Visit any San Francisco park on a weekday afternoon and you'll likely see babies snoozing in strollers and toddlers pushing trucks through the sand, snacking on goldfish, and zipping down slides. You'll also likely find a gaggle of nannies (and a handful of parents): some attentively watching their kids; others yakking away on their cell phones. Marina resident Kathy Hallinan regularly observes this scene at Moscone Park on Chestnut street.
"I walk by the park nearly every day with my dogs and see these babysitters ignoring the children while they talk on their cell phones," Hallinan says. "It's really sad and dreadful that no one is playing with or talking to these children. I saw a young boy last fall in a facing-forward stroller, with his 'minder' pushing from behind and talking on the cell phone. The kid literally had his fingers in his ears keeping out the conversation. Lord knows what the effect will be when the future unfolds and we have hundreds and thousands of children in their earliest developmental stages being watched by minders who don't communicate with them. Neglect, loneliness, confusion, and frustration come to mind."
Caregivers commonly carry cell phones. Many families require it for emergency situations. If a child comes down with a fever, the nanny can easily call the parent at work. Also, parents like to check in throughout the day; they might want to find out if their child went down for a nap or let the caregiver know they're running late. But some nannies use their phones to talk to their friends and families and it's debatable whether this is acceptable.
There are parents who feel strongly that their nannies shouldn't be making personal calls while on the job. They believe it's best for a child's development to be fully engaged with an adult throughout the day. It's not uncommon for parents to post want ads on Craigslist that include statements such as "We want a nanny who won't talk on the phone at the park."
Other parents such as San Franciso mom Bao-Tran Truong aren't as adamantly against cell phones. "Our nanny had major family life issues," Truong says. "Her husband was going to be deported and she was trying to get her first child to immigrate to the U.S. from El Salvador, so I understood she did a lot of her 'business' when the kids were napping. She once made a call to El Salvador on our home phone that cost more than $600 but she paid it all back. I felt bad for her 'unique' situation and didn't press her on how she was spending her time with the kids. Also, the kids seemed to be happy and I understood that she was trying to work while balancing her private life as we all do when we are at work. We check our personal email, make a personal call here and there."
Veronique Lauriault, another San Francisco mom, feels similarly. "I know our nanny spoke to her friends during the day," Lauriault says. "But I speak on the cell phone myself when my daughter is around. In fact because of work today, I was on the phone every hour. Sometimes you just have to do it! No choice--I have a client with a major crisis on their hands. My daughter understood but it bugs her clearly. On days when I'm with her normally--picking her up from school--I am 100 percent there for her, but a day like today, there's no choice."
Nannies often work long days: eight- or nine-hour shifts, five or six days a week. They're typically on the job the entire time. Even when a child goes down for a nap, they might do household chores such as loading the dishwasher, picking up toys, and folding laundry. Andrea Lee, codirector of Mujeres Unidas Y Activas, thinks it's reasonable that a nanny might make a personal call or two throughout the day. "Many families don't realize that they're failing to give their children's caregivers basic labor rights such as rest breaks and lunch breaks," says Lee, whose organization trains Latina immigrant women to be caregivers. "These workers often don't have time in their workspace to take care of their own families. Maybe their child is sick and they need to get her to the doctor or call a family member to pick her up at school. We train women to be professional and sing to and talk to the children but it's reasonable that they might have to make a call once in awhile."
Shalini Azariah, owner of Bay Area 2nd Mom, Inc., says her referral agency has a policy that nannies can't use cell phones except to call the children's parents. She expects her caregivers to be fully attentive to the little ones because that's what they're paid to do. "We eliminate the problem by saying the phone can't be used for personal reasons," says Azariah, whose service has locations in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Milpitas, and Emeryville. "We require that the family provide the caregiver with a 'nanny phone' that she can use to communicate with the parents. The caregiver's personal phone needs to be turned off or left in the car as soon as she arrives at the child's house." Azariah also requires that her caregivers watch no television.
Jens Hillen, who owns the nanny referral service Town & Country Resources in San Francisco, says families haven't complained about caregivers talking on their cell phones but texting is an issue. "The nannies perceive this somehow as being more acceptable because it seems as if you're more alert and able to focus on the child," Hillen says. "We advise caregivers to not use their cell phones for personal reasons even if they're only texting. When this comes up, we talk to the caregiver to resolve the issue."
What do the nannies think? Eve Fisher says she's not one of the nannies who gabs on the phone at the park. After caring for 3-year-old twins and now a set of 9-month-old twins she knows that she can't multitask--i.e., talk on a phone while pushing two kids in swings. She sees nannies on their phones at the park all the time--but she thinks parents are just as guilty. "I think parents sometimes hold caregivers to a standard they rarely adhere to themselves."
What do you think? Is it okay for a caregiver to chat with friends and family while also watching a child at the park? Or should the cell phone be used only in emergency situations?