Your Nanny Is a Role Model - Remember That

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In my work with nanny agency clients, I encounter two extremes of parents. The first are the parents who tiptoe around the nanny and are afraid to ask her to do things—even though she is their employee and it’s her job. These are usually the first-time parents, like Alicia and John, who didn’t grow up with a nanny and are hesitant about their role as an employer. Even if they manage an entire team at work, the personal-professional nature of the nanny relationship throws them, and they end up deferring to the nanny rather than directing her. Or, they may be sensitive to cultural or class differences, and feel uncomfortable asserting their authority. I meet parents all the time who are fearful of the nanny and refuse to hold her accountable—even if they are paying good money and not getting what they need.

At the other end of the spectrum are the parents who ask too much of the nanny and don’t understand why what they’re asking for is inappropriate. These are the parents who expect their nanny to be up all night with a baby, chase after two older children during the day, cook all the meals from scratch, and scrub the toilets in her spare time—all for $500 a week. To them a nanny is not a person, she’s a machine.

Your goal as a successful nanny employer is to find the middle ground. As the employer, you are in charge, and your nanny is obligated to respect your wishes and fulfill the duties and responsibilities that you outlined when you hired her. But on the flipside, your nanny is more than just a household employee, like the cleaning lady or the dog-walker—she is the person devoting herself to loving, teaching, and caring for your precious little one, and there is no job in the world that’s more important. Your expectations for your nanny should not only be centered around the tasks that she performs, but also around the manner in which she cares for your child. The best nanny agencies will help you to gain a deeper understanding of what a nanny is, and what you can and should expect your nanny to be—and not to be.

Your Nanny Is…

A Professional. Being a nanny is a job—a REAL job--just like any other. For many nannies it is their life’s work and chosen career, and they take great pride in their ability to do it well. While it may not require a PhD, any seasoned parent knows that there is no substitute for experience when it comes to raising children. The ability to love and nurture a child is not something that can be learned in a classroom—but it does require knowledge, skill, and a tremendous amount of hard work.

Nannies are service professionals who—just like doctors or lawyers—know their worth and want to be compensated fairly for the work they do, as well as be respected by their employer for what they bring to the table. They have a right to ask for whatever salary they need given their experience and the job, as well as to make requests, voice their opinions, and draw the line if they are being treated unkindly or asked to do something unreasonable or unsafe. Unfortunately, nannies often don’t get the respect that they deserve. There are plenty of parents (such as those depicted in the bestselling novel, The Nanny Diaries), who view their nannies as the lowest member of their household, lower than a migrant worker, and treat them accordingly. I’ve also seen countless, otherwise-normal parents become offended and accuse the nanny of being greedy when she asks for a higher salary than they were hoping to pay, or if she asks for a raise when her job parameters change—for example, when the family has a second child.

The best nanny agency is one that tells its clients a big part of a successful nanny-parent relationship is the ability to see things through your nanny’s eyes. Even if you come from entirely different backgrounds, you need to remember that your nanny is a professional, just like you, and afford her the same consideration and respect that you would expect to get from your own boss. The better you treat your nanny, the more she will give back to your child.

A Caregiver. Good nannies do the job because they truly love children, so in most cases, you should assume that your nanny’s primary focus will be your child. From a practical standpoint, this means that she should manage anything that has to do with your child and his or her daily needs. With an infant, the nanny will do feedings, sing songs, play, and put the child down for naps, as well as do light, baby-related housekeeping (such doing and folding the child’s laundry, or sterilizing bottles) while the baby sleeps. With toddlers and older children, her duties will expand to include outings, playdates, meal preparation, school transportation, sports and other activities, and homework. Her job is to care for the child and meet their needs whenever the parents aren’t around.

But caregiving, in the truest sense of the word, is about far more than just a nanny’s physical duties and responsibilities. Being a good caregiver also means caring for a child’s emotional needs—that is, nurturing the child through positive, loving interactions and relating to him or her in a warm and affectionate way. Many parents tend think that a nanny is adequate as long as their child is fed and safe, but if the emotional piece of the care is missing, your child won’t be getting what he needs. There are many supposedly good nannies who commit what I call “Benign Neglect,” where they do the physical aspects of the job, such as feeding and dressing, but neglect the emotional ones. And a lousy nanny can have an impact: Children learn through every exchange with their caregivers, including non-verbal exchanges like cuddling, rocking, or someone smiling or laughing back at them. These simple exchanges, so seemingly innocuous to us, actually stimulate key centers in the child’s brain and fill them up with joy. Studies have shown that children who lack these types of caregiver interaction have smaller brains and fewer neuronal pathways for learning.

Your nanny’s daily interactions with your child, therefore, will lay the foundation for other emotional and social bonds throughout his life. If she is continuously responsive and loving to him, if there is snuggling and playing and laughing throughout the day, if she talks to him with interest and comforts him when he’s sad, then your child will feel cherished and secure, and he will thrive. But if a nanny is disengaged, if she stares off into space while feeding the child rather than having a conversation, if she’s too tired to listen to the toddler chattering about his day and has zero facial expression (what we call in therapy, “flat affect”), it’s like putting the child in a darkened room. There nannies are out there who work merely to get the job done; they change the diapers and do the bath, but they don’t connect with the child.

Good nannies put the “care” in caregiving by nurturing the whole child—mind, body, and spirit—not just tending to his basic needs. Good nannies may not realize that they are stimulating a child emotionally and socially by reading books, playing games, and talking endlessly to your child throughout the day, but they are. You want to look for someone who is selfless and loving, generous with their affections, and eager to engage and play. You will also want to pay close attention to how the nanny interacts with your child, during in-home trials and after you hire her. If the crucial, emotional piece of the caregiving isn’t there—no matter how efficient she is, or how flexible, or inexpensive—a nanny is not fit for the job.

The best nanny agencies will work with you to craft the optimal nanny job description and structure the right interview questions to ask a nanny so that you can truly discern if this nanny can provide the "care" that you really need for your child.

A Teacher. Childhood is an amazing journey, filled with great leaps and important milestones - the best nannies and the best nanny agencies know this! In the first few years of your child’s life alone, he or she will be learning to walk, talk, feed himself, dress himself, use the potty independently, make friends, learn letters and numbers, play games, climb a jungle gym, and understand basic safety rules (such as holding a grown-up’s hand while crossing the street). As he gets older, he will begin to tackle bigger things, such as learning responsibility (for example, making his own bed), getting along with others and navigating different social situations, managing schoolwork, and perhaps becoming a big brother or sister. At every stage, he will look to those who are closest to him to guide him—and while that will certainly be you, it will be your nanny too.

The truth is that, depending on the hours that you work, your nanny may very well be present for many or even most of your child’s “teachable moments,” big accomplishments, and “firsts.” And even if she isn’t actually there when your one-year-old says his first word, or finally fits the octagon into the shape-sorter, she will have been there for all the previous attempts, laying the foundation for his success and guiding him along the way. For babies, toddlers, and even young children, every single day is packed with learning moments, and your nanny will be on deck to demonstrate, explain, answer endless questions, provide encouragement, and cheer wildly when your little one does something great—even if the great achievement is getting Cheerios into her mouth.

Good nannies don’t just change diapers and push strollers, they teach our children every single day. Children’s brains develop at a remarkably rapid rate, especially during the first three years, and it is the caregiver’s job actively foster cognitive and educational growth. A 2008 study showed that children who are ignored when they begin to babble do not develop language skills at the normal rate (4), and other studies have shown that activities like play stimulate brain cell activity and can actually increase your child’s IQ (5). So in your search, you want to look for candidates who are not only affectionate and reliable, but who also have the eagerness and ability to engage, encourage, and instruct your child in a positive way. I always tell my clients that they should give their nannies just as much respect as they would a teacher at their child’s school. Nannies do more to shape the minds and hearts of the children in their care than most people give them credit for.

A Role Model. In addition to teaching finger-feeding and ABCs, good nannies also nurture the children the care for by modeling positive emotional and social behaviors, such as kindness, love, patience, enthusiasm, and polite, appropriate interactions with others. All children learn by watching, listening, imitating, and taking cues from their primary caregivers, so if you have even a part-time nanny, she will, without question, be one of your child’s most important role models. If your nanny is impatient, or her manner is rough or gruff, your child will almost certainly model this behavior. Similarly, if a nanny is timid or anxious because the parents are hyper-demanding and criticize her all the time, the child may also become anxious and fearful. In my practice, I’ve seen many cases where children cared for by more timid, subservient nannies also display more timid, submissive behavior—and it makes sense. Your nanny is present as an example for your child every single day, so you need to make sure that her example is one you would want your child to follow.

Some parents get very hung up on more superficial things about the nanny that they don’t want their children to emulate, such as speaking with an accent or dressing a certain way. But in all my experience, I have never once encountered a child who started dressing like the nanny or wound up speaking with an accent because that’s what the nanny did. Children don’t pay attention to those things, but they are hardwired from birth to model social interactions and behavior. Finding a nanny who can be a role model in terms of her character, demeanor, and approach to life is far more important than finding one who dresses just like you.

What You Have a Right to Expect from a Nanny

  • That she is happy, warm, and loving every day
  • That she is engaged and interested in your child
  • That she is devoted to selflessly caring for all of your child’s physical, emotional and social needs
  • That she respect your wishes and rules
  • That she behave professionally while on the job and not bring negative energy to work

Your Nanny Is Not…

A Housekeeper. If your nanny is already doing your children’s laundry and dishes, and tidying up the playroom and kitchen every day, it can be tempting to ask her to do more. But if the nanny is fully responsible for caring for your child all by herself, heavy cleaning—scrubbing bathrooms, doing all the laundry, vacuuming the entire house each week—should not be her responsibility. If you are looking for someone to keep your home spotless, you should hire a housekeeper. Don’t put it all on your child’s nanny, unless you are at home a great deal and can watch the children while she is cleaning.

As any stay-at-home parent will tell you, caring for a child (or children) all day long is more than a full-time job. Working parents, especially those who have full-time childcare, may not realize that it takes an incredible amount of energy, patience, and creativity to keep children engaged, fed, happy, and out of trouble from the time they get up in the morning until they go to sleep at night. If a nanny is struggling to balance caring for your child with an overly ambitious list of chores, not only will it be very taxing for her, but her attention will be divided, and your child will get short shrift. You don’t want your nanny to have to pull your toddler away from the playground because she has to do all the grocery shopping on the way home, or be distracted while reading stories because it’s Thursday, and she’s supposed to clean the upstairs shower.

The exception to this rule would be Partner Nannies or Executor Nannies who work with parents who are at home, or at home part-time, and do only limited amounts of hands-on childcare; or, if there are school-age children who are more self-sufficient and gone all day. In these scenarios, it may be fine for a nanny to take on more responsibility around the house, assuming that she’s willing to do so.

A Personal Chef.

Just as you never want to overload a nanny whose primary focus should be childcare with too much housework, a nanny who is by herself caring for young children round-the-clock will have minimal time to prepare extensive meals. If you are looking for someone to meal plan for the entire family, shop for food, and have an elaborate dinner ready for everyone when you get home from work, you need a cook, not a nanny.

I once worked with a family who had three young boys all under the age of five. The parents were at wit’s end because their nannies kept quitting and they couldn’t figure out why. When I dug deeper, I learned that the boys were extremely rowdy, that the parents wanted the nanny to prepare fresh-cooked, organic dishes for every meal (dinner was supposed to feed the entire family), and that they had a rule about no TV. I asked them how on earth they expected the nanny to be able to chop and prepare ingredients, cook them, and get dinner on the table, all while keeping an eye on three boys—when she couldn’t even use the television to get them to sit still for a half hour!

Parents may think that nannies are miracle workers, but preparing meals takes time and focus, and is especially challenging if the nanny has very young children under her care. Plus there are safety issues: hot pots and burners, open flames, and knives left on counters can all lead to trouble if a nanny is distracted. Unless there is a parent at home to help manage the children, or the children are old enough to keep an eye on themselves, your nanny should be allowed to focus on feeding your children, rather than being a personal chef.