There’s a definite difference between the two but it isn’t easily defined. Like many things in the nanny world, the lines are blurred.
My official answer is a babysitter provides custodial care, keeping a child safe and entertained. A nanny provides care for the whole child, nurturing the child’s emotional, social, cognitive and physical development. I know…that doesn’t do much to clear up the confusion between the two. The problem is the difference is often hard to see because on the surface, what each does is very similar. So let me try a visual.
Imagine a continuum with a babysitter on one end and a nanny on the other end. The babysitter represents a custodial approach, the nanny represents a whole child approach. The difference between the two can be seen in the way each handles the same situation.
For example, a babysitter sees two preschoolers arguing over a toy. She takes the toy away with a friendly smile and ends the argument. A nanny sees two preschoolers arguing over a toy. She recognizes the argument as a teachable moment and uses age appropriate question prompts, role playing and brainstorming to build problem solving skills and develop empathy.
Another example, a babysitter reads a favorite book to a toddler. A nanny reads a favorite book to a toddler, incorporating imaginary and reading games into the activity to make it an interactive and creative experience for the child.
No caregiver provides custodial care or whole child care one hundred percent of the time. Individuals fall along the continuum at different points, depending upon their overall approach and the situation.
So why does all this matter? Ah, now that’s a much easier question. Study after study (not to mention simple common sense) proves that children benefit in every area of their development by quality parenting and caregiving and children that don’t receive quality care suffer for it.
So if you’re looking for someone to keep your kids happy on Friday night or busy while you work from home two afternoons a week, a babysitter is a great choice. On the other hand, if you’re looking for someone to spend 8 to 10 hours a day, 3 to 5 days a week with your child, a nanny is a better choice. It’s not about babysitters vs. nannies. It’s about matching what a child needs with the type of caregiver that can best provide it.