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The Modern Butlers’ Journal, June 2018, The Butlers Speak

Steven FerryThe Butlers Speak

by Steven Ferry

Working with Children & Nannies—Raising Standards in the US

100% of those surveyed had been in positions where they were asked to assist with the children of the family. For several, duties included driving the children to and from school, sports practices, friends, a movie etc., and taking them to appointments such as doctors and dentists.

For two butlers/HMs, all the normal services offered to adults were also provided to children: serving their meals, taking care of their clothes, occasional help with packing, a little help with their homework, being companions and people to play with during the holidays, as well as the transport assistance just mentioned. For another, they were only called upon to watch the children for a few hours if the mother needed to go out for a while for an unanticipated engagement when the nanny or teacher were not available; which usually meant playing games, helping with homework, swimming, or preparing snacks for the children.

Asked if they encountered any difficulties with the duties, the children, or the nannies, the consensus amongst those surveyed was that the nannies were very good, although occasionally one would not gel with the children; other than that, the difficulties were in trying to juggle being in the middle of working with a contractor or vendor and suddenly being called also to look after the children. One butler/HM actually started her career as a nanny, so has “always been pretty understanding of the problems of wrangling and the constant attention needed to keep children both occupied and safe.”

A second butler/HM reported, “The most common challenge was a lack of information regarding a location or contact information. Although sometimes the children would act as if I worked for them, and a gentle reminder that I do not work for them but their parents was enough to correct the attitude. Sometimes a call to the parents and letting them deal with the attitude was needed, which always proved very helpful and supportive of me and my position.” A third butler’s experience was similar: «Children have always been respectful towards me, maybe because I don’t stand for any nonsense from them from Day One.»

Another butler/HM provided a different perspective: “It was sometimes awkward for some of the staff members to see that the nannies eat with the family and join them in the ‘fun things’ like boat rides, festivities and private events, when the nannies are treated and served like family members. Jealousy, perhaps, but it made a huge difference if the nanny assisted the rest of the team.»

Yet another butler weighed in on this issue as follows: «My duties were only difficult when the nanny wouldn’t do what she was hired for, or being demanding and/or lazy, tried to push her duties onto other staff.»

«During the holidays, staff members were used as companions and at parties where alcohol might be served and things might deteriorate; it was a challenge to explain to both the staff members as well as the children that there was a difference between ‘staff’ and ‘friend.’ In some situations, it was necessary to let a child know they were doing something wrong or dangerous, taking over the position of the nanny or parent. I would discuss it with the nanny or parent afterwards, to make sure I had made the right decision and taken the right action.”

How were these issues best managed? To avoid problems in the first place, one butler/HM created a form for the nanny to fill out with the details about the children and their activities, including the following information: Who (which child), where, when (time to leave, event start, pick-up), names and contact information of any guests/children either riding with or being picked up), any special items to bring such as a gift, special clothing, spending cash, any type of equipment, etc.

The basic answers otherwise on how to manage any situations with the children and/or their nanny boiled down to a) remedying the lack of communication among all parties that caused any issue; b) while the household has to run, children are basically the priority in most households and so teamwork is key, meaning lending a helping hand when needed—especially to a nanny having a particularly exhausting day so she can take a break and regroup; c) for scheduling conflicts, asking another employee for assistance.

«Dealing with difficulties when it comes to nannies can be tricky,» opined one butler: If they are favored by the family and the nanny has their ear, watch your step! But if not, a quick chat with the Mrs. usually nips the problem in the bud. Or they are told from Day One where the chain of command lies.»

Looking to see if there was any change in the children’s behavior, it seems not to differ too much from one generation to the next and it was really a matter of how the children were treated or raised. However, one major change has been the unhealthy dependence of children today on ubiquitous technology.

In terms of their relationship with the staff, probably the following statement captured the general experience: “The children have always been wonderful and respectful towards the staff. It is a pleasure to see that over the years this respect has even grown, and now it is a pleasure to work with them as young adults.” As a second butler/HM pointed out, “Several times I have seen children act out, but mostly they are lonely and just want someone to pay attention to them. I treat my principle’s children with respect, and I gently work with them to show respect by saying ‘Please, thank you, excuse me, yes sir (or ma’am)” to them, and reminding them to say it to me when they speak to me. Courtesy knows no boundaries and is always acceptable in any situation and with any person”—a lesson not learned by one family, whose temporary butler reported, “the children were very out of control and the staff turnover was high.” Another butler’s take was «…the problems come from their parents and the way they are raising them, or not raising them more to the point: Some parents don’t want to be parents, they want to be their ‘best friend.'»

Likewise, we asked has there been any change in the quality of the nannies worked with over the years? It seems that there is a problem in the US, of which more below.

There are some not-so-good nannies, but many are good-to-excellent. “The children had a wonderful experience with their international au pairs, who taught them about different cultures, foods and traditions. They were firm in their discipline, but loving at the same time. They truly became a part of the family and traveled with the family on vacations. Having the au pairs was a great experience for the principals, too, who were able to work knowing the children were in capable hands. They all became great friends and talk and visit with each other often—the au pairs are now parents themselves!»

Then what is the problem area? One butler/HM reported that nannies sometimes act “more like the homeowner than an employee. When this happens, I usually update rules for other staff so the nanny isn’t pushing her work onto them.” Another reported, «I am acutely aware of how nannies have become less accommodating and more demanding.» And another butler/HM stated, “You can always tell the difference between those that love and are passionate about what they do, and those who are there only for a check!”

Similarly, one butler was somewhat displeased, «for the most part nannies here in America are only glorified baby sitters, usually poorly educated, poorly paid, and speaking broken English. They are not nannies in the way we know them in Europe, with all the teaching, love, and wisdom they give to their children. But when nannies here are told only to do A, B and C and nothing else, what does one expect? For the most part, I feel the problem is not so much the nanny, it’s the parents of the children who really do not know what a nanny should do: they cross so many lines and make the job confusing. They micro-manage and can be very passive aggressive and lacking in rules and guidelines.»

Maybe US families need to re-evaluate what makes a good nanny, what it takes to make one who will do more than just baby sit, and pay them enough in recognition of their training and skill-sets, and/or to bring in international au pairs. Maybe US nanny agencies, if the butler feedback is validated, would do well to up the game in the US, change perceptions and raise standards.

The Institute is dedicated to raising service standards by broadly disseminating the mindset and superior service expertise of that time-honored, quintessential service provider, the British Butler, updated with modern people skills, and adapted to the needs of modern employers and guests in staffed homes, luxury hotels, resorts, spas, retirement communities, jets, yachts & cruise ships around the world.