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Nanny Boundaries: How Close Is Too Close for a Nanny and a Family?

Lisa A. Flam
July 24, 2017

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.

[RELATED: "8 Ways to Have a Great Relationship With Your 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 that the nanny is not your therapist and you are not her therapist," says Ludwig.

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.

[RELATED: "You're the Boss -- Like It or Not"]

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.

Money Matters

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.

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