Nanny Boundaries: How Close is Too Close for a Nanny and a Family?
Tobi Kosanke was sitting on the couch one day when her nanny nonchalantly showed her a lump in her breast and said she didn't have money to see a doctor.
Her full-time nanny, Jean-Marie Jones, had no health insurance or family support, and was too proud to ask her boss for help. Kosanke, of Hempstead, Texas, who had grown close to the woman who had cared for her only child, didn't hesitate.
"I told her you have to get this biopsied and I will pay for it," Kosanke, 46, says of that day in 2007. She spent $3,600 on testing that led to the discovery of a malignant lump in each of Jones' breasts. Through her illness, Jones worked off all but $800, which Kosanke forgave.
Kosanke was clear that she could not afford Jones' expensive surgery, and urged her beloved nanny to find a job with health insurance for employees with pre-existing conditions. Jones, 63, did just that, had surgery and is today cancer-free.
Kosanke acknowledges that her employer-employee relationship with Jones was blurred. But she was moved to help because she cared deeply for Jones, who had become like a grandmother to her charge, Jemma, now 6.
"So when this scare happened, it wasn't like it happened to an employee," Kosanke says. "It happened to a dear friend who had nowhere else to turn. For lack of a better explanation, I love the woman."
Jones, too, realized she was in a special situation, calling Kosanke a lifesaver. "She is not a typical boss," she says.
Though their experience has a happy ending (Jemma is now in school, and Kosanke still hires Jones periodically), Kosanke says such situations can be complex, and employers should be prepared to have regrets.
"It could be a minefield," she says. "You have to evaluate your own sense of feelings about the person. You know whether somebody is worth your time and effort to help."
What's at Stake?
Employers may one day find themselves being asked a favor they feel they can't refuse, or a nanny may have to listen -- uncomfortably -- to deeply personal details of her boss' life. It's enough to make you wonder, how close is too close a relationship?
A nanny and her employers need each other, and a healthy, drama-free relationship benefits everyone, especially the children. Experts suggest firm boundaries and clear expectations so that neither side feels taken advantage of or resentful, which could lead to the demise of the relationship.
> Get tips on creating a good relationship with a nanny
Too Much Information
Although a nanny may be privy to personal details of her boss' life -- like marital discord or financial problems -- that doesn't mean a nanny should be the employer's go-to person for help, says psychotherapist Robi Ludwig, Parenting Expert at Care.com.
"It's important to know the nanny is not your therapist and you are not her therapist," Ludwig says.
That doesn't mean you can't support each other. But before either side wants to spill juicy details, Ludwig suggests first asking yourself if you'd discuss such an issue with a regular co-worker.
It's the employer who should set the example for what's acceptable to share, Ludwig says, adding that things like your sex life should always stay off-limits.
"If you're going to be inappropriate, that's going to send a message to the nanny that the same is OK for her," Ludwig says.
It's true, too, that nannies don't want to hear about their employer's problems. Nanny Expert Neysa Richardson says she's happy to know that a family had a great weekend outing, but if the couple was fighting, that's too much information. Ditto if her employer is having, as one boss discussed with Richardson, bowel issues.
"Unless it directly affects my job, I don't need to know," Richardson says.
And when it comes to a nanny's personal life, a family should be aware of a big issue in her life, like a divorce, but not actively involved to preserve the separation between her job and her personal life, Richardson says.
Just as an employer shouldn't rely on a nanny to be a life coach, a nanny shouldn't view her employer as a bank. Nannies frequently ask for money for car payments, student loans or credit card debt, says Richardson, who disapproves of the practice. Nannies sometimes feel entitled to the money and don't pay it back, she says, putting employers in an awkward position.
If an employer does want to help financially, experts recommend putting everything in writing to increase the chances that the agreement will be followed. (Learn more about writing a nanny contract.)
"If there's a written contract that says 'I don't want you to feed my kids cookies,' they're going to be a lot less likely to feed your kids cookies," says Texas Supreme Court Justice Debra Lehrmann, a former family law judge.
An outright gift is one thing. But employers who loan their nannies money should be prepared for the possibility that they won't get it back, Lehrmann says. Even if an employer sued a nanny and won, a judgment may be hard to collect.
Ludwig suggests employers learn how to "say 'no' with options." That means turning down a request but offering to help in another way, as Kosanke did. Here are some examples Dr. Ludwig gives of how you can help - on your terms:
- Car trouble. Your nanny's car needs $2000 of repair or she can't get to work. If you have a no-loan policy, offer extra hours or a salary advance. Or, offer to split a car service or bus pass for a temporary time period.
- Home issues. Your nanny is fighting with her husband and thinks she should move out of her home, what should an employer do? Ludwig says it's usually not necessary for a family to open its doors, but such an arrangement could be OK if a family really loves its nanny. But, she said, many nannies have deep connections to friends and relatives. "You always want to go with a nanny following support systems she has first," Ludwig says. "You can say, 'I'm so sorry to hear. Do you have good people you can stay with during this tough time?'"
- Personal favor. You have a great job and your nanny asks if her daughter can be your intern. Does this put your reputation on the line? Ludwig says that an employer shouldn't recommend someone she doesn't know, but shouldn't hesitate to help if she knows the young woman and would be proud to recommend her. "Don't just do it because you love the mother," she says. "Meet the daughter and get a sense of her." She might not have to be your intern, but perhaps there's a department where she can help out.
Remember: Close is Okay
Over time, a nanny may start to feel like one of the family, and that's not a bad thing. But the employer can't get too close or her sense of authority may be lost. "You can love this person but all relationships require healthy boundaries," Ludwig reminds.
> Read more ways to set up nanny boundaries
> Search for a Nanny in your area today!
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