What does the word ‘nanny’ bring to mind? Before I had children it was Mary Poppins, and truthfully, the few women who have helped me at various times over the years with my children were just as magical.
For parents who work, need help juggling the responsibilities of a large family, or are just blessed to be able to afford a few hours’ break from parenting, nannies are our angels. They bring a sense of calm and order to a frazzled parent’s day while performing astonishing feats, leaving us awestruck as they send the most stubborn, nap-resistant two year old effortlessly to the land of nod (hence the nickname for a dear caregiver/teacher friend of mine – “the valium lady”).
The best nannies are more precious than the crown jewels and protected just as fiercely by their employers. So, how does a family find and recognize such a person? And how do we then transition a nanny from ‘stranger’ to trusted a member of our (extended) family?
Here are a few suggestions:
1. Finding gold. A word of mouth recommendation is usually the best bet, but it takes a bit of luck and timing to catch wind of a family ready to let go of their well-guarded treasure. Well established agencies for either nannies (or ‘mannies’ — don’t want to be sexist!) or au pairs (if you want a live-in) are well worth a try. For part time assistance, college message boards, especially for early childhood education or psychology students are another resource.
2. What to look for. This is a very personal decision, but for me kindness, open-mindedness, intelligence and a sense of humor are the most important qualities for someone spending any amount of time caring for my children.
Since consistent care is extremely important for infants and toddlers, someone educated in the child-rearing approach the parents practice is obviously the ideal. A close second best is an intelligent person with an open mind who we can teach to care for our child the way we do.
An open-minded person can be young, not yet having formed opinions about child-rearing, or older, and despite having raised her own children, eager to learn about and embrace something new. I admit to being in particular awe of the people I’ve met in that latter group, since mothers can be (oh, so!) sensitive and defensive about the way we raise our children (now, how would I know that?). Experienced caregivers willing to jump in and try a style of child care that may be foreign to their previous beliefs, or different from the way they have cared for their own children impress me beyond measure.
3. Transitioning the caregiver. I use (and teach) a method for child-rearing that is a little unusual, so I had to find a way to explain my child care needs in the most non-judgmental, non-threatening manner possible. I said it this way: “I am interested and excited about trying a specific method that may feel very different from the way you have done things. I would like you to try this with me, even if it seems strange to you, or you don’t agree with it. Please take this journey with me.”
I was lucky to have chosen people who ended up becoming deeply interested in the RIE philosophy. One even went on to take the professional RIE training and became a highly sought after (and highly paid) RIE nanny. But, I believe that inviting a caregiver to join us in a child care approach so that we can work as a team, rather than directing the person to do things “this way or that way” is respectful and works well, no matter what a family’s child care methods or choices are.
4. Transitioning the child. Helping an infant or toddler to form a “secondary attachment” (as Attachment Theorist John Bowlby terms it) is a delicate process that begins with the parents’ trust and confidence in the new caregiver. Imagine being left by your parents in the care of a unfamiliar person and unable to tell this new person what you need or want. In this new relationship, the baby may be in a severe state of stress, but not cry. Rather, he may disassociate, distancing himself emotionally from the situation.
Parents must take great care to introduce the caregiver to the child gradually and are not advised to leave the baby with the person before they have spent several hours together. (If the baby is being cared for out of the home, the transition into a new person’s care and to an unfamiliar place is ideally treated even more delicately and accomplished more gradually, over a longer period of time.)
When a parent feels the child is comfortable with the nanny, leave for brief periods at first. Encourage the caregiver to allow the baby to cry when the parents leave, rather than distract the baby by telling him he’s “okay”, or otherwise talking him out of his feelings. Expressing sadness and grief over a parent’s departure, no matter how momentary the separation, is an appropriate and healthy emotional release. Acknowledging the child’s feelings and offering comfort will bring nanny and baby closer. (For more details, please read my post Good Grief – When Babies Need To Cry.)
And before long, they may well be singing “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and sliding up the banister together.