Occasionally, an article will go up that might strike a chord with a reader, whether in a positive or a negative way. We here at Nanny Magazine gladly welcome the melting pot of opinions and experiences that our readers have and we are more than happy to post articles that differ in opinion. In September of 2014, we posted an article titled, A Nanny's Limits, A Nanny's Love by Leslie Kendall Dye. A former nanny turned mother, Leslie offered a look into her experience as a nanny in New York City and the fear and anxiety she felt over keeping her charges safe while they play. More recently, another nanny wrote in with her perspective on this piece. Below, please read Chelsey Bahe’s response to the piece, followed by a response from the original author, Leslie Kendall Dye herself, explaining the importance of the message she was trying to send in writing A Nanny’s Limits, A Nanny’s Love.
by chelsey bahe
I read the piece, A Nanny's Limits, A Nanny's Love, last fall.
I see and hear those nannies too.
"Put the stick down! We don't play with sticks!" "Get down! No climbing on rocks! You'll fall!"
Let me offer a different perspective. Yes, a nanny's first priority must always be safety. But what about the child's right to play?
Childhood happens only once. These children spend 52.5 hours a week with me. I have an obligation to honor their right to play, so I am going to let them live. They splash in puddles. They play in mud. They climb trees, jump from boulders, and dip nets into the pond to catch tadpoles, fish, and snails. They play with sticks, balance on fallen logs, dig in dirt, build forts in the woods, roll down hills, examine mushrooms with their magnifying glass, and swing from low-hanging tree branches.
Sometimes they fall down. They skin their knees, bump their heads, and occasionally get a splinter. One time one of the children even had a wood tick on his head. That doesn't mean I stop letting them try new and challenging things. It doesn't mean I am careless or I haven't made safety a priority. It means I want the children to have the confidence to pick themselves up, and after some comforting and cleaning of the boo-boo, I let them try again.
The children are allowed to try, and they are allowed to fall. It's how they become resilient. Its how they learn about all the ways their body can move and how they learn to be sure about their movements. It's the way they develop problem-solving skills, independence, and the ability to work as a team.
In my 12 years as a nanny I have noticed a lack of opportunities for children to truly play. Sure, there is no shortage of classes, lessons, clubs, or sports for kids to participate in, but there is little opportunity for play.
Play is often defined as behavior that is freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated.
In play, a child is in charge of what happens. Their play belongs to them. There is no right or wrong way to play when a child is choosing it for herself or himself, even if the play has risk. When we are overly cautious and try to control too much, we are robbing them of their play. Of course, safety is always a priority. Instead of completely banning a risky activity, I work to support the child's play needs while maintaining safety. For example, I allow the children to climb up the slides, but they know that if the playground is busy and a lot of kids are using the slides, then they need to go down, not up. Because they have been allowed to put this into practice, they are able to judge the situation and decide if climbing up the slide is a good idea or not. I allow the children to play with sticks but if they are going to be climbing they need to put the sticks down so both hands are free. I realize that not all nannies are in a position to allow for such freedom in play. I am in a unique position where I do have that ability now, and I feel a calling to advocate for other children and nannies to have the same. I have worked for high profile families in the past where the children were not allowed time to play. If they were to get dirty or injured on my watch, my job would be at stake. Those experiences left a lasting impression on me and inspired me to seek additional play specific training so I would be better qualified to advocate for the child's right to play.
Response to Another Perspective
Ah, perspective is a fascinating thing. When I wrote A Nanny’s Limits, A Nanny’s Love, it never occurred to me how specific to my city, my social setting, and the employees to whom Manhattan nannies must answer my essay was.
I have now been a mother in Manhattan for almost four years, and prior to that I was a part-time nanny for ten years. Most of my friends on the playground are nannies; I usually like them better. I live in a world where parents—even the well-intentioned ones—have such stringent demands that a nanny has very little wiggle room, much less job security. There are exceptions, to be sure. I had some lovely employers and I have heard a few tales of families who love their nannies and pay them appropriately for the tremendously difficult job they do. But the many nannies in New York City are underpaid and not well respected.
The other day my friend witnessed something that shocked her but sadly, didn’t surprise me at all. A Caucasian father on the playground threatened an African-American nanny who happened to have a foreign accent—he told her he was going to call immigration-- because she scolded his five-year-old child for trying to strangle her 18-month-old charge in the sandbox. The father felt she had over-stepped her bounds in telling another person’s child that it was not okay to strangle someone. She was, by the way, a United States citizen, not that it should have mattered. That she had to defend her right to be in this country while a rich white man bullied her in an Upper West Side playground perhaps gives some perspective on the kind of parameters into which a nanny is boxed on the asphalt streets of Manhattan.
Nannies are essentially an underclass here, and this class is largely but not exclusively determined by race. I was in a minority as a white nanny, and I could feel the anxiety and discomfort other nannies felt when I tried to chat with them as a fellow nanny. They had every reason to mistrust me. And yet I was going through many of the same struggles: condescension, over-maintenance of my activities, over-scheduled and spoiled children, a cycle of emotional violence that made being a nanny a job that often led to burn out and cynicism. Now, as a mother, I can tell them I have been where they are and I know what they are going through—and at last I have friends on the playground. They rarely meet a mother who understands.
Nannies here generally have to answer for every tiny scrape a child endures, they are not compensated when their employers arrive home late, and they are asked to do domestic tasks that far exceed a nanny’s role for no additional salary. Beyond that, there is a sense that they are of a different social status and not worthy of anything more than the most cursory conversation.
I parent very much as Ms. Bahe tends her charges. I let my child eat dirt and climb scarily tall rocks in the park. My child has almost never been in a stroller; from the moment she could crawl she was off and racing down the street. In A Nanny’s Love, A Nanny’s Limits, I described a rainstorm in which I ran barefoot with my toddler, never mind that there might be glass or broken bits of gravel up and down our filthy New York sidewalk.
We are on the same side, Ms. Bahe and I.
I’m very happy that some nannies’ working conditions are different from what mine were. I’m very glad to know that I was writing of a narrow segment of the United States population and not a universal experience.
I wrote of a city where nannies, and therefore children, are constrained by fear. The parents are afraid of injury. The nannies are afraid for their livelihood. There are social and racial tensions. There is bigotry. It is a problem at least as worrisome as the epidemic of overscheduled, hyper-sanitized childhood.
I applaud Ms. Bahe’s philosophy with regard to letting kids run free and letting them explore unimpeded by anxiety. Sadly, it is not a philosophy that most New York City nannies are free to follow.
I hope some day that will change. But as New York City parents speed toward college applications before a child hits his toddler years, in a city where parents book party rooms at hotels to celebrate a first birthday, in a city where children begin gymnastics classes at six months of age, I am not terribly optimistic about convincing parents to treat their nannies with more respect or about giving their kids the gift of less.
Less supervision, fewer activities, fewer treats.
It’s a shame because it is the nannies who deserve more, not the children. It is a fight that has cost me friends in the mother world, but I will always be a nanny at heart, knowing the peculiar and specific struggles of that job.