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The Nanny Book
The Smart Parent's Guide to Hiring, Firing, and Every Sticky Situation in Between
By Susan Carlton, Coco Myers
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1999 Susan Carlton and Coco Myers
All rights reserved.
Profile of a Perfect Sitter
So what are you looking for in a nanny? Who do you want walking through the door every morning or bustling about the kitchen when you wake up? The answer, hardly simple, is always loaded with expectations. We all have some version of the Mary Poppins icon rattling around in our heads — a person who's going to appear suddenly and magically instill order in our lives with the proper mix of authority, can-do energy, and charm. Can anyone really measure up? Still, we go on making our wish lists and creating our composite ideals: loving, nurturing, bright, cheerful, patient, dependable, loyal, unflappable — fill in the blanks.
In figuring out what sort of person you want to be around day after day, you have to make room for all your subjective preferences, including age and gender. You might, for example, gravitate toward someone older and more mature because you think she'll be maternal and loving (do you want some mothering yourself?). Then again, you might like the idea of a young nanny — someone you can groom and who can run with the job in every sense of the word. As for the male/female decision, most parents assume that a caregiver will, and should, be female; we associate babysitting with mother figures (in fact, we use the pronoun "her" throughout this book). But male nannies exist, albeit in small numbers, and on the face of it, there's no reason not to hire one — as long as you feel comfortable with the idea.
Plenty of parents have strong feelings about nannies' cultural backgrounds, too. Some relish the thought of an exotic influence; others don't want to deal with too many differences when it comes to childrearing customs, or even food. Then there are those employers who want only French- or Spanish-speaking sitters for the sake of hearing a second language in the house. A foreign language is definitely a plus if you want your kids to get their ears trained early, but it can also be a barrier to communication if the sitter's English is nonexistent and you have to resort to sign language. Most of us want a nanny who can at least read a bedtime story or understand a note with directions to a birthday party.
To flesh out the portrait of a perfect sitter, you have to factor in some practical considerations, like her life circumstances. Does the nanny have children of her own? Are they young and needy? If so, her flexibility — and consequently yours — may be limited by her outside responsibilities. Is she single, or settled down and settled in the neighborhood? A lot of parents believe that a married nanny is more emotionally stable and more likely to stick around than a free agent, though this theory doesn't take into account the fact that an unhappily married woman may be just as likely as the unmarried nanny to move on.
Once you've painted a broad brushstroke of your ideal, keep in mind that you're bound to have to compromise somewhere, on something. Focus on what matters most. If you end up interviewing a woman who's energetic and likeable, but a little too talkative, sit back and think about whether you could bear the chitchat for the sake of the enthusiasm. If, on the other hand, she's very quiet and shy but seems exceptionally warm, realize that while your kids will be nurtured, you probably won't get a lot of stimulating conversation (and you may end up being thankful for that). In the end you and the nanny have to get along. You're going to be around each other — a lot — and in very intimate circumstances. Don't hold out for the great love affair, but do hold on to your standards.
Who's Who in the World of Nannies
Caregiver, babysitter, nanny — they are all defined as in-home childcare positions. But each has a different meaning, however subtle, and all are open to interpretation.
Nanny is by far the most popular, all-purpose name for someone who takes care of children, either as a live-in (she rooms and boards with the family, five or seven days a week) or as a live-out (she comes in on a daily basis). While the word "nanny" can conjure images of an English governess, the term is used much more broadly these days. It can describe a person who's had formal training in childcare (ranging from a degree in child development to intruction courses at a nanny college through an agency; or it can be used to describe a woman who's had on-the-job experience and has made a career out of taking care of kids.
Caregiver (or childcare provider or childcare technician) is an umbrella term that's more PC than it is catchy. While it's long been used by agencies and institutions, the word caregiver is only now being integrated into the childcare vernacular. Some parents gravitate toward the term because there's a neutrality about it; it sounds serious, and says what it is, without any elitist associations. Employees themselves often say they prefer it, though you rarely hear it used in nannies' conversation.
Babysitter (or sitter) covers a wide range of job descriptions. It can refer to someone who comes in on a Saturday night or a five-day-a-week regular employee. Agencies often eschew the term "babysitter," favoring "nanny" or "caregiver," because of the perception that no special training is required for the job of babysitter. Parents however, use "sitter" interchangeably with "nanny" and "caregiver" — in fact, many prefer it to "nanny," which to some still has the snooty ring of a servant for the upper classes.
Housekeeper for the most part means just what it implies — a person who cleans and takes care of the house. However, the job can spill over into babysitting and general care and feeding of the family — as in Alice on The Brady Bunch — particularly when the children are older and spend much of the day in school.
Au pair is in a category all its own. While it's a French term (meaning "on par" or "equal"), the au pair position has become a very American phenomenon. A legal au pair, anywhere from eighteen to twenty-six years old, comes from another country, and is hired through an official organization, under the auspices of the United States Information Agency. She lives with an American family for a year and gets a small weekly stipend. Motives for becoming an au pair include the desire to see the States, have an adventure, and maybe rechart one's future — which may or may not include childcare as a career.
American au pair is a variation on the foreign au pair. Major differences include the fact that these girls are not part of a government-sponsored cultural exchange program, there are no visa complications, and the fees, which aren't standardized, tend to be higher. There are similarities, too: The girls are young and eager to see a diffent place (in this case, another coast or a big city), and the stays with their host-families are usually short — a summer, or a year at most.
Baby nurse is defined as a specialist who cares specifically for newborns. These nurses move in, usually for two to three weeks — and then fly off to the next family. Their role is to train the first-time parents in such skills as breast feeding, bathing, caring for the umbilical cord, and nail cutting; or to give experienced parents a break so they can get some sleep — the same role mothers and grandmothers typically used to play. Most baby nurses are signed up with nanny agencies and may need to be reserved months in advance. They're the highest paid in the field, commanding double or triple an average nanny salary, and they see themselves as the highest rung on the childcare ladder.
I've heard that hiring a nanny with her own young child is less than ideal, but I'd think her hands-on experience would be valuable.
This is a classic trade-off; what you gain in first-hand knowledge, you give up in flexibility. Someone with children of her own, especially preschoolers, often brings divided loyalties and energies. She may come in tired from being up late the night before with a teething infant or a nightmare-stricken toddler. Probably the biggest risk lies in her need to juggle her own childcare (to leave at a certain hour to pick up a kid at day care, to stay home when he's sick, or to miss work for doctor's appointments), which can hamper her ability to be available for you should you have to work late or travel (unless she's a live-in, in which case the point is moot). A nanny with a child at home doesn't necessarily present problems, however, if she has ever ready backup in the form of a husband, mother, sister. The motto here: The more complicated your life is, the less complicated you want hers to be. What works best for many families is a woman who has raised her own children and has seen them off to school or off on their own, or a non-mother who's come right off a job caring for a child the same age as yours — she's got the experience and the freedom.
In my work life I tend to hire go-getter types — the more ambitious the better — and that's my first impulse in looking for a caregiver as well. But I wonder if it makes sense to apply the same thinking.
Some people like their nannies on the way up — they like being around those they perceive as bright and eager, and they like the role of mentoring a young nanny when it comes to her future. Certainly, ambitious types tend to do their jobs to the max, often exceeding expectations (so you do get your money's worth). But as in any work environment, ambition carries an obvious liability: The more enterprising a sitter is, the more likely she is to move on — and out of the job. Parents who have had bad luck with nannies quitting on them are more apt to look for someone who is committed to caregiving as a profession and isn't using babysitting as a stopgap.
I've always had this idea that when the time came to get a nanny, I'd want an older, grandmotherly type who was nurturing and gentle. It occurs to me I'm stuck on a stereotype.
A maternal, loving nature doesn't always come with age. It's possible that an older nanny might be a little worn out and have fewer reserves of affection than a less jaded sitter. But you won't ipso facto find high energy in a younger person either. These qualities are best judged on the spot in an interview. Stay open-minded: Just as some people lock onto an image of who they're going to marry, or where they'll live, or what their kids will look like, only to be surprised by what actually transpires, you can't predict what kind of nanny is going to spark your interest when she walks through the door.
I like the notion of a young, energetic nanny who can climb a tree with my four-year-old, but I worry about whether she'd be mature and wise enough to be a good all-around caregiver.
A twenty-something sitter is a pretty good playmate for a four-year-old, but while she may be able to jump and romp around, she may fall short in terms of patience, perspective, and resilience — that kids-will-be-kids attitude that's called for when your charming child throws a hysterical fit (or his shoes). Parents often find that younger nannies have a shorter fuse and are more apt to take personally a kid's fickle "I hate you." There are exceptions, of course — the very grown-up and savvy twenty-two-year-old, or the sitter who was raised as the oldest sibling in a large family, and for whom taking care of little kids is second nature. Where youth really does seem to be an advantage is with older kids — a twenty-five-year-old nanny who can still identify with the whims, moods and desires of a pre-adolescent can be like a big sister to a nine-year-old.
The Right Chemistry
I tend to be a little scatterbrained and I have a lot going on in my life right now. I can't handle a nanny who's spacey, soft-spoken, or too needy. I want someone who can run the show.
Some parents consciously decide to hire somebody who will complement their own character — for example, a nanny who's forceful and practical to balance their own indecisive, dreamy, insecure approach to life. Other parents gravitate to like-minded, like-spirited nannies, perhaps because they see them as extension's of themselves. As for running the show, it's a good bet that an aggressive, assertive type is going to do a lot of the thinking, planning, deciding — for better and worse.
In the past I've had nannies with too much attitude, and we've clashed over everything from childrearing issues to how to put the dishes in the dishwasher. I need a nanny who's comfortable following my lead.
There is no single description of a good soldier. While a strong-willed employer might not work well with a headstrong employee, the reverse isn't necessarily the solution either. You probably don't want to seek out a spineless, weak-willed sitter, since there will be times you'll need her to be in charge of the house and the kids, not to mention take action in an emergency. And it can be irritating to have someone always waiting for instructions or asking questions about whether she can do this or that. Unless you're a total control freak, it behooves you to try to find a middle ground — a nanny who is secure and professional enough to take the back seat without being a back-seat driver.
For Appearances' Sake
I'm a little embarrassed to admit that what a nanny looks and sounds like matters to me. I don't want to hire a nanny who's sloppy, obese, loud, or uneducated.
In many ways, the nanny is an ambassador of the family — she's with the child in public, day in and day out, whether she's picking him up at nursery school or play group, bringing him to the park, or taking him out to lunch. Some parents may feel that nannies who are friendly, outgoing, and well-spoken reflect well on them by association (and they often do: Other parents sometimes regard those sitters with a certain amount of envy). Of course, some parents care how everything around them looks — car, house, yard, kids, each other. Vanity aside, if there happen to be certain traits — physical or personal — that you can't tolerate, better to be honest with yourself and look for what you do like, otherwise you may find yourself irritated and begin picking on things that weren't really a problem in the first place.
A Foreign Influence
I'm thinking of hiring a personable young woman whose sister works for my neighbor. But her English is limited (she happens to be from Guatemala,) and I worry about how she'd be able to cope in an emergency, much less talk to me on a daily basis.
In many areas, 911 operators are bilingual, so in terms of a true emergency, her language skills needn't present much of a problem. Besides, even someone with full command of the English language can freeze and become totally mute under stress. The more critical criterion may be communication on a day-to-day basis. Think of all the things you need to get across to the sitter, from when to give the baby his ear-infection medicine to how you'd like them to spend the afternoon together. And what of reading books to the child? Plus, you want to be able to get feedback from her — her concerns or questions, stories of the day. Language, however, isn't always a total barrier to a good working relationship. A lot of parents and nannies get creative with symbols and hybrid words, and lots of loving relationships with kids have been nurtured with minimal English.
I like the idea of having a nanny who speaks a language in addition to English. I want my one-year-old to be exposed early. But there's a little piece of me that fears I'll be squeezed out of their private world.
True, you may be enchanted by your child's first words of French or Filipino, and, also true, you may feel a twinge of jealousy toward the nanny for having a link with the child that you don't have. But foreign language or no, you have to realize that a nanny and child will construct their own way of communicating anyway: words they make up, phrases they pick up from a book they read — a shared frame of reference that is by nature exclusive. And often the sitter, who is around all day long, becomes the main translator of a preverbal toddler's gibberish. Just be glad for the input — and the instruction.
Excerpted from The Nanny Book by Susan Carlton, Coco Myers. Copyright © 1999 Susan Carlton and Coco Myers. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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