NORMAN — A mom asked me a most interesting and currently pertinent question the other day: “How much one-on-one interaction should take place between a nanny and a child under her supervision?” The question is pertinent because increasing numbers of upper-middle-class parents are choosing to use nannies for daily child care instead of, or in addition to, day care centers and preschools. I will say I have no general opinion of this trend. Each nanny situation should be judged on its own merits.
I have some personal experience with this issue because during my preschool years, when my mom was a single parent and we lived in Charleston, S.C., she hired a woman to come in to our flat and supervise me when she was working and attending college. Gertie Mae, with whom I grew quite attached, also performed housekeeping responsibilities, but her role was similar in many respects to that of today’s nanny. Outside of the fact that she occasionally insisted I eat food I did not like, my experience of the relationship was positive. She was an important figure and I remember her fondly.
I am aware that many of today’s nannies are expected to or feel they cannot adequately justify their salaries unless they play with their charges and otherwise provide a good amount of stimulating and enjoyable activities for them. In a word, they entertain. I have no memories of Gertie Mae ever playing with me or providing me with entertainment. Both she and my mother expected me to entertain myself, which is one of the most important life skills a child ever acquires, and the earlier acquired, the better for all concerned. The child who learns to entertain himself is also, later on, more likely to do his own homework without much if any supervision, perform regular household responsibilities without prompting, solve peer problems without coming to adults, and so on.
None of the nanny websites that I looked at used the word “entertainment” when describing nanny responsibilities. The website nannies4hire.com, for example, listed preparing children’s meals, providing mental stimulation, doing children’s laundry and reinforcing appropriate discipline as primary nanny responsibilities. Facilitating playgroups was mentioned as an “additional” responsibility, but facilitating and entertaining are horses of different colors.
As most of my readers know, I advocate a low-involvement parenting style where children enjoy freedoms commensurate with the responsibility they are willing to assume for themselves and their behavior. To use a political analogy, it’s a libertarian parenting philosophy that allows children to learn, largely by trial and error, how to run their lives with minimal need for Big Parental Government. Speaking personally, it was not so much my mother’s job to be involved with me as it was my job to keep her from getting involved. This creates a mutual state of liberation for both parents and child.
This is the way children were raised two generations and more ago, when they emancipated much earlier and more successfully than has been the case since. That’s why my answer to the question posed in paragraph one above is “As little as possible,” and why it applies to both parents and nannies.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parent questions at rosemond.com.