Clarifying Healthy Nanny Boundaries
It’s been a long, but fun, day with the children. It’s summer, so you took them to the pool, which happens to be closer to your house than theirs. Everyone was hungry and, rather than running into the grocery store soaking wet, you swung past your house to grab a frozen pizza out of your fridge to cook back at the children’s house while they were changing.
When the mom gets home, she’s a tired, stressed-out mess. She collapses at the kitchen table and invites you to share a glass of iced tea with her. She vents a bit about the day she had at work, how her car’s air conditioning went out, and how she’ll need to get that fixed.
Within minutes, she realizes she’s venting and doing all the talking, so she turns the focus to you, asking about the kids. You mention the pool and the pizza and she says, “You’ll have to invite me over sometime so I can see where you live!” You somehow let slip that you not only have a roommate, who happens to be your boyfriend.
From there, she tells you she and her husband lived together before they were married and how great it was to have sex anytime and anywhere they wanted…and how she misses that now. She starts sharing more details than you want to hear, but you don’t quite know how to get off this uncomfortable conversation train. You aren’t really listening as much as you are trying to figure out how to change the subject.
Then she says, “I really miss those days. Maybe I’ll call my girlfriends to go out for drinks this weekend. You are welcome to come! You’d get along great with them! I talk to them about you all the time — how wonderful you are with the kids and how you are like part of the family.” You are caught off guard and don’t know what to say, so you say with a polite smile, “Oh! Well, I’ll think about it.”
On your drive home you replay the conversation and realize you have a funny feeling in your gut, but aren’t quite sure why, because she was just trying to be nice and friendly. You really want her to like you, so you wonder, should I accept her invitation?
As a nanny, you probably spend a lot of time with the children. This can create a bond between you and the parents, since they trust you, depend on you, and have this common connection.
When the parents come home from a long day at work, they are often eager to hear stories about their child’s day. As you both relax, these conversations can easily lead to confiding or venting details that are more personal than professional, almost without thinking. It’s nice to feel connected and close, “like one of the family,” but even if you both feel comfortable being more than boss and employee, this can open up the possibility for problems and hurt feelings.
All relationships require healthy boundaries, so what kind of nanny boundaries do you need to prevent potential problems and maintain a positive friendly relationship, without crossing the line into being friends?
Preventing Problems Between Nannies and Parents/Employers
There are three key ingredients a nanny-employer relationship must have, to prevent problems:
1. A Clear and Detailed Contract
A clear and detailed contract outlines what the nanny can and can’t do, from obvious issues like child care practices and expense reimbursements to less obvious issues, like borrowing money or whether it’s okay to take the children to your house.
You want to have a comprehensive, detailed nanny contract or agreement, and then stick to the agreements in it. This is for your benefit as much as your employer’s. You don’t want to get in trouble for doing something you didn’t know was wrong. So if something isn’t covered in the contract, don’t assume anything. If you think “it will probably be okay” then you aren’t sure, so stop and ask first. This requires the next ingredient…
2. Clear, Honest, and Respectful Communication
Clear, honest, respectful communication from the beginning is a must. You want to have a way to check in quickly with the parent at the end of each day; you’ll also want to set aside time each month to have a more in-depth conversation about how things are going. Clear, regular communication will help you avoid many common problems. These conversations, however, can quickly go from talking about the children to other issues, which is why the next ingredient is critical.
3. Respected Professional Boundaries
Although the nanny/parent relationship is an employment relationship, it happens in an informal, intimate setting. This can make it a challenge to set and keep appropriate nanny boundaries.
Just remember, as a nanny, you are always an employee, no matter how close you feel to the children or how much the parents make you feel like part of the family. Although you are an important person to the family, you really aren’t part of the family. Don’t forget this.
- If you are with the family, you are still their employee, whether on the clock or off it.
- If you are invited to a family function, whether as the nanny or a guest, you are still their employee, regardless of whether you are being paid at the time.
Always behave professionally and watch what you say and do. This doesn’t mean you can’t be you or funny or relaxed or close; just be conscious about your own privacy as well as theirs.
What’s Okay to Discuss and What’s Not: General Guidelines
When chatting with the parents, you can talk about life in general, but don’t discuss your personal life. Telling the parent about a great party you attended might make her question your judgment or your preparedness for the day’s work. Avoid topics such as dating or your sex life especially and set boundaries if the parent tries to bring up these issues. If the parent asks a personal question, only answer it to the degree that it might be relevant for the parent to know.
Your job is to let your employer know when there is an issue related to the children. If a personal issue might affect the children, then it may be appropriate to discuss it, but that discussion must maintain a focus on the children.
In general, unless an issue directly affects your job or the children, you don’t need to know about or discuss it — and this goes both ways.
Here are some examples of situations that might arise and suggestions on how to handle them:
- If the parents ask about your relationship with your parents, especially during the interview process, this might be appropriate. By seeing what kind of parenting you had, it could tell them how you might treat their children. If you don’t have a good relationship with your parents, avoid giving too much information or going into personal details. Focus on any professional training or experience you’ve had or other information that is relevant to why they asked.
- If the parents have been fighting a lot, it might be appropriate for them to tell you, because you might see behavior changes in the children. They do not, however, need to share details as that puts you in a tough spot. Remember, you work for both of them. Thank the parent for letting you know about something that could affect the children so you can watch for signs of stress. Then, tell the parent you don’t need to know details as you want to maintain a positive relationship with both of them.
- If your car needs repairs and you can’t afford to fix it, your ability to get to work or transport the children might be affected. In this case, you will need to let your employer know, but asking them for money to repair your car is inappropriate. If your employer offers to do this and you choose to accept (which isn’t recommended), then provide a written agreement for repaying them, whether out of your salary or with regular payments to them. And, of course, pay them back, as promised
- If you ask for time off to go on a romantic weekend to celebrate your birthday, you’ll need to let your employer know, but this is all the detail they need to know, before and after the weekend.
- If the parents invite you to a family function, such as a picnic or party, clarify if they want you to attend in a professional capacity. If so, can you expect payment? If not, think seriously about why they want you to attend and the role you are in when attending. View it like a company party, even if everyone else is family, and conduct yourself accordingly.
- Let’s say your employer is a single mom and she’s arranged for another babysitter to watch the children while she celebrates her birthday. She invites you to attend. This is definitely blurring the lines of clear nanny boundaries. Partying with your employer is never a wise idea; either one of you could say or do something under the influence that could seriously damage your relationship. This will inevitably affect your relationship with the children. Politely decline. A graceful way around this might be to work with the children to plan a celebration for their mother that you are a part of.
Are you getting the picture? Here’s the bottom line:
You always want to be friendly, but don’t try to be friends.
You can avoid many problems by setting clear nanny boundaries from the beginning and having a detailed contract, so you know what you can and can’t do. Then use clear, respectful communication to discuss any issues the contract doesn’t discuss and set boundaries.
Lastly, don’t worry about them getting mad. If you are respectful and assertive while still communicating that you care about them and the children, they’ll appreciate your desire to preserve the positive relationships you have with all of them.
- Re-read the opening story. How many potential boundary violations do you see? (Hint: There are at least five.)
- How might you handle these situations, now that you’ve read this article?
Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is the author of the award-winning book, The Parent’s Toolshop and president of Parent’s Toolshop Consulting, where she oversees an international network of Toolshop® trainers. She has 30 years’ experience as a top-rated speaker and parenting expert to the media worldwide, including serving as the Co-Producer and Parenting Expert for the Emmy-nominated Ident-a-Kid television series. She has dozens of multimedia resources that support and educate parents and other adults who live or work with children. You can find them at her award-winning website, www.ParentsToolshop.org.