conference or social plans can cause further disruption for the nanny’s own family. She may have her own complicated child care arrangements, or simply miss out on seeing her own children and being a consistent presence for them.

For some live-in nannies, the work day does not end. Since they are in the home, they are often perceived as available for what seems like just another small favor — such as running out to pick up an older child, folding the last load of laundry, or getting up during the night with a sick child. The absence of a real end to the work day adds to the depletion.

When the child care arrangement is logistically successful, which it often is, many parents mistakenly believe that in their absence, the rules and regulations remain consistent. When the nanny is a responsible and mature adult, parents often hold onto the belief that life goes on in the household in the same manner that the parents create. But this is often not the case. Children have profound feelings about their parents’ prolonged absences, whether or not these feelings are expressed. The feelings can be displayed in behaviors such as irritability, defiance and depression. Children do not typically view the nanny’s authority as being the same as their parents’. They may tune out and disregard the nanny’s admonitions with the same defiance as that expressed toward a step-parent: You’re not my mother, father, real mother, etc. The child is not wrong, and is also expressing a deeper need for the parents. In addition, both the child and nanny know that as an employee, she is indeed powerless if the child does not obey — because what is the nanny to do when not heeded? As a result, many young children wield too much power in the household, power that ends up causing anxiety because it leaves them feeling unsafe. Many children demonstrate some glimmer of awareness of this fact even when they outwardly appear to enjoy the power. In reality, children feel safer when consistent limits are set for them and enforced.

The unfortunate consequences of too much parental absence arise in different places. Children can be disrespectful toward other authority figures such as teachers or coaches, displaying an attitude of arrogance or indifference. They may be materially or behaviorally indulged as a result of parental guilt, and so are less respectful of rules outside the home or the feelings or property of others. At the core of this behavior, what often appears as anger is really a deep sadness because of feelings of rejection. What children may claim to intellectually understand and accept — Mom has a very important job, Do you know what she does?, Dad has to travel a lot, so many people depend on him, Do you know who he works for? Did you see his name on television, in the newspaper? — often conceals sadness and envy of the people with whom the parents spend more of their time. Children can also become envious of the friends whose parents they see around the home more regularly and who they see spending more time together as a family.

What parents can do:

• When age-appropriate, arrange family meetings and include all family members and the nanny. Discuss the rules and regulations, and how infractions in the parents’ absence will be handled. This gives both children and nanny a feeling of power and respect in regard to the decisions being made.

• Respect the nanny’s work hours; time for needed replenishment means more physical and emotional energy for childcare.

• Adjust rules as necessary; children’s needs and requirements change with age.

• Reserve special family time and stay committed to it. Turn off cell phones.

• In families with more than one child, parents can spend time with each child separately; this reminds the child of his own uniqueness and special status with each parent.

• Set limits and enforce them with consistency. This provides feelings of safety, nurturance and caring. Set curfews with older children; know where children are and with whom.

• Don’t be afraid to ask questions. The cliché, “no news is good news”, does not apply with parenting.


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