It’s Not All Mary Poppins

What would you do?

There are many caregivers in my neighbourhood. We offer a variety of styles of service. Some start earlier, some go later. Some are heavy on the crafts, others are all about the outings. Some are French, most are English, a smattering have another language. There are caregivers for every style of parent.

There are those who, in my estimation, are better than others. There are the truly great: appropriately attentive, but not helicopter; a nice way of interacting with the children; clear and sensible consequences and expectations for the children; true professionalism when dealing with parents.

There are the middling ones, like the one who’s great with the kids, but just a tad less attentive than makes me comfortable — not, I hasten to add, that any of her children has ever suffered anything more than the standard bumps and bruises so common to this (uncoordinated) age, nor in excessive numbers. She just lets the kids wander a little further than I would, doesn’t check on them as often as I do. More of a style difference, but… it makes me a smidge uneasy, her style.

And then… then there’s that one that I just don’t like. Not as a person, and even more, not as a caregiver. There’s a saying that you don’t deserve the face you have at 20, but at 50 you have the face you’ve earned. I look at her, the lines of her face drawn severe and scowling, and wonder, “Who would leave their child with a face like that?” A face that so clearly reflects the years spent scowling and stern?

When I see her as I approach the sandbox, I sigh inwardly, knowing that I’m in for a morning of sharp complaints and negativity, without even the (unworthy yet occasionally satisfactory) pleasure of a vent-and-gripe session, for she doesn’t listen, she only talks.

She doesn’t like the parents, she doesn’t appear to enjoy the children. She doesn’t say anything positive about her job, her days, her family, her activities. Though I’ve never seen her say or do anything inappropriate with her kids, she’s never warm with them, either. No laughter, no spontaneous hugs, kisses or cuddles from this one.

And once in a while, a parent looking for care will ask me, “Do you know X? What do you think of her?”

I hate that question.

“I think she’s awful!” would be the 100% accurate response. But that, friends, is unprofessional. You don’t backstab colleagues, and though I don’t like her, she’s never done anything that crosses any legal lines. (To my knowledge, of course, but I really don’t think she has. She’s not abusive, she’s not a psychopath… she’s just not very nice.)

Now, when I’m asked that question I tend to assume that they have a negative gut feeling already, and want confirmation of it. Because you know what? No one’s ever asked about any other caregiver. Just her. Isn’t that telling?

Which is why, the first time I was asked, I answered with a question of my own, “Why do you ask? Do you have a concern about her?”

Another time I had a different question. “Well, that depends. What, would you say, is your parenting style?” Because, you know, there are families out there who are looking for someone with her style. What I might call ‘authoritarian’, they would call ‘firm’. Different strokes.

In essence, I’ve opted not to answer the question directly, but instead encourage them to express their feelings. Another way to deal with it would be to evade it directly, “I have a policy not to discuss other caregivers with parents. It might be best for you to arrange to meet her so that you can form your own opinion.” (Given that I don’t say, “I think she’s wonderful!!!”, which I would if I did, I’ve pretty much answered the question right there, haven’t I?)

Gah. I still don’t like it.

The most recent time this happened, I was tempted to avoid the whole dilemma with a lie: “X? Nope, never heard of her.”

But I’m curious. Have you ever found yourself in a parallel situation? How would you respond?

July 28, 2011 - Posted by | controversy, daycare, the dark side | , , , , , , ,


  1. Yes! I am dealing with this, but at the place that I work! We have a teacher very similar to what you described and it’s driving me batty. Except, she tends to be loud in her criticism and a unequal or excessive in her discipline.

    I struggle daily not to tell her off (not really my style to have angry confrontations in front of preschoolers!) and anything I am truly uncomfortable with, I tell our supervisor. Beyond that? There’s little to be done except approach the type of questions you present in the style you have already done. Of course I am in the same building, have the same employer, so obviously the solution may be different than yours.

    I would LOVE to tell a parent,”She tends to be quite critical of EVERYTHING so run the other way!”, but alas it is not to be. 😦

    I look forward to reading what others recommend, perhaps I’ll learn something I can use too. (I believe I just took over your blog. I didn’t realize how much this was bothering me. Hmm.)

    Comment by protected to keep her job! | July 28, 2011 | Reply

  2. I think you could honorably and honestly say something along the lines of “She has a very different style than I do” along with your ““Why do you ask? Do you have a concern about her?”

    I like the idea of making mention of the style… because it’s totally true. And if they like my style, they can make what assumptions about hers as seem reasonable to them.

    Comment by morecoffeeplease | July 28, 2011 | Reply

  3. How about the truth, but in a wishy-washy delivery… “I don’t know her very well, but she doesn’t seem to be a happy person.”

    You know what? That is totally my style. I can absolutely see myself using this tactic should I be asked this question again. Thank you!

    Comment by Anita | July 28, 2011 | Reply

  4. I’m a freelancer, and I’m sometimes asked about what I think about certain other freelancers, generally people who fill roles that are different from my own. I give my honest opinion, though I do tend to soften the way I phrase things and emphasize that it’s just my opinion. To me, this isn’t backstabbing, even when my opinion of the person isn’t very positive. The people who ask are looking for information to help them decide who will be on their team, and they deserve to know if X can’t be counted on to meet deadlines or if Y has a history of panicking in the face of challenges. I feel that people generally earn their reputations: if they want people to say good things about them, they need to act accordingly.

    In your case, I think it’s a little trickier because she’s not truly a colleague: she’s a competitor. It’s usually frowned upon to say bad things about a competitor because it can be perceived as having an element of self-interest… but a parent who’s looking to choose a childcare provider deserves to make informed decisions. I think that I would say something like, “I don’t know her very well, but she doesn’t seem to be a very happy person.” It’s true, it makes it clear that it’s your opinion and that you could be wrong (doubtful, but possible), and it still gives the parent room to be making the decision based on other factors, as well.

    This is a thoughtful and considered evaluation of the factors. Thank you! It sorts out the issues in a much clearer way thank I’d managed. You’re right, it’s not backstabbing to give an opinion, but you’re also right when you point out we’re not colleagues but competitors, and that makes my motives in delivering an opinion a little more suspect. I do like the approach of making an observation but not drawing any conclusions.

    Comment by klm | July 28, 2011 | Reply

  5. Whatever line you use, I’d be wary of saying something that you’d be embarrassed if she heard about it. You don’t know how discreet the parents are, and the last thing you want getting about is ” Mary P says…” to her or anyone else. For that reason, I’d go with the ‘different style’ approach because it won’t lead to unwanted comebacks.

    That’s absolutely a concern. It would be tremendously naive to think a stranger you chatted with is among the discreet minority, and this is not a woman I’d care to have angry with me!

    Comment by Z | July 28, 2011 | Reply

  6. And then there are the legal issues that could come back to bite you. Back in my Center days I went to a training with an employment attorney who told us never to give references, just confirm employment. It’s amazing what you can communicate just by the tone of your voice. I like the “we are very different” approach, along with the suggestion that the parents visit. The weird thing is that in every situation I have been in where there was a teacher I wouldn’t trust with my cat there were parents who thought that teacher was wonderful.

    No references? Have you followed that advice since?

    As you say, this woman has a few parents who love her, and have left their children with her for years, but on the other hand, one of her frequent complaints is how ‘unreliable’ parents are, since she has such a high turnover. Hmmmm…

    Comment by jwg | July 28, 2011 | Reply

    • If the person who called or wrote about a former employee was someone I didn’t know the official line was “It is the policy of the Center to only confirm dates of employment.” If I knew the other Director and it was someone I trusted I would be more forthcoming, but not in writing. According to the attorney you had to be careful, even with good references, because if you recommended a person and they turned out to be terrible or did something to a kid you could get sued. He said he’d seen it happen. Frankly, I thought the whole thing was ridiculous and if I thought the employee was wonderful I found ways to communicate that.

      That’s my response to it, too. Yes, there’s a slight chance something bad could come of a good recommendation, but how insulting and unfair to a good employee to be refused a well-earned referral due to legal paranoia!

      The question I find even more interesting is about warning providers who you like about poisonous parents or really difficult kids. We had a parent who made really terrible and untrue allegations about one of my employees. Luckily the CPS worker, the cops, and my licensing rep all saw through her. You better believe I called the director of his next program, who was a friend, and warned her never to leave a staff member alone with the child. That was probably a violation of every rule of confidentiality but I really didn’t care.

      That’s interesting. If you were following the legal advice the attorney gave you, you wouldn’t provide feedback on good employees out of concern for being sued. And yet it probably breaks confidentiality to give information that could well save someone else from being sued. Odd, huh? Like you, I wouldn’t hesitate to pass on the information.

      Comment by jwg | July 29, 2011 | Reply

  7. You could just say “I don’t know her very well, but I understand that she and I have very different styles. Maybe you should meet her for yourself”…

    Yep. That sounds about the right strategy. A disclaimer to start, followed by something I’ve heard about our styles. A total lack of committed position, followed by “make up your own mind”. If I want to convey more, as jwg notes, you can express a lot with tone of voice!

    Comment by IfByYes | July 28, 2011 | Reply

  8. “Maybe you should meet her for yourself” can trial off thoughtfully and noncommitally. But clearly.

    Comment by CT | July 30, 2011 | Reply

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