I’m concerned my son’s nanny may have hit him – how can I tell for sure?
December 3, 2009 8:31 AM   Subscribe

My four year old alleges our new nanny called him, “stupid” and hit him. He is generally a reliable narrator, but he is only four. How do I find out for sure? Apologies in advance for the copious details inside.

I apologize in advance that this requires a great deal of set up, and I did search through all of the previous askmes with the keyword “abuse” in them. My username here is consistent across many internet fora, hence the anonymity.

I have two sons, ages 4 and 6. Both my wife and I work full time out of the house, and 6 weeks ago we hired a local nanny who is an undergraduate and originally from our neighborhood. She is pleasant and appears to be caring and contentious (e.g., very good at helping the boys with their homework). This is her first position as a caregiver.

Two days ago my wife told me our 4 year old said he had a “red” lip because the nanny had called him “stupid” and hit him in while they were in the car on the way to pick up my 6 year old (so the 6 year old was not a witness). I would not get a chance to speak to either of them until yesterday. Neither my wife nor I saw any evidence he'd been hit; he looked just fine.

Yesterday I took an early train to arrive home unexpected. My 4 year old was crying and had a very swollen lip and an abrasion on his nose. He told me he fell, and later talking to the nanny and my oldest son (who was in there at the time), it appears that he really did fall while getting out of the car. The nanny’s, and both my oldest and youngest son’s stories about what happened are completely consistent. My oldest was in the car, but did not witness the actual fall (he was getting out of the other side of the car at the time.)

Even more set up (sorry!): I am a commercial intelligence investigator/analyst, a HUMINT practitioner and have advanced qualitative research training (i.e., focus groups). I say this to indicate that I have years of experience eliciting responses without biasing the answers. It’s also to indicate I’m keenly, and in this case horrendously aware, of my limitations in this regard. Especially as children are notoriously difficult to interview.

I’ve talked to both my sons now in a variety of contexts over the last two days. Here’s what I know:

- My youngest’s story of the calling stupid and hitting has remained completely consistent, and he does not appear to have any kind of motive behind telling the story (e.g., getting the nanny in trouble, getting special treatment). He says it was on purpose, she did not “say sorry,” and was in response to him moving his head about too much in the car (something he does)

- My oldest says that the nanny has never been angry with them or raised her voice or in any way told him not to tell his parents anything (this was insanely difficult to get without asking obviously leading questions, but fortunately my 6 year old is highly verbally and analytically gifted.)

- Both my wife and I are 99% convinced that he really did fall out of the car the day after the alleged hitting incident. There was no duplicity in the nanny when I asked about it, both son’s story’s are consistent and plausible, and his injury is consistent with what they described (although it could be consistent with other things too).

- My youngest, the alleged victim, is smart but lags behind a bit on the whole linear time and efficient causality stuff. He is not an unreliable narrator nor is he prone to exaggeration or lying.

So how do I tell what really happened? I will only get one shot to speak to the nanny on this. If she really hit him, that indicates to me that she may have a Jekyll Hyde personality thing going on (she has never appeared to be anything but sweet to us and the boys), which means that if she really did hit him, she’ll just be much more careful to make sure we never find out about it. If she didn’t do it, well, I wouldn’t be surprised if she just walked off the job, which would cause serious problems work-wise for my wife and me. And the last thing in the world I want are some kind of false allegations against an innocent woman and all the implications that entails.

I’m considering talking to her tomorrow (she’s not working today.) Any suggestions at all would be appreciated
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (57 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
This is your kid. Why would he lie, and why would you take the chance of further injury by not kicking your nanny to the curb?
posted by bunny hugger at 8:36 AM on December 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

Too much of a chance. Gotta let her go.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:38 AM on December 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Are you sure that the nanny would view this as abuse, and not as (poor, and ineffective, of course, but not completely uncommon) "discipline"? Have you talked to the nanny about your beliefs in non-violently disciplining your children?

Honestly, my instinct is to believe the child, tell the nanny about what he said, and (maybe depending on what she says, maybe not) fire her. This might seem extreme, but the cost for not believing your child in the event that it is true could be extreme: it could erode his trust in you to protect him, and reinforce the idea that this kind of discipline is okay.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:39 AM on December 3, 2009

Yeah, you have to let go of objective truth on this one and choose to trust your four year old, even if he's wrong.

It's the only choice you'll be able to live with.
posted by rokusan at 8:42 AM on December 3, 2009 [4 favorites]

I agree that you have to take your kid's side on this one, but 4 year olds in fact can and do lie easily and frequently to get what they want, or to press a perceived advantage. It's entirely possible that she just didn't give him another cookie or something, and he wants her gone.

But you can't really get into that. His trust of you is more important than this particular nanny. Watch for recurring incidents though, which might indicate that he's figured out that this tactic is repeatable. There's nothing more terrifying than a power-mad 4 year old.
posted by Aquaman at 8:46 AM on December 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

Maybe this is overly simplistic, but why not tell the nanny what the kid said (about calling him stupid) and gauge your next step based on her reaction?
posted by mr. remy at 8:55 AM on December 3, 2009 [7 favorites]

You're searching for the concrete facts, and I think, as others have alluded to above, the concrete facts are really not that relevant. To me the relevant details are around how the kids feel about the nanny, and how comfortable you are with the nanny.

If it was me, my decision would depend on the four year old's connection with the nanny. Does he look forward to seeing her? Is he ambivalent? Is he stressed? My actions would flow from that perspective.
posted by forforf at 8:57 AM on December 3, 2009 [20 favorites]

First event possibly true; second event likely an accident. Their closeness likely coincidence. As to the first event, maybe your otherwise mellow Nanny snapped once: being in the car with a kid isn't always easy (I've heard myself using disgusting language with my kids in my car).
As to analyzing what your kids said, especially what you call causality: if your youngest son's story consistently contains the "hit" bit and the "stupid" bit, you need no causality to draw your conclusions. But I should stress again that you know little about what prompted whatever happened to happen; nor do you know what bits your youngest forgot to tell you about because he doesn't think them to be important.

In your place, I would monitor the situation for a while with a keen ear, maintaining your careful scientific attitude. Your Nanny deserves it (or, conversely, nobody deserves being shooed out of the door without evidence that something as gone wrong. This applies to adult environments as well).

All this assuming that your nanny actually knows that your kids are not to be hit and called stupid. Customs vary grossly around these issues.
posted by Namlit at 8:58 AM on December 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Did you get any more details from your little one? What was the full context? Given his potential to mix up causes and chronology, maybe it happened but not the way he's putting it.

For example:

Little guy is moving his head about a lot, and the nanny accidentally elbows him in the mouth while reaching for something. When he cries, she might have said that if he weren't moving his head around and acting 'stupid,' it wouldn't have happened.

Not exactly cool--especially if there was no apology--but not a huge deal in my book as long as it doesn't seem like part of a pattern.

posted by General Tonic at 9:03 AM on December 3, 2009 [9 favorites]

I wouldn't fire her immediately based on this alone. Talk to the nanny and get her side of the story. Even if these were two grown adults you wouldn't fire one based on the here-say of another without talking about it first. The falling-down story sounds incredibly plausible, especially since the 4 year old said he fell having no reason to lie.
It could be she's innocent or it could be she made a mistake, realizes she was wrong, apologizes to the kid and won't do it again.
posted by amethysts at 9:04 AM on December 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm a fan of asking the nanny. And here's why.

Many years ago I was playing with my god-daughter who was 3 at the time. We were playing chase me, chase me and she was chasing me, she slipped and fell and took quite a good header. I ran back and picked her up and asked her if she was okay, she said yes.
I cleaned her up a bit because she was a little dirty from the fall and joked that I was worried I had "broke" her. And that would be bad.

Twenty minutes later, her mom comes over and says hi. A transformation occurs, god-daughter busts out into tears and hiccups and everything and runs to her mom and says, "Moooooommmmy, Teleri BROKE me."

I'm not saying your kid is lying, he's probably not, but there also could be a logical explanation to how these words got in his head. (I honestly can't think of a reason, but there just might be one.)
posted by teleri025 at 9:06 AM on December 3, 2009 [13 favorites]

What's his media consumption like? Is it possible he saw a story where someone hit someone else, and is now pretending that he and the nanny are the characters in the story?

I know its a longshot, but my three and a half year old son has given me quite a start twice now coming out with things that were somewhat alarming, until we clarified the context. ("No, Mamma, not me me, I'm the rabbit!")
posted by anastasiav at 9:13 AM on December 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I like what forforf said - look at how he feels about seeing her, and that'll give you at least a data point on the kind of relationship they have.

There are also plenty of things that could be "hit" without the emotional connotations typical to the word. Especially since he seemed to expect her to say 'sorry', that isn't something I associate with doing something on purpose... if he undid his seatbelt and tried to crawl out the window and she pulled him back roughly, or if he was leaning way over ("moving his head too much"?) and she elbowed him while reaching for the gear shift or while turning the wheel, he could easily feel that she "hit" him (and she could have said, "No, that wasn't my fault, you did something stupid" to try and teach him not to put himself in dangerous situations). All this said, I know something between zilch and nada about your four year-old, so maybe I'm just grasping at straws. But I don't think a conversation along the lines of "my four year-old was really upset by something that happened in the car on (day), he said you (called him stupid / hit him and didn't say sorry) - do you have any idea what he might be talking about?" would necessarily drive her off the job, as long as you're curious more than accusing. You can add something along the lines of "I know you've always been really nice with the kids, but he was really upset so I'm trying to figure out what was really going on so I can talk to him about it" if she seems to need reassuring.
posted by Lady Li at 9:15 AM on December 3, 2009 [19 favorites]

I would give the nanny every opportunity to fess up that perhaps she snapped. I don't have kids, but it would be hard for me to believe that even a great parent wouldn't snap sometimes. This isn't to say the behavior is excusable, but it may be understandable. If the nanny is reliable and doing a good job 99% of the time, she may be a better nanny than any replacement.

If it were me, I would talk with the nanny, but in a supportive way. I would then monitor the situation carefully and make a decision at the end of the month. The question is is this a jekyll and hyde situation or an unfortunate case of someone losing their temper. For what it's worth, I think what probably happened is a mixed bag - your child fell and the nanny snapped.
posted by xammerboy at 9:18 AM on December 3, 2009

Have you considered installing a nannycam?
posted by yawper at 9:22 AM on December 3, 2009

Did you get any more details from your little one? What was the full context? Given his potential to mix up causes and chronology, maybe it happened but not the way he's putting it.

This was my first thought, too. Not that your kid is lying, but that he's interpreted the events with his own kid-logic and is using words that set off adult alarm-bells. Especially with the "red lip" description...what does he even mean by that?

I've certainly heard enough adult disagreements along the lines of "I didn't say that you are stupid. I said that action/object/attitude is/seems/could be stupid."

Anyway, I'd ask the nanny what happened neutrally and watch her reaction carefully. THEN go with your gut.
posted by desuetude at 9:36 AM on December 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

If it were me, I would talk with the nanny, but in a supportive way.

Agreed. I also don't think "confronting" the nanny is exactly what you want here -- I don't know how things get better after that kind of accusation or sign of distrust. You've clearly got a good understanding of this.

Talk to nanny about allaying the kid's anxiety. Frame it as the child suddenly becoming sensitive, interpreting insults and injuries as especially bad as of late. It very well could be a sensitive phase, or a storytelling phase, or something else. It will let you start discussing these events openly with the nanny. Have these recent events actually been worse? Has he been acting up? (A positive answer to this latter one still doesn't tell whether your nanny is abusive or child has become more mischievous, but is not a good sign.) It will also let you understand the nanny's thoughts a bit more -- is she actually getting frustrated, or is she concerned about the issue as well.

Really, you seem attentive enough that if there is something terrible afoot, you'd either notice injuries, or would be otherwise unnerved. I think you're looking for assurance from and open discussion with the the nanny without accusing her. The above is the only way I can really see doing that.
posted by FuManchu at 9:40 AM on December 3, 2009

Children lie. A lot. Maybe he's realized that saying that an adult hit him will get the adult into trouble, and is testing this out, or he doesn't like his nanny. It's possible that it's real, of course, but don't assume that your child is telling the truth.
posted by Electrius at 9:41 AM on December 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Talk to the nanny, get her perspective on it, but ultimately it comes down to your family's comfort level with her as care provider, not the particular facts of what may have happened, how, or why.

Also, when I was around 9 or 10 I had a babysitter drag me up a flight of stairs by one arm and fling me onto my bed, bouncing my head off the wall in the process. I told my mother about it, expecting he'd be fired. He wasn't. That had a lasting effect on my trust in my mother's ability and interest in protecting or helping me.

I think it's hard to put a price on the value of that relationship. You don't want a 4-year-old ruling the roost through manipulation, but you don't want your child losing faith in your ability and willingness to keep him safe, either. Err on the side of caution, if there's no clear answer.
posted by notashroom at 9:42 AM on December 3, 2009 [4 favorites]

I would talk with the nanny. Being a nanny is stressful, and driving with children is stressful, and a "hit" could have been a grab or reach to correct after losing one's last nerve (particularly in the car when wriggling can seem dangerous).
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:43 AM on December 3, 2009

I'd bet that the nanny said "that's stupid" or "don't be stupid" in response to the moving around in the car. Classic mistake of a harried/stressed person who isn't used to choosing her words carefully around kids. Can a 4-year-old distinguish between "that's stupid" and "you're stupid," both said as reprimands?
posted by acidic at 9:44 AM on December 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm a parent, and I'd chalk it up to a misunderstanding. I worked as a camp counselor for several summers, and I saw children twice the age of your youngest give completely inaccurate (bordering on fantastic) descriptions of events that we had both witnessed. One that stands out is a girl of eight saying that she was deliberately smacked with a canoe paddle by another child in her boat. She was actually hit by a wet industrial sponge thrown from the dock.

She wasn't lying, I'm convinced. She actually thought that the situation played out as she described it-- she made an assumption when she felt something strike her, her mind filled in the blanks leading up to feeling the force on her, and what she imagined became confused as something that actually happened. Perhaps six kids chimed in with what had actually happened and she didn't believe them, me or the other adult present.

You said the nanny's actions seem very out of character, so I think it's very likely that they didn't actually occur. Your son probably hit his head a little bit as he was flailing it (and you said that he does) and his first explanation for the discomfort became his reality. I think she deserves the benefit of the doubt without being embarrassed by being approached about it. Worry about it if you kid relates similar stories in the future. (and cue some alarmist who will quote my previous sentence and say that children should always be believed.)
posted by Mayor Curley at 9:58 AM on December 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree that you have to take your kid's side on this one, but 4 year olds in fact can and do lie easily and frequently to get what they want, or to press a perceived advantage. It's entirely possible that she just didn't give him another cookie or something, and he wants her gone.

I don't believe this is true. ( I don't understand aquaman's "power-mad four-year-old" comment either. Children are people and deserve to feel and should feel empowered to share their feelings.) Children will lie if they have witnessed their parents lying. Children will lie, or hide the truth, if they feel the truth will be punished. Children do not arbitrarily lie or use lying to "get what they want". If the truth will be dismissed or frowned upon they may lie to "get they want" -- your approval. Maybe they sense that you "need" this nanny and that work is very important to you and your wife. If they have been put second to work they may be feeling stressed

I would talk with the nanny and I would believe your son. Your son is either being abused by this nanny or your child is upset and feeling insecure. Perhaps he does not like the nanny. Maybe he is feeling unloved. Most likely he is missing his parents and/or this nanny is not meeting his emotional needs. Your children are very young and need maximum time and attention from their parents. I know this does not always fit in with reality. The most important thing you can do now is talk, and connect, with your children. Talk with your four-year-old and validate his feelings. I would ask some questions like these to open communication:

"Does it feel like such a long time when mommy and daddy are at work?"

"Are you missing mommy or daddy while (insert Nanny's name here) is here with you?"

"What would you like to be doing while the Nanny is here?"

"What you would like Nanny to do?"

If he does not feel comfortable with the nanny: "What would you like to be doing instead of having Nanny with you?"

If you come to find that the nanny did abuse him:

"Did you feel so sad and hurt when Nanny hit you?" Comfort him and show and tell him that you are sorry this happened and you will protect him.

Trust in your children. Listen carefully to what they are telling you, and support and validate their feelings. They may tell you that they want more of you and it would be in their best interest to get creative and make that happen. If you are very busy while you are at home, maybe you could curb the work you do at home, and spend lots of time communicating, being present, and giving plenty of physical affection. Best wishes to you and your family.
posted by Fairchild at 9:59 AM on December 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

What a difficult situation. On the one hand, children misinterpret stuff all the time. My three year old just came in to tell me that his 6 year old brother just hurt him. Turns out that my 6 year old was closing the refrigerator, 3 year old was in the way and got bonked. But since 6 year old was there and caused the door to close, then 3 year old interpreted it to mean that 6 year old hurt him - and on purpose.

But, at the same time . . . we've always ingrained in our children that if anyone ever hurts them to tell a trusting adult what happened (parent, teacher, etc.).

But what do you do? If the nanny did hit him and call him stupid on purpose it's likely she won't fess up to it. She'd lose her job, right? So, she denies it - says he misinterpreted the situation. Then she might be a little miffed that she almost got in trouble and either cleans up her act OR makes sure that your child keeps quiet when these situations happen again (telling him not to tell anyone, etc).

Either way, what does this mean for your child? He told numerous adults that he's been hit and called a name and no one comes to his rescue because sometimes children lie? His advocate needs to be you (as you are well aware). Even if he misinterpreted the entire situation, he still feels like something bad happened to him at the hands of someone who should be taking care of him. He needs to be taken seriously in some way - whether that means firing the nanny or coming to a resolution that he's happy with.
posted by Sassyfras at 10:00 AM on December 3, 2009

So I think I'll have to talk to the nanny as soon as possible whether that's the best course of action or not.

Well, shit. That poor girl! Please approach it with some skepticism and the mindset that you know your son is prone to exaggeration as evidenced by his claiming to be pushed from the car.
posted by Mayor Curley at 10:01 AM on December 3, 2009

When I was four I insisted--INSISTED!--that an elderly aunt "hurt my finger on the bike." I maintained this for years. But actually, I fell off the bike and was very upset when she, rather than my grandmother--picked me up and put on the band-aid.
posted by applemeat at 10:02 AM on December 3, 2009

Absent this, do you trust the nanny? You clearly have good instincts; apart from this single incident, what do they tell you?

It's totally possible for your four year old to be unreliable without lying, is why I ask. Let me give you an example from my own parenting: my 3 year old daughter had a toenail which was curving over and digging into the tip of her toe. That clearly couldn't stand, so I had to kind of pin her down to try and clip the toenail off. Just as I was closing the clippers, she jerked her foot away -- and I ended up separating her nail from the nail bed. She screamed, I screamed, I picked her up immediately, she was sobbing from the pain, and I said "Oh sweetheart, oh no! I'm so sorry! Oh, that was so bad! Oh honey! Oh I'm so sorry!"

When my husband got home from work? Lily said "Mommy said I was bad, so she cut off my toe." She also further insisted that I had never said sorry, even though I said it like a hundred times.

However! The nanny works for you, and you should be able to clear the air with her. Pour her a cup of coffee or whatever and say "Hey, my kid reports this particular incident, and I just can't figure out what he could be seeing this way. Obviously I don't suspect you of hitting my kid -- we love you to pieces -- I just want to know what you remember, so I know what to tell him."

If it then comes out that yeah, she smacked him in the face because he was being difficult, or even that she reached out to take something from him and accidentally whacked him and then didn't apologize because she was frustrated, you can deal with it then. But if your kid's not acting fearful of her, I'd lean towards it being an unfortunate accident + an unreliable narrator.
posted by KathrynT at 10:15 AM on December 3, 2009 [8 favorites]

I definitely made up stories when I was a kid, and literally made myself believe they were true. I blamed things on other people frequently. I really think it was because I may have not getting enough attention from my parents some times (I'm not saying that's what's happening in your family, but I think it was in mine, my parents were going through a huge separation around that age, etc). I outgrew it probably around age 9 or 10, and I consider myself a very honest person now, but kids do some pretty weird stuff for no apparent reason.

If you do let your nanny go, please at least give her the benefit of the doubt and let her know you're just playing it safe. She'll be upset, but I wouldn't give her the full weight of the blame when you're not sure.
posted by Rocket26 at 10:17 AM on December 3, 2009

I have two four-year-olds, one of whom is a facile liar (and has been for a couple of years) and one of whom always told the truth -- until about three months ago.

In your situation, here's how I personally would proceed: I'd mention to the nanny that my child had claimed she called him stupid, and ask if she's been using that word around him. The possible outcomes I'd expect would be:

1. She gets defensive. This would be a red flag for me on any subject, and with any kind of employee I had hired; I want an employee who trusts that I'll listen to them and believe them, not a nanny who assumes that I already think they're guilty and am asking as a precursor to firing them or whatnot. I'd start looking for another nanny.

2. She thinks for a bit and says no, then asks when it was (to which I'd say "he said it was in the car on [date]") and tries to figure out if there's something she might have said that he misinterpreted. That's what a good nanny does, recognizes that the conversation is about helping him understand something that has him confused (and not really about the nanny.)

3. She thinks for a bit and says yes, then explains the circumstances, apologizes to you and offers to apologize to him. I'd find that acceptable, given that people sometimes speak thoughtlessly, and then I'd ask her to say "your behavior is foolish" instead of "you're acting stupid" or "you're being stupid" (or whatever she said.)

4. She says yes, and is not apologetic. See number one.

Mind you, this is all based on there being no lip injury by the time you got home; if there was a lip injury to accompany the story, I'd be much more likely to worry about this.

small data point: my children have been with nannies, babysitters, pre-school teachers and daycare personnel since they were born, and neither has ever accused any of them of hitting them or calling them names.
posted by davejay at 10:19 AM on December 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

The choice of the word "stupid" sends up a red flag to me. Adults don't call each other (or children) "stupid" as an insult in a heated moment, but it is exactly the insult which a four-year-old might choose. It could be that she called him "little bastard" or something, and the four-year-old bowdlerized it to "stupid". It could be that she actually hit him intentionally or inadvertently or without even realizing it, and he elaborated the actual event with fictitious name calling.

Would a flat denial or an excuse/explanation from the nanny completely relieve your mind? Short of a spontaneous and voluntary guilty-on-all-counts confession from either the nanny or the four-year-old, you'll never know for sure. Either start shopping for a new nanny now, or be ready to do so the next time there's an accident or accusation.
posted by paulg at 10:31 AM on December 3, 2009

I'm the "he isn't lying about what happened, but probably can't properly or accurately articulate it" camp. Meaning, something happened in the car, his lip was hit, there was a physical point of contact with the nanny, and the word "stupid," was used. The scenario General Tonic describes is certainly plausible, and since your son does not seem to have an issue with the nanny other than this incident, very likely. I don't think this is a malicious or intentional lie, however, and is more a flawed retelling which is informed by the confines of his age-appropriate verbal, sequencing, and memory skills, which aren't fully developed yet.

Normally, I would say believe your kid, every time, and don't take a chance, but since it sounds like his description of the incident is somewhat ambiguous and lacks details, I think you should speak with the nanny about this directly & ask about the incident in as neutral, non-confrontational, & open-ended language as possible. I would say something along the lines of, "Nanny, four year old mentioned he hurt his lip in the car on Tuesday. Can you tell me anything about that?" If she doesn't mention the "stupid" comment, I would follow-up with something similarly vague, "He also mentioned something about the word 'stupid.' Can you clarify that for me at all?" Her answers will help you figure out the best way to proceed. If this was a innocuous event, I would definitely tell her that while you know active children are somewhat injury prone, you expect to be told about any incident in which your sons are hurt. This is important for a number of reasons, most importantly that what seems like nothing (a bumped head) can unexpectedly turn into a very big something. If this wasn't some innocent accident, fire her immediately and your childcare situation will sort itself out.

Oh, and as far as I can tell, the falling out of the car incident is a red herring in this context. I would chalk it up to coincidental, unless your conversation with the nanny causes you to reconsider. Good luck!
posted by katemcd at 10:34 AM on December 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is a very interesting discussion. My daughter's kindergarten teacher asked her how she bruised her face. She said, quite happily, 'mom hit me with my boot'. True, but not in the scary way. She threw the boot at me in a little dressing hissy fit and it bounced back at her after I deflected it with my lower arm. I was protecting my face, I swear! The teacher said something very wise when we spoke of it. She said that the kids who say nothing about their injuries and look ashamed and guilty are the ones to really worry about.
I think an earlier suggestion about bringing up only the 'stupid' remark is a good one. Ask about that and your instincts and professional experience will lead you from there.
Also, there are huge ethnic differences in child disciplining techniques. If this is a factor here, you might consider other ways of dealing with this. Education is often more about undoing than doing.
Please let us know how this turns out.
posted by Pennyblack at 10:46 AM on December 3, 2009 [4 favorites]

Because the incident happened in the car, and you mention that your 4-year-old tends to move around a lot in the car, I'd be much more inclined to think it was a stressed-out panicky moment in which the nanny thought your son's behavior was dangerous and she couldn't get him to stop and finally said something sharp like "Don't be stupid! Stop that!" than to believe she intentionally and maliciously called him "stupid."

It may be that this person shouldn't (yet) be driving your kids around, especially if your 4-year-old is hard to deal with in the car. I don't think that's the same as being abusive, but I do think it's important to not put your kids or the nanny in a potentially dangerous situation. Would it be possible to have someone else pick up and drop off while the nanny just does babysitting?
posted by Meg_Murry at 10:48 AM on December 3, 2009

Additional info--I'm a couple years older than your nanny, but about the same level of experience with childcare. I have never been so exasperated with a child (a 7-year-old relative) as when my husband and I were trying to drive him somewhere and he would not stop taking off his seatbelt. I managed not to say anything dumb in that moment, nor did I try to physically restrain him, but if I had been driving alone with him I imagine I might have lost my cool.
posted by Meg_Murry at 10:52 AM on December 3, 2009

"Adults don't call each other (or children) "stupid" as an insult in a heated moment"

What? I'd like to think this was true, but I've heard that quite a few times, usually used like so:

"What, are you completely fucking stupid?"
"Don't be stupid, Jesus H. Christ."

I can easily believe that the nanny said something like "Don't be stupid" if he was moving his head around in the car. As to the hitting, yes, you should talk to her about it - but please give her the benefit of the doubt, of course.
posted by HopperFan at 10:56 AM on December 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

The nanny was hired six weeks ago by you, but what did she do beforehand? Is she a relatively experienced nanny? Did you call references --- if so, what did they have to say about her?

I ask these because a) if she is an experienced nanny or babysat frequently prior to being hired by you, then she can handle a conversation of this sort because it's possible she's experienced something like this before. Work with kids long enough and something of this sort is just going to happen, and b) if the references were good, that would add something to her favor. Word gets around fast, especially among mothers. If there's a pattern on her part of this sort of thing, someone out there is probably already talking about and telling other parents not to hire her. If you know someone who used her services before, I don't think it'd be inappropriate to ask them what their experience was as a way of gleaning a bit more character information.

I'd also maybe ask both your sons separately how things in general are going with her. The six year old may not have witnessed the incident, but he certainly knows if she's nice, mean, good, bad, fun, etc., and how they feel about her could also give you some indicators to work with.
posted by zizzle at 11:00 AM on December 3, 2009

Can you live with the constant wondering? Unless you get absolute 100% proof (not after-the-fact narrative), you'll constantly have that thought at the back of your mind. Get rid of the nanny, if only for your own peace of mind. And if on the off-chance that she did hit your child, problem solved.
posted by Solomon at 11:01 AM on December 3, 2009

Too much of a chance. Gotta let her go.

If you decide to let the nanny go based solely on comfort level and not on proof of wrongdoing, please keep in mind that 1. you should give her severance pay to make up for short-term lost wages, and 2. because you have no evidence she did anything wrong, it is critical that you not spread rumors about her to other families who might hire her. If there is no evidence she did what your son says, and as you admit it would have been completely out of character for her, you could really damage her reputation.

Of course, if after talking to her you think she is guilty, then none of the above would apply.
posted by gabrielsamoza at 11:09 AM on December 3, 2009 [5 favorites]

As a nanny, I think asking the woman first is completely appropriate. Yes, four year olds are innovative and resourceful storytellers who aren't totally aware about the moral morass of lying, and inexperienced caregivers can certainly snap around a rambunctious kid.

No matter what the outcome, even it was a fabrication, don't guilt or punish him to the extent that he's scared about telling you of future incidents. A lying 8 year-old knows he's lying, but a 4 year-old is still very little and often won't understand why lying is bad. This is a good time to talk about the difference between facts and fiction, and an especially good time for him to learn that you're a trustworthy and efficient parent who will entertain his allegations.
posted by zoomorphic at 11:34 AM on December 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

While I am driving a car, I often call other drivers "stupid" or other, even less child-friendly names. I am alone in the car 95% of the time that this occurs, but sometimes my boyfriend wonders for just a quick second if I'm calling him stupid, until he realizes I'm talking to another driver.
posted by so_gracefully at 11:36 AM on December 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm a nanny so I'm looking at this from that perspective.

Did she apply first aid to the 4-year-old when he fell out of the car? Had she washed his face or applied ice to his lip? What was she doing while he was crying? Once she gives basic first aid, she should call you EVERY time he is injured, especially if there is bleeding, bruising, or swelling. You're the parents, she needs to give you the information so you can decide what to do. Had she called you, you may have given her permission to give him medication. I imagine he would have liked some Tylenol...wouldn't you, if you had a swollen and painful lip?

Or if she doesn't need permission, she should have called to tell you she was giving him Tylenol so you would know not to give him more and risk an overdose. (She should write it down too, of course). In a different scenario, maybe you'd want to call the pediatrician. What if he had fallen at a different angle and injured his head? Would she have even told you? Then you'd have a child with a head injury and you would be completely in the dark.

On to the "hitting" incident. She should have told you about anything in the car that could possibly be misconstrued as hitting him or calling him stupid. I am reading the scenarios people are giving above (he tried to climb out the window, unbuckled his seatbelt, etc). If he tried to get out of the car, get out of his seatbelt, any of those things, she should have TOLD YOU about it because that would be an ongoing safety concern that you should know about. Maybe you would implement a new rule, use a different car for transporting them, talk to your child about it, whatever.

If he was behaving decently, and she accidentally bumped his face with her elbow, she should have TOLD YOU, to prevent exactly this scenario. You shouldn't have to ask her about it. You have the right to know if she hits your child, even accidentally. He should be in the backseat as a 4-year-old so I don't find this particularly likely.

Rant over.

Your description of her as a college student with little experience makes me wonder. It's hard to know what it's like to be responsible for helpless, sometimes annoying people unless you've done it before. My gut feeling is that she's probably not a bad person, she's just in a little over her head, it's getting close to finals time, she's inpatient, loses her temper too often, yells, snaps. Or maybe she simply doesn't like your son very much and avoids him.

Have you ever tried to explain to someone the feeling that someone doesn't like you or finds you annoying, when they are technically being polite? That look of disdain, the tone of voice...must adults find that feeling difficult to communicate, much less a 4-year-old. He's not good at expressing his subjective emotional experiences, so he's focusing on the physical and concrete things that he can describe.

The teacher's aide sent him out of class to the school nurse--why? Was he acting differently, moody, withdrawn? Vague complaints of feeling "sick"? If an adult notices a distinct change in your son's behavior, that, in and of itself, is enough reason to consider whether your childcare setup is ideal. It's also a little sad that he's telling this story to other trusted adults in an attempt to elicit a reaction.

If I were you I'd let this nanny go as of today. You will probably always be suspicious and that's no way for her (or you) to have a good working relationship. From her perspective, working for someone who thinks she may have hit or mistreated their child will be uncomfortable at best.

You don't have to be dramatic about it or accuse her of anything. There is no "accusation harming an innocent woman" because you're not going to go to the police or call all of her friends and neighbors. Nor should you necessarily tell her what you suspect. You can simply say it didn't work out, no hard feelings. Maybe a relative decided to help you out, or your work schedule changed. If you feel guilty, give her a week's pay so she can still budget for Christmas. Tell her that you don't feel comfortable giving her a reference because she worked for you for such a short time, and wish her luck.

I'm sure you want to find out the truth, but that will probably never be possible. She's not going to tell you that she purposely hit your child. She didn't even tell you that she accidentally hit your child! Even if you talk to her about it and feel like she's lying, you'll never be certain. So you have to err on the side of having a trusting and constructive relationship with your caregiver.

On a personal note, as someone who has responsibility for your child's life and well-being, trust should be increasing as we work together and you see that your child is happy and healthy with me. Trust between us should not be decreasing. With a new caregiver, you can ask your child's teachers if they notice any behavioral changes. When it's warmer out, ask neighbors or friends to stop by the playground and see how they interact. You should come home early once in a while. You might even want to use a nanny cam. All of these things should be reassuring you that your child is in safe hands, and as time goes on, you can relax more and more.
posted by kathrineg at 11:44 AM on December 3, 2009 [5 favorites]

I was a nanny for 5+ years to several kids one of which was a very sweet, sensitive girl who sounds a lot like your son. The bond she had with her parents was awesome. She couldn't lie even if she knew she would be in trouble and to her 'stupid' is a very bad word.

I would trust what your son said. So how to have a dialogue with the nanny... that's a tough spot. You should be able to speak with her about your parenting philosophy. I emulated the parent's vibe whenever I could, because it was a good one. I felt that was my job.

Maybe sit them both down and have a conference. She needs to know she can't behave that way. He needs to know distractions in the car are frustrating and dangerous. This could let both of them know you are all in this together and lines of communication are flowing.

And in her defense- driving in the car with multiple kids is the only time I ever felt like I might lose my temper- Disney radio is not for everyone...
posted by NicoleyDarko at 11:44 AM on December 3, 2009

When I was sixteen years old, I babysat three kids. One day, I told the six year-old boy that no, he could not have the entire street over for lunch. His response was "Do what I say or I'll tell my mom you hit me." I immediately picked up the phone, dialed his mother at work, and told her that her son had something to tell her. He didn't say a word about me "hitting" him, and when his folks got home, I made sure that they knew what he had tried to do.

Fortunately, the boy had two older sisters who corroborated my story (and the kid was prone to lying to get his own way). But being accused of hitting a child would have been (and still would be) devastating to me. You should definitely talk to her, but tread very lightly (General Tonic gives a good potential scenario above). You really don't want to be making false child abuse allegations. Like others have said, don't frame it as an accusation.
posted by futureisunwritten at 12:03 PM on December 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

There is also this thread, somewhat related.
posted by procrastination at 12:24 PM on December 3, 2009

As a nanny: believe your son... sort of. Believe that your son accepts that some version of this is what happened. He has no reason to lie, and the four year olds that I know don't make up stories like that - their stories usually involve bananas in underpants. You need to take your child seriously.

He doesn't trust the nanny. This can not be repaired at this point. You need to know that *HE* can trust whoever is caring for him. There's no reason why a "power mad" four year old would want a nanny gone. Four year olds do have a tenuous grasp of "the truth" but a four year old isn't devious enough to concoct a story like that - a four year old would simply say "I don't like nanny because she makes me eat peas!" or whatever.

My read on what probably ACTUALLY happened: your son fell or some other accidental thing and in a moment of extreme frustration (oh believe me, they happen), the nanny muttered "that was stupid" or perhaps even "you're stupid" and since the two happened concurrently, your son conflated the accident into being caused by the nanny. I've seen this happen exactly - four year old in my care falls. His brother is standing next to him. I go to comfort him and he screams that his brother pushed him, when I can see that no such thing happened.

In any case, the fact that this is an issue AT ALL is a big problem. There are other nannies in the world. Speaking as one of those other nannies, use this as a learning experience and hire someone else who has more experience with children (i.e. not an undergrad) and make absolutely sure that you're on the same page in terms of disciplinary style.

I'd like to echo everything that katherineg said. I make it a policy to tell a parent about ANY time that their child bumps or scrapes themselves, especially if there's an obvious mark. I always, always tell them when I've given Tylenol as I want to be sure that they know so that if the child needs more later, they know when the last dose was and can avoid double-dosing. I always, ALWAYS let a parent know about any open cuts/scrapes and how they occured. My end-of-the-day run downs err on the side of being epic and sometimes I can see the thought bubbles in the parents' heads: "Oh yeah, the kids are still alive. GREAT NOW LET ME GO AND EAT MY DINNER."

In any case, your four year old is not going to trust this nanny ever again. You need to start with a clean slate. Chalk it up to experience and let the nanny know that it's just not working out and you wish her the best.

(I'm against the idea of nanny-cam because EW BIG BROTHER, but I agree that dropping in unexpectedly is a good idea. It never bugs me when parents do this as I never have to change what I'm doing. Also, with a new nanny, float the idea of working from home occasionally. If she bristles - that's a Bad Sign. A nanny should behave exactly like you were standing RIGHT THERE even if you aren't.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 1:03 PM on December 3, 2009

I know that many people in this thread are advising you to let go of the nanny immediately, but I would urge you to just keep an eye on how things are going. I can think of innocuous reasons that don't involve your son lying at all - if he was in the front seat, for example, and a careless driver cut them off she could have reached over quickly to keep your son from flying forward and accidentally hit his mouth without realizing it. "Stupid!" she says, frustrated at the other driver. She didn't think to apologize to your child because she's still tensed about the near-miss. If you have never had problems before with her and both your children like her, this story sounds as likely as her intentionally hitting him.

I agree with posters above that you should bring it up with her in a non-accusatory way. Mention what your child said and ask her how things went down so you can explain to him the real story. If she gets defensive or shifty, that gives you a better idea of the true picture. If you still feel that you have to fire her anyway, please give her a good recommendation in the future as you have no proof that any wrongdoing occurred.
posted by amicamentis at 1:12 PM on December 3, 2009

Many people have said he might have been in the front seat.

Please note that a 4-year-old should NOT be sitting in the front seat of a car, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. It's not as safe as the back seat. Please mention this to your caregiver if she doesn't know this already.
posted by kathrineg at 2:14 PM on December 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Childcare worker of 5 years here. This is one of those childcare chestnuts that can always be problematic. Problematic for the carer, problematic for the parent.

Forget what may or may not have happened in the 1st 'incident'. It is unknown and unknowable. The fact your child had no marks is a positive thing; lips bruise very easily.

More broadly, the issue here is one of trust between parent and carer. You hired someone inexperienced, and now you're unsure about it. This is the issue that needs to be addressed one way or the other. If you cannot trust a carer you should not leave your children with them.

To illustrate: In my time as a carer I was often around when kids got hurt, when kids did something dangerous or foolhardy, when kids were climbing on me and my lap in such a way that a paranoid parent would flip out (I'm a guy). But parents were always okay with whatever happened, because they trusted me, and we had a regular and in-depth dialogue about their children and a great working relationship (also, the kids trusted me on the whole, too. But kids are fickle little fuckers so they can take against anyone).

This is the key here. Now, you may be the paranoid type that won't trust any carer, or you may be the normal type. It doesn't really matter which type you are, that trust is vital, and without it you will never feel comfortable leaving your kids with a carer, and the kids will most likely pick up on it., and the carer will pick up on it, and everyone will be unhappy. This is what you should be trying to address, detective work about what might have happened in the car is a waste of time for everyone. Your child honestly doesn't seem hurt by the incident, so if you discuss it with the carer, you will need to frame it very carefully to make your concern and trust in her appear legitimate.
posted by smoke at 2:42 PM on December 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh and PS, your 4 year old could totally trust the nanny again. I'm a bit weirded out by the nannies saying all is lost; kids' moods are like summer storms, they could very well be BFF's tomorrow.
posted by smoke at 2:43 PM on December 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

On my way home, something really hit me about this post: the 4 year old's insistence that the nanny never apologized.

I am apologizing all day long for everything. "I'm sorry it's raining." "I'm sorry you don't like wearing shoes." Etc. Even if I was not *the cause* of a child's injury, I would have that kid in my arms and be apologizing faster than... I don't know, things that are really fast. That she didn't apologize is really weird and sends off my spidey-sense that the incident was just... not right.

Kid's moods not withstanding, you need a more experienced nanny and THIS nanny can learn from this experience that she has to learn more patience and empathy if she wants to keep working in childcare.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 3:29 PM on December 3, 2009

Oh and PS, your 4 year old could totally trust the nanny again. I'm a bit weirded out by the nannies saying all is lost; kids' moods are like summer storms, they could very well be BFF's tomorrow.

I find that this is true for normal kid freak-outs (like the time I bumped into the little one and he fell and it was the END OF THE WORLD, BECAUSE THEN I PICKED HIM UP, AND BEING PICKED UP IS A HORROR BEYOND HORRORS, obviously I am SUPER MEAN).

So for a days or two I got some sideways looks and "Don't push into me by accident, Kafrine! Okay! Don't push into me!"

This seems like it's getting a bit beyond your average temporary freak-out, though.
posted by kathrineg at 3:50 PM on December 3, 2009

While I am driving a car, I often call other drivers "stupid" or other, even less child-friendly names. I am alone in the car 95% of the time that this occurs, but sometimes my boyfriend wonders for just a quick second if I'm calling him stupid, until he realizes I'm talking to another driver.

Oh, this is a very good point, a VERY good one. Sometimes when I'm driving, I say something like "what an idiot" under my breath, about another driver, and my son asks "what did you say?" from the back. The first time it happened I realized he might think I was talking about him, and this happens enough (I drive in Los Angeles, after all) that now when I do it I don't wait for him to ask; I follow it up with "I just said that about the person in the blue car, who did something foolish and dangerous."

I'm going to bet that if/when you ask the nanny about this, she'll reveal that sometimes she calls other drivers stupid, and it'll be pretty clear that what happened was this: your son was bopping his head around, and just as/after he his his face on the side of the seat, she called another driver stupid and he assumed she was talking to him.
posted by davejay at 4:09 PM on December 3, 2009

More information! I talked to my child care provider and asked her how to bring this up.

She said that as a care provider, she absolutely wants parents to feel comfortable bringing up anything they're concerned with. She suggested you bring it up ASAP in a neutral way; "Hey, my kid told me and the school nurse both that you called him stupid. Do you know what he's referring to?" According to her, any nanny worth her salt will understand that you have concern for your child, not that you're accusing her of being a child abuser. If she gets defensive or tries to blame your son, well, that's a big problem whether or not she hit him. If she insists that the kid must be lying because she'd never hit anybody, that's a big problem too.

What you'd be hoping for is either "Oh, heck. You know, I put my finger on his lips and told him to shush / I accidentally caught his lip with my fingernail when I turned around / he bonked himself on the car door / whatever the reasonably benign accident is; he must have thought that I did it on purpose. Oh no!" or else "Gosh, I honestly have no idea. If I think of anything I'll let you know / do you mind if I talk to your son with you here to see if he can help me remember?" She needs to be comfortable talking about things like this with parents; if she's not, that's a GIANT red flag.
posted by KathrynT at 4:35 PM on December 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

The teacher's aide sent him out of class to the school nurse--why?

What the hell? Am I reading different text to some of you? Where does this happen?
posted by jacalata at 7:08 PM on December 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

The OP put in some additional information and then had the comment deleted. The comment--which I am hesitant to go into detail about because he deleted it--included a situation where his child was sent to the school nurse by a teacher.

So yes, you are reading different text.
posted by kathrineg at 9:09 PM on December 3, 2009

Dear OP: One of the mods can post a follow-up for you if necessary.

Before that came up I figured it might me inexperience and driving-related frustration, and a good opportunity to discuss your expectations of her as a nanny. I saw commented above saying how Nanny should have told you the moment it happened, etc etc, and it occurred to me that Nanny may not know that's what is expected if she is new at this gig. It would be useful as a teaching moment even if you do not discuss the hitting, as she will need to learn this if she will be nannying for others.

But if he did go to the nurse and tell her, too, that sort of changes my opinion and I feel like there's some cause for concern there.
posted by subbes at 10:01 AM on December 4, 2009

Apologies for my terrible iPhone-user spelling.
posted by subbes at 10:03 AM on December 4, 2009

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