The Nanny State — It Takes A Village

In yet another sign of just how timely Dan’s new book on privacy and reputation is, yesterday’s New York Times featured this story about citizen surveillance of nannies across the United States and in Canada. The blog collects commentary — and photos — of nannies others deem to have violated norms of caregiving. [This is similar to the “warning wires” drivers can post about the actions and habits of other drivers (see this post by Frank ).] The surveillance undertaken in private homes (teddy-bear cams, etc.) is now being supplemented by forms of public surveillance. In the age of the “public Panopticon” (or, perhaps, the “citizen Stasi”), snitch-sites seem to be gaining in popularity. Apparently, it takes a village to police nannies.

My sense of the basic costs and benefits of this sort of surveillance are similar to Frank’s regarding driver surveillance. On the one hand, parents may learn of nanny negligence — or worse — that otherwise probably would have gone undetected. Prospective parent-employers will have yet another source of information on which to rely in making important hiring decisions. On the other hand, inaccurate or vindictive postings can lead to loss of present and future employment for some “innocent” nannies. Libel may thrive in these, as in other, snitch spaces. And the “spotted” nanny will have no real means of defense (short of an expensive lawsuit — and that, for reasons stated earlier by Dave Hoffman, is not likely to be very effective). Reputations can be lost in the time it takes someone to click a camera and create a post, which will then “live” in cyberspace for eternity.

It is undeniable that, as Dan’s book suggests, we have arrived at a critical juncture regarding our “privacy.” I want to read the book before coming to any firm conclusions about the harms and general repercussions associated with citizen surveillance and cyber-permanence. But my initial reaction to nanny surveillance is one of substantial concern. Surely there are better means of enforcing norms and proper behaviors than spying on one another 24/7 and publishing our findings on the Web.

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12 Responses

  1. KatieM says:

    There’s also an inequity issue. The only nannies that are likely to be identified as such are those of a different race than the child which, society being what it is, is almost always going to involve nannies of color watching white children. (I perused the site and that’s pretty much what I saw).

  2. Tim Zick says:

    Thanks. Yes, that was my quick take as well — at least with reagrd to the postings in NYC, where I live.

  3. Tim Zick says:

    Thanks. Yes, that was my quick take as well — at least with regard to the postings in NYC, where I live.

  4. Adam says:

    I wonder, though, how far removed this site is from, say, Zagat’s, or any other reviewing service that publishes more or less unverifiable accounts of past conduct. I mean, what is a review of a waiter’s conduct if not (to borrow your terms) a “snitch,” a “form of public surveillance”?

    As a parent needs to rely on babysitters from time to time, I think this sort of surveillance holds great promise. Of course there are problems — Katie’s point regarding racial inequity is a good one, and of course there are always risks inherent with anonymous commentary — but I would think that our primary concern should weigh in favor of protecting children.

    I’d disagree with Timothy’s suggestion that “the ‘spotted’ nanny will have no real means of defense.” Nannies concerned with inaccurate “spottings” can strengthen their relationships with their employers; for example, they can work with their employers to establish more equitable means of quality-control observation. Those working for a nanny/sitter service can encourage their respective services to establish their own quality-control procedures.

    Again, if we’re going to err here, shouldn’t we err in favor of children’s safety and well-being? After all, as defenseless as you may see the nannies/sitters to be, the children in their care are infinitely more defenseless.

  5. Matt says:

    Adam, I would respectfully suggest that your claim that nannies worried about about inaccurate “spottings” can “work with their employers to establish more equitable means of quality-control” shows a pretty strong degree of naivety about the power distributions in such relationships. Do you really think that the nannies in the story are in a position to negotiate terms with their employers, especially the sort of dominering, obsessive sorts discussed in the article? That seems to me, I must say, extremely unlikely.

  6. Booo says:

    Matt, you obviously haven’t hired a nanny in one of those “obsessive” markets (read — big cities, professional working parents), where “premium” nannies (i.e., with verifiable prior experience and basic training) have a huge power. Nannies can quit at any time, and the parents will be stuck without childcare. I know of no parent who would want to risk losing a good nanny because of some silly internet comment, so none of my buddies would dream of firing (or even offending) a good nanny without further careful investigation. And the careful investigation is exactly what’s needed in such cases.

  7. Matt says:

    You’re right, boo, I’ve not hired a nanny. But I wonder if you read the article- the nannies discussed were apparently paid about $12/hr on average and many were said to be out of status. Do you really think they have “huge power”? I rather doubt it. And, the article discussed nannies being fired by parents who were “traumatized” to read an annonymous report of a nanny using “abuse langauge and body-language” towards their little angels on the internet. So, while you might be speaking of a real situation, it’s not the one discussed in the NY Times article.

  8. Scott says:

    I think there is a larger trend developing that could be very good for large metro areas, maybe even for this country.

    Much of the asocial behavior in large cities can be attributed to the feeling by people in these settings that they are anonymous. What I do goes unnoticed so I don’t have to fear the consequences of asocial behavior.

    Nanny cams, snitch sites and other forms of surveilance return us to a time when your actions were known to all and that fact had a deterrent effect on those contemplating behaviors that violated societal norms.

    Now I will not deny that this can have a smothering effect on displays of individuality, but it also has the effect of making bad drivers think twice about how they are driving, nannies think carefully about how they care for their charges, etc.

    All of this oversight makes even the largest city just another “village” and could potentially be very good for everyone living in “villages” like New York.

  9. boo says:

    wow, Matt, so you are commenting about other people’s “strong degree of naivety” about “power imbalances”, while your sole source of information is a single article in the NYT? Speaking about wild ignorance! Have you even looked at the website that the article discusses? Ever been to a playground? A preschool? Spoke to a parent who hired a nanny? To someone from an employment agency?

    Nannies in fact hold a huge power over families where they work, simply by the virtue of spending most of their time unsupervised, and by having the power to neglect and abuse their charges in many ways that are very hard to detect. If you ever sit around a playground, you’d see many of those — talking on the phone or even taking a nap, while their charges are playing alone unsupervised, or running in dirty diapers, or even sitting for hours motionless, strapped to a stroller while the nanny is having a debate with some guy. I’ve seen worse things too. If there was some way to inform the parents, I’d do it immediately. Heck, those nannies wouldn’t be doing their things if they knew of a CHANCE that someone can report them.

    Oh, and by the way, $12/hour is about half of what a typical working woman (other than a high-level lawyer) makes after tax. And the “live-in” nannies don’t even have to pay for rent, food, and utilities. So gimme a break about poor underpaid nannies and fat miserly mommies.

    A nanny can hurt the family in many ways — from unannounced quitting to outright child abuse. The worst thing a family can do to a nanny is, well, fire her.

  10. Matt says:

    Boo- you’re projecting a bit about “fat miserly mommies”. I’m pretty sure I didn’t say that at all. And I do know a bit more about nannies than what I’ve learned from one article- my sister was a live-in nanny for many years. I even baby-sat kids myself when I was young. The wife of my best friend was a nanny and several people I know employ them. I even spend time at playgrounds when I can.

    Note, also, that the type of “power” you attribute to nannies isn’t at all the type of power that is likely to be useful in barganing over working conditions. Can the nanny really say, “If you don’t stop spying on me, I’ll feed your kids bad food and not changer their dipers? That seems pretty unlikely to work. Rather, the question is who has barganing power over determining working conditions. I’m pretty sure it’s not the nanny in most cases, and certainly not the nannies in the article, the ones I was talking about.

  11. boo says:

    Matt: the implicit threat to mistreat/neglect my kids is the strongest bargaining chip a nanny can ever have. No, the nanny won’t tell me that. She doesn’t need to. The parents know this without words. I know: if I mistreat my nanny, she may mistreat my kids. I don’t know if she will (and surely hope not!), but I know that she might. So, I bribe her endlessly to convince her to be nice to kids while I am not watching. I pay her well. I give her benefits. I treat her better than I treat many of my friends. I listen to her sappy love stories without objections. I negotiate her problems with her family. I give her rides. I don’t do it because I am “nice” — I do it because she has tremendous power over me. And every other nanny will have the same power, so changing nannies on a whim won’t get rid of the huge power imbalance.

    Which brings us back to the point: if there was a service that would tell me how my nanny is doing during the day, I’d pay a lot for it. And I bet that good nannies wouldn’t object too much. After all, every nanny claims she is a good nanny. So, the really good ones will be able to distinguish themselves if enough people post their nanny observations on line. I hope this trend picks up.

  12. boo says:

    As a recent example: my nanny tells me that she gets “very tired” by the end of the week, so it’s hard for her to pick up the baby. No, she doesn’t threaten to stop picking up the baby. But I know exactly what she means. So, she now has an extra half a day off a week — paid. That’s how this works. If she asked for three extra days off, I’d say, forget it. So, her bargaining power is not infinite, but pretty damn large!