“I have a respect for manners as such, they are a way of dealing with people you don’t agree with or like.” – Margaret Mead
Before I was a mother who daily pounded the concrete playground jungles of New York City, I was a nanny. The playground is an excellent place for urban anthropology. After a certain number of years logged people-watching, I fancy myself the Margaret Mead of playgrounds.
For tourists with children, I've compiled a handy pocket guide to the types you will encounter most frequently on the NYC playground because it is important to know whom to ask for a spare diaper or Kleenex with which to wipe something biologically produced off your tot’s red nose or bottom.
1. The East Side Mother. They’re spreading out. You can now find them wandering west of the mid-line of Central Park, a whole cab-ride distance from their penthouses on Fifth or Madison Avenue. Some even live on Central Park West or in Soho, but they are still East Side mothers. There are a few ways to spot one. First, this woman is amazingly dirt-repellent. Her suede Prada boots or Burberry flats have a Teflon quality. Her hair, similarly, is immune to the winds of January or the humidity of July. Her makeup is impeccable, and her black Chanel sunglasses convey her existential boredom. Her child wears a quilted jacket to match hers, and if it is a girl, she will have a grosgrain ribbon in her silky blond hair. Grab a snapshot of this urban legend (but not myth) while you can, because within half an hour she will look up from her phone, wave distractedly at her child, who will be swinging with the aid of her nanny, and briskly vanish. She is going somewhere very important. She must attend private sessions with her trainer, lunches with fellow Episcopal School PTA members and appointments with a personal shopper at Bergdorf’s. She is also forever in charge of school fundraisers and charity events. Do not attempt conversation with her; she will cut you like a serrated knife. She won’t have a diaper in her Hermes tote, anyway. Feel free to ask her nanny for supplies if you are desperate.
2. The Hipster Father. Just as many birds have distinctive tail colors that make them easy to spot, the Hipster Father is instantly recognizable from his bright orange sneakers. I don’t know who started this orange thing, but it isn't going anywhere among fathers who play in Brooklyn-based bands and have penchants for vegan cuisine and home-brewed beer. The hipster father loves to give you a Kleenex. He wants to demonstrate that he is every bit as much a caregiver as a mother, and you know what? He is. I have no beef (so to speak) with the Hipster Father, except that this species tends to call male offspring “buddy.” This semantic tic reveals the Hipster Father’s refusal to acknowledge a difference between childhood and adulthood. Still, the Hipster Father will help you with the iron latch gate, he will ask you if it is okay to catch your falling daughter (because many parents think letting girls fall face-down on asphalt gives them a leg up in life and the Hipster Father wants to establish his feminist credentials) and he will offer your child Cheerios or whatever other form of snack he has in his grungy jeans. He is usually a very nice guy. Please note: he will not, under any circumstances, talk to you. It’s tricky for any father on the playground. How can he be nice without seeming like a single, or worse, married dad who might be hitting up the playground for dates? This problem is compounded by being a hipster: he usually looks like a college kid and, therefore, like someone perpetually seeking some action. Be kind to the Hipster Dad; he is shy and doing his best. Offer him a Kleenex if you can.
3. The Artist Part-Time Nanny. You can tell she is not a mother because she is too young to be one in Manhattan. Manhattan dwellers don’t start reproducing until their mid- to late-30s, and the Artist Part-Time Nanny is most definitely in her mid 20s. She is pretty, she uses a canvas backpack, she is on high alert when her charge is climbing any structure: one fall and it could be curtains for her. She rarely uses her cell phone except to talk to her boss. She is well spoken (having just graduated from The American Academy of Dramatic Arts), and her eyes will widen with surprise when a mother chats with her as though she were a person. Her hair is very long or daringly short, she looks like the tomboy sister who blossoms into a swan and steals the heart of the nerdy star of a mumblecore movie. She has her makeup bag and her script for her audition tucked at the bottom of her backpack, so if you unexpectedly need some blush or sheet music or a leotard while on the playground, she is your woman
4. The West Side Mother. She’s a tricky one. She might be in jeans and stylish boots, but she is usually in her Old Navy leggings and Easy Spirit sneakers. The West Side Mother is nicer than the East Side Mother, but she is usually involved in a conversation with other mothers she made previous arrangements to meet. Her son is named “Hudson” instead of the East Side Mother’s “Spencer” or “Brantley.” She might work part-time, or try to, and she might have a nanny and be heavily pregnant with a sibling for Hudson. She might be just as sparkling with diamonds as her East Side counterpart, but she usually attempts to be down to earth. She and her spouse are discussing leaving the city even as they renovate the kitchen in their co-op. If you need a diaper or directions to a bathroom, she is happy to help you. The Upper West Side Mother is neither friend nor foe. She will not be quick to exchange numbers for a play date, but if you find one who is happy, she might chat with you for a bit.
5. Grandparents. Oh boy.They came in for a few days to help out. They live about an hour or two away from NYC. They are obsessive about every step their grand-offspring make. If your child so much as steps in their grandson’s direction, they will mumble something about what is wrong with parenting today. No child need trespass another before a vague, often accented speech can be heard at the back of their throats. You will hear these phrases coming from Grandparents: “There is no such thing as the terrible twos, only terrible parenting.” “I didn't even know he knew what a menorah was, and suddenly, this little genius is reciting the Hebrew blessing,” and “How about some ice cream? Come on, aren't we tired of the sandbox?” Beware of engaging in conversations with Grandparents. You might take to them because their perfume reminds you of your own grandmother, but resist the urge. They are crazy, and they are not your family. They also have a tendency to make statements to which there are no appropriate responses, and you might get confused and lose track of your own child while trying to converse with a Grandparent. Before you know it, your daughter is dangling head first from a towering structure and Grandpa has wandered off for ice cream anyway.
6. The Full-Time Nanny. I've arrived at the third rail of Manhattan parenting topics. Here we have the most common type you’ll see on a NYC playground, but the least recognized or discussed. The Full-Time Nanny is easy to spot because she is the only grownup on the playground, grownups included. She does not generally have patience for mothers. You might be typing creepy things into the website “I Saw Your Nanny.” (Some Manhattan mothers devote hours to stalking this site, expecting to find out that her nanny is the great-granddaughter of Jack the Ripper or worse, that she is giving her child non-organic bananas.) She may soften if you badger her with chit-chat. She is more confident in her choices than the Artist Part-Time Nanny: when she says it is time to leave the playground, her charge knows she means it. She is tired, commutes a long distance and works long hours so she will talk on her cell phone as much as she wants. She does not use baby talk; she has real conversations with children. They run into her welcoming arms when they need her because she does not hover. If you need a Kleenex, wipe, snack or diaper, she is your go-to source. She has every supply imaginable packed perfectly into the stroller, and she can find anything she needs in 2.5 seconds. She also knows the way to every playground and museum in the city. She even knows what time story hour is at the nearest library branch. Go ahead, try to stump her.
And there you have it: the six types you see most frequently on a New York City playground. There are others, of course. You’ll see the chic Parisian Au Pair, the Parent-On-Her-Day-Off, the Wall Street Dad still dressed for work but pushing a swing on a Friday afternoon. You will also see TheSwedish Nanny. She’s the one who parks her bundled-up charge in a stroller by icy lakes in the dead of winter because that’s how they roll in Sweden; they think children sleep better frozen.
In fact, you’ll see it all here: a carnival of oddballs. The one thing you won’t spot is someone normal. Don’t let that trouble you. Most of us are happy to give you a diaper wipe or an apple slice. The other day I opened up a bag of peanuts and 20 toddlers clustered like pigeons at my ankles.Nothing breaks the ice like your toddler storming a stranger and demanding food. Every parent can relate to that.
New Yorkers are not exactly warm, but if you prod and push, they will give in and offer up some conversation, at least about the weather. Welcome to the Big Apple, and happy playground people-watching!