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How nannies can handle the holidays when their employers have different beliefs

Nov. 1, 2019
How nannies can handle the holidays when their employers have different beliefs

As the holidays approach, many nannies will find themselves in an interesting situation: watching as families engage in holiday traditions or practices that are not their own. This could be religious (not everyone celebrates a Santa-style Christmas), or it could be socioeconomic (not everyone celebrates the holidays with lots of gifts). 

During this season, nannies might wonder how to honor their beliefs or navigate a tricky conversation with the children in their care. That’s why we asked working nannies and experts to share their insights into how to handle the holidays when there are differing beliefs or backgrounds. 

How to set holiday expectations early (and professionally)

Navigating your first holiday season with a family can raise a lot of questions, especially if you practice a different faith. How will you answer kids’ questions, or what should you know about a family’s practice so you can best support them? Most of all, you’re probably wondering, “How and when should I ask these questions?” 

Cheryl Koning, a veteran nanny who has worked in both San Francisco and Chicago, has some advice: “I ask families beginning in my first October with them how they would like to handle the holiday season. Some families have blended traditions, some have strict faith ones, some have been open to mine. I find that this lets the parents tell me what they are hoping for in a relaxed way.”

Becky Stuempfig, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Encinitas, California, also reminds nannies that now is the time to set holiday expectations. 

“Before there are concerns about holidays, I would recommend that nannies ask parents what they expect of her role during holiday traditions and whether there are certain things she should or should not share with the children,” Stuempfig says.

Santa is a great example: If the parents celebrate a Santa-related holiday, how do the parents want their nanny to respond if the kids ask questions about Santa’s authenticity? And if the nanny has a different faith or holiday practice, what do parents want them to share with the kids about it? 

“These are important things for a nanny to know ahead of time,” Stuempfig says.

Marva Soogrim, aka Nanny to the Stars, feels it’s most important to keep the holidays professional.

“Since it’s a nanny’s job to help maintain the lifestyle of our clients — including their beliefs — I always choose to support families and to have an open mind that does not judge one’s beliefs,” she says. 

Basically, Soogrim says, always remember that you can practice your own faith or traditions while also respecting those of the family.

What to do about gifts

For nannies whose religions advise against gift-giving or who simply can’t afford gifts, the holidays can feel somewhat stressful. In these cases, several nannies we interviewed recommend taking an honest and upfront approach with parents and kids if you are unable to give or receive gifts for any reason. Let them know that you cannot give gifts for the holidays and would appreciate it if no gifts were given to you. 

To help nannies keep gift expectations modest, Koning suggests giving parents some practical choices. 

“I am happy to create a certificate for an experience with their child, like a hot chocolate date or going to a movie or a museum,” she says. “Or I can take them shopping for the charity that I'm supporting that winter.” 

Koning has supported various charities that require supplies and gift donations, and she brings the children she cares for along on the shopping trip. These experiences give her and her kiddos a new perspective, and the early clarification prevents kids from being disappointed. 

Erica Friesen, a nanny working with Chicago Collegiate Nannies in Chicago, also shares tips on how to manage gift-giving on a tight budget for the kids in your care. 

“There have been times where I couldn’t even spend money on gifts if I wanted to,” she says. “But I’ve found that little things go a long way.” 

Instead of buying store-bought gifts, Friesen recommends nannies “get crafty”: make something with what you have on hand, whether it’s a crocheted hat or a cute photo album. 

“Share the story of why you made or found that particular gift when you give it to them and they’re bound to love it,” she says. 

When kids wonder why you’re ‘different’

If you believe or practice differently than your nanny kiddos, they’re bound to notice. Whether they ask a simple question about Santa or about why you do something they don’t, this is where things can get sticky. 

Koning has a few recommendations for nannies facing this situation: “When kids ask me what I do and realize it's different from them, I focus on how wonderful it is that we both have happy holiday memories and things we look forward to sharing with others.” 

She also talks to them about how every family gets to make its own rules about the holidays, just like different families have different rules for dinner or bedtime. 

Of course, if you’re worried about trickier questions like, “Why don’t you believe in Jesus?” or “Why can’t you give me presents?”, Koning recommends pulling out every nanny’s “Get Out of Jail Free Card” by saying, “Let’s ask your mom and dad when they get home.” 

Sydney Gleb, a nanny who works in Lakeview, Illinois, circumvents those awkward discussions by teaching kids about different faiths and backgrounds year-round. 

“First, I teach my kiddos about the holidays they celebrate,” Gleb says. “After they have an understanding of what their family celebrates, I then teach them about other religions and holidays.” 

Gleb also makes sure to talk about differences and diversity: “We talk about how we have friends who are just like us and friends who are different from us, just how we have friends who physically look like us and friends who don’t.”

She says she explains to them, “Everyone is unique and special in their own way and not everyone does things the same.”

Friesen also adds that it’s important for nannies to defer to what the family believes and practices. 

“I’m in their home, and I’m always super grateful for all the families I’ve worked for,” Friesen says. “I am respectful and let them guide me to how they want me to handle those situations.” 

How to ask for time off 

If you follow a non-Christian religion and work as a nanny in the U.S., you likely won’t get “automatic” days off, as you might with Christmas Day. For nannies who celebrate Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or the Seventh-Day Adventist holidays in early January, it might feel awkward to ask for other days off. On the other hand, if you’re non-religious or non-practicing, you might still expect (or want) to work on a family’s holidays. How can nannies deal with this?

It’s simple, says Koning.

“You ask for the time off you need, and you take the time off that families give you,” she says. 

If you follow best practices for asking for time off, you should have no problem. If you’re worried that your time off will clash with the parents’ work schedule, address it as soon as possible — meaning months in advance.

Friesen confirmed that it’s all about early communication and setting expectations. 

“Be willing to explain what you need in terms of time off when you first start with the family,” she says. “If it means a lot to you, build that into your contract or ask for your paid days off to include those dates.” 

The bottom line: Holidays are meant to be celebrated

The holidays can be a busy time for nannies, from navigating kids’ school parties to helping employers as they prepare for vacations or family visits. But there’s always fun to be had, and it’s a great time to celebrate with kids, especially when you have different views of the world. 

Gleb talks openly about how beautiful the holiday season can be for nannies and families of differing backgrounds: “I am Jewish and my current nanny kid is Catholic. We read books, sing songs and do activities to learn about all of this. We also talk about our similarities and differences. My goal is always to teach kiddos about how diverse and beautiful the world is.”

While the holidays can take different forms for each of us, they are still celebrations. Sharing in someone’s celebration, especially when kids are involved, can be a beautiful thing.

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