I Know What You Did on the Playground

Inside the chaos that often ensues after a parent posts about a “bad nanny” on Facebook.

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty
Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty
Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty

This article was featured in One Great Story, New York’s reading recommendation newsletter. Sign up here to get it nightly.

One evening last November, Heather*, a mother of two on the Upper West Side, was on her phone, trying to stay awake until it was time to walk the dog, when she pulled up the Facebook page of her neighborhood moms group. “If you have a nanny that goes to the Riverside Library, (65th and Amsterdam) with your kid (ginger boy, around 2yo) she lost him today at the library,” read the top post. The poster said that she’d often seen the nanny glued to her phone, ignoring the child, and that he was missing for as long as 15 minutes: “The librarians were about to call the cops when they found him.”

Heather immediately recognized her 19-month-old, Caleb*, and his nanny, Katie*, in the description. “I was just shaking,” she says. The scene vaguely aligned with a story Katie had mentioned before leaving that day: Caleb had snuck behind the stroller and wandered into the librarian’s office, Katie told her with a laugh. Now, the whole incident seemed much darker.

The next morning, Heather went to the library to investigate. The branch manager confirmed that her son had been left alone and added that Katie had refused to pass along Heather’s name or number when asked. “I was crying in the lobby of the library,” Heather says. No one knew what happened in the 15 minutes before Caleb was found, inexplicably splattered with paint.

Heather fired Katie. And then things took an unexpected turn. The next nanny Heather hired, Sara*, started getting confronted on the street by a group of six or seven caregivers who were loyal to her predecessor. They would call out to Caleb by name, take videos and pictures of him, and sometimes malign Heather to Sara. “They told her I was a bitch who couldn’t be trusted,” says Heather. At the Children’s Museum, they called Sara an “idiot” in front of Heather’s mom. A nanny in New York for 34 years, Sara had never experienced that level of harassment and intimidation; at times, she thought about quitting. “It’s been rough. Some of these nannies were very, very creepy, and at some point I felt very scared of them,” says Sara. “They were not only lashing out at me, but they had so many bad things to say about his parents. It was an unpleasant feeling to be around them.”

One day in May, more than six months after the library incident, two of Katie’s friends taunted Caleb as Sara pushed his stroller through the neighborhood. “Caleb, are you a good boy?” one called out. The other added, “Caleb wouldn’t be a good boy if you poured holy water on him.”

Sara says she began worrying what the nannies were capable of and that Caleb could be caught in the middle of a treacherous situation. “I felt so bad, because he’s a child, and they’re making him out to be a bad person, when he did nothing wrong,” she says.

Heather and Sara felt powerless to stop the pestering, which got less nasty but continues even now, with nannies screaming out Caleb’s name on the street, always from behind. Heather says she’s grateful to the mother who posted about Katie and wants other moms to continue reporting what they see. Still, she never imagined that one Facebook item could spark such a traumatic ordeal for her family. The post, Heather says, made her question her own judgment and opened her eyes to just how tenuous child care in New York City can be.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away, Isabella* became the target of Upper West Side parents. A nanny for more than a decade, Isabella had been working with a family for over two years when, one Thursday at the beginning of the summer, she needed to board the bus at 63rd Street while the baby was in the stroller. The bus driver, she says, was already yelling at her when she tried to board, arguing that she wasn’t allowed to bring the stroller without folding it, despite a new policy that had relaxed the rules on many buses. Finally, the driver relented and let her stand near the back door, but when she said she would pay her fare on the way out — not wanting to navigate a moving bus with a stroller or leave the baby alone in the back — he continued to demand she pay immediately, and they argued. Isabella swears she paid the fare before getting off the bus, but not before another passenger took a picture of the scene and uploaded it to the UWS Mommas Facebook group and an app called Stroller Patrol, which has a feature for sharing “bad nanny” sightings. Isabella learned about the post four days later, when her employer texted her a screenshot of it and then called to tell her she was fired.

“It was lies,” Isabella tells me. “For me it was shocking, and it came out of the blue, and it was really hard for me. I almost got depressed, because I don’t have family here, and all the love I can give to my son, I am giving the babies I am taking care of.” She called a lawyer who agreed to take her on as a defamation client, but soon Isabella realized she lacked the funds to press her case. Isabella still nannies on date nights for another family that stood by her after she told them about the incident. But she hasn’t been able to find another full-time nannying position; for now, she works in retail on the weekdays. “Why do they want to accuse nannies when you don’t know what is going on?” she says of local parents, adding that she now jumps to the defense of nannies who have been similarly accused online. “We are not disposable. We are people with feelings. We are human.”

Lately, I’ve been speaking to mothers and caregivers to gauge what happens after a “bad nanny post.” If you’re a parent or a caregiver in New York City who belongs to any online forum, you know this phenomenon well: A concerned member — almost always a mom — writes to the group that she has witnessed an unidentified caregiver doing something wrong. There’s usually a photo or physical description; typically, the face of the child is obscured with an emoji but the nanny’s is not. The poster gives a summary of the offending behavior or simply says forebodingly, “Please contact me immediately.”

The posts have been around as long as the social internet, and an entire etiquette has evolved to shape them. The Park Slope Parents group has a cautionary 350-word policy titled “What To Do When You See Someone’s Nanny Do Something You Don’t Approve Of.” (The document notes that in one incident, the “upsetting Nanny” turned out to be the child’s grandmother.) I’ve lurked in the comments section of enough posts to know that to some parents, “bad nanny” reports are a digital version of the Jane Jacobs “eyes on the street” mentality that has always safeguarded the city’s children, while to others, they are toxic catalysts of hysteria, racism, classism, and more.

Some parents will go to extremes to monitor their nannies. For a minimum of $125 an hour, you can hire a private investigator to babysit your babysitter, as is custom among a certain strata of Manhattan parents — whether they have specific doubts or just want reassurance that their nanny is taking good care of their child. But most of the time, the worst behavior the PIs catch is a self-proclaimed nonsmoker lighting up a cigarette at the park or an occasional inattentive moment. “We’ve had a lot that were great, they were wonderful. It was like watching Mary Poppins all day,” says Terri Dornfeld, a private investigator in Connecticut and New York who since the pandemic receives about five to seven nanny cases per year, spending up to 100 hours spying on each. But for most parents, paying a detective is a step too far. Outside of their apartments — beyond the digital eyes of Nest and Nanit in-home cameras — the eyes-peeled, phones-out surveillance state has to suffice. Of course, that doesn’t mean it functions well.

In my conversations with dozens of parents and caregivers, I discovered that “bad nanny posts” had led to resentment, angst, and mistrust that grated on the relationship between employers and employees. Nannies wouldn’t refer me to their employers, and mothers often didn’t want me speaking to their nannies. And in the cases where a nanny was fired, I was also only able to talk to one of the parties, as the nanny and her former employer were no longer on speaking terms. Getting a complete picture of a single “bad nanny” report proved nearly impossible, because nannies and mothers are divided — and the space between them has only widened since the pandemic.

With more parents working from home, nannies are spending more time out of the apartment, where their behavior can be more readily judged and photographed by spectators. Lidia*, a former nanny who spent 17 years working for families in New York and New Jersey and now consults in the child-care industry, recalls an incident last year when her friend was in the park nannying for two kids and was reported on Facebook for ignoring the children while she was “busy having a dramatic phone call.” The person on the other line was in fact her boss, the children’s mom, who’d called with the upsetting news that she’d had to take her third child to the emergency room. “Some nannies are like, ‘I don’t even want to take the kids to the park anymore,’ for fear that something will be misinterpreted or misunderstood, filmed or photographed and thrown up in a group, and the next thing they know they’re out of a job,” says Lidia. “They worry about it a lot. And I think it feeds that us-versus-them mentality.”

The dynamic between parents and nannies has, of course, been problematic long before the invention of Facebook. Although the word “nanny” instantly brings to mind a certain air of old-school Park Avenue luxury (and Fran Drescher tottering around a mansion), for most families, the setup is a child-care necessity and challenging from a regulatory and tax perspective. Day cares have Department of Health inspectors; 3-K programs and nursery schools have the Department of Education. But nannies have always operated in an unregulated space. Many of them are undocumented immigrants. Most of them also get paid off the books, sometimes without so much as a contract, which is to say they receive none of the standard benefits of a traditional workplace: no health insurance, no guaranteed severance, and few paid sick or vacation days, if any. They can be fired at any time, and those fired for cause can be denied unemployment benefits — but of course, that’s at the mercy of the employing family, who exercise discretion over virtually every aspect of a nanny’s professional life, from how much beyond minimum wage she can earn to when she can take breaks to when she can go home.

Then there’s the fact that rarely are the nannies who get reported in mom groups white; in almost every case, the accused nanny is a person of a color different from the child she is watching. “It’s important to note that there’s been a history of criminalization of domestic workers, as a Black and brown immigrant workforce,” says Blithe Riley, a senior communications director for Hand in Hand, which teaches domestic employers about creating a just workplace. “Sometimes domestic workers come into a job feeling like they’re already on the defense.”

The acrimony has not only begun to fray the trust upon which the nanny-parent relationship rests, but also to poison the entire system of New Yorkers looking out for each other’s children. Nannies typically rely on one another for advice in navigating tricky employment problems and abuses, but lately they also band together to plot potential recourse or even retaliation when they are fired or their photos are taken without their permission. Some parents told me they now feel too intimidated to speak up online about other people’s nannies given the potential backlash — whether that’s getting called out as racists by their peers or stoking the ire of the caregiver community.

In 2016, Michelle Wreesmann, a nanny from Brooklyn, started a private Facebook group called “The Nannies of New York City!” that has since amassed more than 20,000 members. When one of them sees a “bad nanny” post out in the wild, they’ll share it with Wreesmann’s group, typically cuing a round of mom-bashing, defense of the accused’s behavior, and attempts to identify the party involved so they can warn her she is in danger of getting fired. “I always tell nannies: You’re a very valuable human being, and you have to speak up for yourself, and your name is your brand, so try your best out there and be professional,” says Wreesmann. “But if somebody is going to harm you, defend yourself.”

Since 2020, the group’s No. 1 enemy has been Erin Maloney, the founder of the household-staffing agency Abigail Madison. Maloney had access to the nannies’ Facebook group, and this fall, Wreesmann heard that Maloney had tattled on a caregiver to her employer, sending screenshots of the woman’s posts venting about her work. Wreesmann — who, like Maloney, is a mother — says she understands the instinct to give a fellow mom important information about the person looking after her kids. But she also believes that parents are “running amok” with their online monitoring, forcing nannies to close ranks and take sides. Wreesmann ejected Maloney from the group. “PLEASE REFRAIN FROM WORKING WITH THIS WOMAN,” she wrote to everyone. “SHE’S NOT FOR NANNIES, SHE’S ACTUALLY AGAINST NANNIES!!!” (Maloney declined to discuss the incident, but said in a statement that “Wreesmann has been harassing me and my company since 2020.”)

“I think there has been a swinging of the pendulum the last five to seven years in terms of the nanny world,” says Holly Flanders, whose agency Choice Parenting places nannies in the New York area. “Nannies started to stick up for themselves. And I think they are oftentimes more assertive than they had been in the past.”

The aftermath of some “bad nanny” posts can be unbelievably nasty. Jamie*, a Manhattan nanny, told me about being the subject of such a report. Recently, she was at a playground in Stuyvesant Town when she saw a child try to kick the boy she was watching. Jamie screamed out, “No, no, no, we don’t do that, we keep our feet on the floor!” The kicking boy’s mother approached, telling Jamie she had it under control, but Jamie pressed her, asking, “Where were you?” A third woman approached to tell Jamie that she and the other parents weren’t scared of her. “I took that as a threat,” says Jamie, who admits she then spouted off a few expletives before retreating to a bench.

That night, there was a post about the incident in the Stuytown Moms Facebook group. It included a picture of Jamie taken by the third woman in the encounter, whom Jamie had seen walking her dog at the park shortly afterwards. Jamie saw it and realized she also possessed a photo of the third woman. At the playground a few months earlier, this woman had been lying on the ground in a skirt, exposing her underwear. Jamie, on impulse, had taken a deeply embarrassing picture and kept it. Now she DM’ed it to the author of the Stuytown Moms post, writing, “I would be wrong if I posted this picture.” The post came down, and on Monday, the third woman sought out Jamie outside the local playground and tearfully apologized. “I didn’t feel good,” says Jamie. But she also says she’s still glad she did it. “I think the only reason she apologized to me was because of that picture.”

Many “bad nanny” posts function as an inkblot test of child-rearing philosophies — especially in the era of the “gentle parenting” movement. What one mother or father sees as a fireable offense, another may see as proof that a nanny is teaching children valuable lessons of independence and consequences.

Madeline*, a downtown executive, says she’d always appreciated her nanny’s “disciplined” style. But a few months ago, she was sitting at Dos Caminos in Soho with her then-15-month-old when a nanny who recognized her son approached. “Thank God I ran into you,” the woman said. She put Madeline in touch with a number of people who said they’d seen her nanny mistreating her child: shouting, being rough, ignoring his cries. “I was obviously freaking out,” says Madeline. She didn’t know who to trust: her nanny, who had never before given her cause for doubt, or this circle of concerned strangers. “They may be wrong,” she says. “They may be ‘gentle parents.’” Her nanny told her she was treating her son with the same discipline she would use on her own child. But, ultimately, Madeline felt she had no choice but to let her nanny go; she couldn’t forget the comments. “I just can’t live with that doubt,” she says of her worry that the discipline could escalate. “I’d be here all day in my office thinking, ‘Is he going to come back spanked today?’”

Madeline says she “collapsed” after the experience. She canceled an upcoming IVF cycle and reconsidered signing for a new condo. “l felt like — is my judgment failing me?” she says. “It was hell breaking loose in my head.” When nannies started calling her to refer their friends for the newly open position, Madeline began to question the accusers’ motives. “I don’t know if someone wanted her job. I don’t know if she was really crossing any limits. I’ll never know,” says Madeline. “I don’t want to know at this point.”

I also spoke to Emily*, a mother in Hoboken. When her son was 6 months old, a bystander posted a photo of her nanny, claiming she was being aggressive at a park. Emily talked to the witness and tried to reenact the scene: She went to the park and sat on a bench while her husband stood by the playground exit, playing the role of the nanny. There was no clear line of sight, so Emily dismissed the allegations as “baseless,” the result of her son’s usual fussiness when being buckled into his stroller; she kept her nanny. But Emily’s experience highlights how these posts, regardless of their validity, have a way of corroding trust — in a nanny as well as in a parent’s own confidence — that often cannot be fully repaired. For more than two years after the incident, Emily frequently walked by the park when the nanny and her son were there, just to make sure all was well. “It’s in the back of my head now,” Emily says.

In some corners of the city, tattling on nannies online is in decline — or at least being reconsidered., once a hot spot of “bad nanny” posting, went dormant in 2020 after one of its moderators died. “Please let this blog disappear,” one commenter wrote as an epitaph. The GPS-based app Stroller Patrol was released in 2022 by a New York City mom named Diana Toyberman who wanted to increase the odds that nanny reports reached the right parent — and only parents whose stroller was in the immediate vicinity of an incident, rather than the tens of thousands in mom groups. But so far, it is only available on the Upper East Side and has just 500 members.

Anna Grossman, who founded the Hudson River Park Mothers Group, disabled replies to “bad nanny” posts several years ago. The breaking point was the “infamous Marshalls thread,” as Grossman now calls it, when a debate raged over whether it was appropriate for nannies to shop with their charges in tow. “It became about our values and how our nannies represent our values in their behavior,” says Grossman, whose group has around 3,000 paying members (including myself). “We certainly don’t want a whole nanny-bashing fest. We’ve heard from moms who are working full-time that it’s demoralizing for them, and we’re a support group.” Grossman also banned including names of children or caregivers, details about the incident (just the time, place, and a description of the stroller or the child’s age are allowed), as well as any racial descriptions in the posts. In some cases, the moms message Grossman directly, and Grossman is able to supplant the need for a post at all, instead relying on her knowledge of the community to connect the witness to whom she believes to be the relevant parent. One reason, she says, is that the relevant parents often do not find the reported behavior to be problematic.

It’s now common for “bad nanny” posts to include preambles of reluctance, with lines like “I never thought I’d write one of these” and acknowledgments that they might be crucified for sharing. Some moms told me they learned about their nanny’s concerning behavior weeks after an incident occurred, because the witness only worked up the nerve to come forward after what she’d seen began eating away at her.

And sometimes, the accusations against nannies prove to be entirely unfounded. Just before Labor Day, a pseudonymous Reddit user uploaded a photo of a Black woman and a child to the Park Slope sub-Reddit, titling the post, “a Nanny was hitting a child in the Park Slope library bathroom.” The outrage briefly made its way onto the Park Slope Parents forums, until the duplicate posts were removed. Upon the parents’ investigations with the librarians, police, and security footage, no one could corroborate the allegations — and the original poster never responded to inquiries. (The family declined to comment for this story.)

When she sees a post these days, Emily questions the intentions behind it. “I do wonder if it’s a busybody or truthful,” says Emily. “I just can’t imagine why people would tell, if it’s not true.”

Grossman says she can recall just two situations where it was unequivocal that a child was in danger, and concerns about generally neglectful behavior are much more common. But she still believes that when parents see something, they should report it to a mom group, and in truly serious situations, alert the police. “Helping those kids in scary situations is worth all the false and borderline accusations,” she says.

Caregivers, who are at risk of losing their livelihoods, question whether it’s ever worth it to post. “There’s no one defending the nanny,” Wreesmann says of the mom groups. “They always say, ‘Fire her, get rid of her, get a new person.’ Not like, ‘Oh, maybe you should give her a chance.’ It’s ‘Fire her, there’s a million nannies out there.’”

*The names of some sources have been changed to protect their identities. 

The ‘Bad Nanny’ Wars