Nanny in NYC

A modern day Mary Poppins

Sunday, March 19, 2006


I have worked with Manhattan families for over seven years, and in that time I have met only a handful of families I would describe as "middle class". Not surprisingly, I've never worked for a family that I would describe as "working class" as they simply would not be able to afford my services. (Which reminds me, one of these days I must get around to posting about my "prostitution theory" of child care. I need something to spice this blog up a bit before settling back into reality TV critiques and cute Luke stories.) I did, however, grow up in a family that was somewhere smack in the middle of those two categories of class and I frequently find myself comparing the ways in which I was raised to how I observe children being raised in by affluent parents in NYC.

I'm also increasingly fascinated by the ways in which different generations of parents choose to collectively raise their children, and the fluctuating value systems those choices indicate. Last week David Brook's column in the NY Times was about the work of sociologist Annette Lareau. She spent two decades observing American families and wrote about the very different parenting styles of the middle and working classes in her book Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life.

I found nothing surprising in her characterization of middle class parents as vigilant schedulers of their children's time. With very few exceptions, every family I've worked for has been almost manic about the need to have their kids attend music, dance, art, swimming, soccer, and every other imaginable class offered for the elementary school set. Ironically, this over scheduling (in my experience) is being done by mothers and fathers who are acutely aware of the stress that this kind of hectic life places their children are under. Brooks said it best when he described this parenting style as one "that many of us ridicule but do not renounce". The working class parents, on the other hand, feel that childhood is a time for fun and (relatively) stress-free living. Because of this feeling there exists "a much starker boundary between the adult world and the children's world." Children structure their own playtime and the adults feel no guilt or concern over not engaging in "imaginative playtime" or calling their kid's friends to arrange playdates.

One of the consequences of these different techniques is that, as 10 year-olds, the working class children seem more like children than their middle class counterparts. They're not carrying around half the stress or expectations, so they seem "more relaxed and vibrant." All that changes, however, when you fast forward 15 or 20 years. Suddenly the roles are reversed. The middle class kids, now approaching 30, are the ones who seem considerably younger. They've gone to college and now have good jobs. Many of them have put off having their own children until later in life and are enjoying a fairly carefree young adulthood. The working class children's lives are not as sunny. Their mid-twenties are spent more frequently dealing with drug problems, unwanted pregnancies, health concerns, and multiple jobs.

Now, perhaps these two outcomes are completely the product of economics and parenting has very little to do with it. It does seem, however, from Lareau's research, that middle class parents are making a collective choice to value an enjoyable young adulthood over an innocent and unburdened youth. When it comes to planning my own children's lives and schedules, I'm not sure that I won't make the same choice myself, despite how much I might have criticized the high powered Manhattan mothers I've worked for in the past.

For those of you (like myself) without a Times Select membership, you can read the text of his column here. (I found it thanks to technorati--kudos to G. & his very blog-savvy buddy for that site tip.)


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