How To Solve Parent-Nanny Conflicts

Filed under: In The News, Childcare

When the book The Nanny Diaries came out in 2005 (and the movie in 2007), the image of the privileged, demanding mistress of the house, wreaking havoc on the life of her downtrodden nanny became forever implanted in the pop culture psyche. Though it's safe to say this caricature is obviously not a realistic portrait of employer/nanny relations, a recent article in the New York Times is suggesting that there is a widespread problem between nannies and parents that is causing a "less-than-ideal dynamic between worker and boss."

According to the Times, many nanny employers are "overstretched working women, a number of whom suffer from an inability to clearly express their expectations and demands to the people they pay to care for their children." The women cited in the article have problems telling their nannies to make sure the laundry gets done or not to cut their child's hair. Despite the fact that these women are fully capable of delegating and negotiating in their successful careers, when it comes to their nannies, they are unable to discuss problems or face conflict. These moms (and sometimes dads) engage in "a peculiar passive-aggressive form of communication": They expect nannies to read their minds, then complain to their partners, their friends or an internet message board, but avoid bringing up the issues to the nanny face-to-face.

Martha Scully, founder of, says she has seen the problem here in Canada. She's been helping parents find nannies for the past seven years through her online database service, which connects parents with potential caregivers. Scully says she's gotten calls from high-powered, capable women who have had great difficulty talking to their nanny about minor problems.

Scully recalls a situation where a successful mom, who was also an avid baker, called to ask for advice because her nanny was eating all the chocolate chips in the house. Or another who complained about a nanny who ate too many bananas. They might seem like trivial matters with common sense answers (perhaps ask the nanny not to eat the chocolate chips?), but Scully points out that mothers often want to avoid conflict with someone who is so personally connected to their family.

"The majority are hard-working, overstretched mothers trying to keep their families happy," says Scully. "People spend so much time finding the right person, they want to keep that person happy. I think that these hard-working moms are always willing to sacrifice a little bit of themselves in order to keep that going." She also points out that a lot of nannies are younger, so some older mothers want the nanny to think they are a "cool mom," not to sound like their own mother, or some naggy, demanding she-devil straight out of The Nanny Diaries. "As Canadians, we want to be politically correct, we want people to like us," she says.

But Scully says that in her experience, letting problems simmer and brew in order to keep your life under control is a mistake.

"Choose your battles, but if you can't live with the situation, be upfront. Discuss the problem in a calm and logical way, and not in front of the children," says Scully. She also points out that it's always a bad idea for parents to tell children that they are dissatisfied with a nanny's actions. If the kids tell the nanny about it, that can create a problematic dynamic. "Either the nanny is upset, and so the children won't tell their parents when a nanny's done something wrong," says Scully. "Or the child can use it against the nanny and say, 'I'm going to tell mom if you do that again.'"

To head off any of these potential conflicts, Scully says it's vital to be crystal-clear about expectations from the start. Parents should take off a day or two to train the nanny when she (or he) is first hired, and duties should be clearly outlined, preferably in written form. As well, regular to-do lists can be helpful. "She has so many things to do, and it's not her home," says Scully. "So if you have specific things you want her to do, you should make that clear."

Above all, Scully says it's important to keep the relationship from getting too personal. "Sometimes parents overstep the boundaries and want to be friends with the nanny. We don't ever recommend doing that. From the very beginning, have that employer/employee relationship and maintain it."

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.