staying neutral as the nanny … or what to do when your employer’s family involves you in family disputes

It’s Christmas, and traffic here is always much lighter this week, so let’s go ahead and take a question that falls outside of our usual topics.

A reader writes:

I’ve run into a sticky workplace situation of my own and was hoping for your input. It’s outside the normal topics of your blog, but I hope it’s interesting enough to warrant an answer.

I work as a live-in nanny for a family with two children, a baby and a school-aged child. 90% of my job involves caring for the baby, who I adore. While I also love the school-aged child, he’s got a host of behavioral issues — consistently disobedient and majorly disrespectful. His parents believe in a gentle, positive-reinforcement based system for helping him improve his behavior. While I would personally take a more firm approach were he my own child, his parents are doing what they believe is best and I respect their right to make that decision. Since I care for him only occasionally — again, just 10% of my job — I don’t have too much of a problem following their approach for the limited amount of time I spend with him.

The problem lies in my employers’ extended family. The grandparents and aunts believe that the school-aged child is out of control and needs a different approach. They’ve repeatedly tried to confront my employer about this, and it’s caused a lot of tension in the extended family.

I’m afraid of getting sucked into this conflict. Since I live-in, I’m often invited to family holiday events and, since I live here (where the gatherings often take place), I’m pretty much obligated to attend. The extended family isn’t really known for their tact, and I expect that this topic will come up at some point. What do I say if/when they turn to me and ask, “What do you think of all this?” While I of course want to show loyalty to my employer (and keep my job!), I really just want to stay out of this altogether. Apart from physically getting up and leaving the holiday table, though, I think I’m going to be forced to make a statement. I desperately do not want to weigh in on this minefield of an issue. Until I get the baby trained to need a diaper change on cue, how can I excuse myself from these conversations?

Nothing like putting someone on the spot in front of the person who signs their paychecks!

Your best bet is to probably come up with a couple of neutral responses that you can be prepared with ahead of time. For instance:

“Some kids are more challenging at this age than others, but I’ve always figured parents are in the best position to decide what makes sense for their child.”

“Well, different parents approach things in different ways. Pediatricians are always a good source of advice on this kind of thing, if Marsha and John are looking for guidance.” (Optional add-on: “But I think they feel they’ve got it in hand.”)

“Bobby is well loved, and I’m sure he’ll work through this.”

Or whatever feels comfortable to you.

I do think there’s a separate question for you about whether you actually do have an obligation to tactfully raise the behavioral issues with the parents … but that’s hard to say without knowing more about how extreme the problems are, how hands-off the parents’ current methods are, and whether they’ve sought (and are following) professional advice to help them.

But regardless of that, the time to raise it isn’t while they’re being attacked by their relatives, so I think neutral is the way to go for the dinner-time interrogation.

{ 19 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous

    As a parent with a kid that has behavioral issues, there are plenty of people who think that just being stricter with a kid is the best solution. That was our very first strategy, and guess what? It’s NOT always the right answer. In our case, it actually made things a lot worse because our child felt as though he was unable to ever be good instead of realizing he could make things better. Yet to this day I still get comments from people implying that I just need to give my son a “whack or two” to show him who’s boss, even though our son has steadily shown improvement since we changed our approach. (Usually because they witness him starting to lose control and feel I should punish him for actions right then–what they don’t realize is that I wait to address those behaviors until he’s back in control, so I might not talk with him for even a day or two if I feel he’s too worked up.)

    I highly recommend reading “The Explosive Child” by Ross Greene for *anyone* who deals with challenging children–we gave copies to all the caregivers in our son’s life. It really opened our eyes into ways we could positively deal with our son’s issues.

    1. OP

      OP here. Thanks for the book recommendation – I’ve been looking for resources that would help me better understand the parents’ approach. They’re not too great at articulating the reasons behind their choices, even though I’m confident that those choices are made out of love for their child. I’ll look into it!

      1. LK

        I hope none of the extended family asks for your opinion – what an awkward position to put someone in (*especially* as a live-in!)

        Anonymous is right – I work with children who have serious emotional disturbance, and strict discipline rarely works and usually makes the behavior(s) worse. A couple things I have used that I recommend are Positive Behavioral Interventions & Support (www.pbis.org), Parenting with Love & Logic (www.loveandlogic.com) and Non-Violent Crisis Intervention (www.crisisprevention.com). Good luck!!

    2. Sdhr

      Thanks for that book recco. We have a son like this and I nearly cried with relief when he was recently diagnosd and the developmental pediatrician said “so I guess you have already discovered that time outs don’t work.” You just beat yourself up because the stuff that works with other kids don’t work with yours.

      OP – it’s definitely possible that the parents are using an approach that is recommended by a professional. Stay neutral! If my babysitter sided with a family member who was critical of my parenting….at would be a deal breaker for me.

  2. clobbered

    Smile sweetly, shrug and say “This is why people have kids, to raise them as they think best”.

    It’s neutral, and moreover, it’s true. It’s my mantra for anytime anyone (including myself!) are tempted to discuss other people’s parenting.

  3. Katie the Fed

    I hope they’re paying you well, nanny, for dealing not only with the kids but family drama!

    I’m a big fan of deflecting awkward questions with a noncommittal response and subject change. “What an interesting question!” and then change the subject :)

    1. OP

      Uh, yeah… I get paid well. Really well. It makes putting up with the occasional family drama worthwhile, that’s for sure!

  4. Jeff

    As a former nanny employer, I expected our nanny to follow MY instructions with regards to the care of my child. My wife and I specifically instructed her to kindly disregard any “care instructions” she may receive from any other person, including grandparents, etc. We discussed the situation with her in advance too, telling her that while it was unlikely to occur, we didn’t want her to feel conflicted at all.

    At this point, I would recommend that the nanny bring this up directly with her employer in private ahead of time. Simply state that you are here to follow their directions, and you’re concerned about the possibility of getting dragged into the discussion. Then ask them how they would like you to respond. If I was said employer, I would tell you to not worry about it (and I would tell you that you can respond in any way that you wish to defuse the situation), as I would step in if I heard my family trying to inject you into the fight so as to prevent you from having to respond.

    1. Kimberlee, Esq.

      I really like this! Asking the employer (who is likely to be there when the question comes up) and asking them how they’d like you to respond is really great.

      1. Mike C.

        And why not just extend this to the answer you would give. Something along the lines of, “As a professional caregiver, I always defer to the parents on such matters.”

        Because the truth of the matter is that you aren’t a neutral party in this situation – you’re a paid employee of the parents and so long as they aren’t abusing the kid, and it’s clear that they aren’t, then you do what they say. If your client’s parents don’t like it, that’s their problem, right?

  5. JohnQPublic

    Smile REALLY big, and say “thank you SO much for your feedback! As that’s a policy issue, it’s best addressed by my management team, Mr. and Mrs. so-and-so.”

  6. Not So NewReader

    I vote for the conversation with mom and dad, too. While you are having that talk, perhaps you can mention that you would be interested in any reading materials they might like to share with you.
    I think showing that additional interest would help in so many ways- not just for you as an employee.

  7. Navan

    As a former Nanny for children who had diagnoses that influenced their behaviour (Autism in this case), I had nosey family members butting in constantly to provide their feedback on how I handled the boys. I pre-emptied this by discussing the choices with the parents- it not only built our relationship to be much stronger, but it provided a united front for the kids. My favourite response was always “That’s an interesting perspective.” … followed by going back to doing exactly what I was doing in the first place.

    Parents are rarely unaware of their child’s issues- behavioural or otherwise. It’s also not unusual to feel overwhelmed and guilty for not knowing how to handle it though. Another recommendation to add to the list would be “the out of sync child” series- it focuses on children with sensory issues, however in my extended experience most behavioural issues in young children have at least a small sensory component to them- so it can be a valuable read.

  8. Anonymous

    I like AAM’s advice – keep your reply simple and neutral, offer no opinion and say that they are loving parents and they know best. Good luck!

  9. faltiska

    Judging by the nice way you phrased your letter here, I’d say you will be just fine when that time comes.
    I am sure you will find exactly the right answer as you seem to be a mature, rational person with high regards towards the feelings of others.

  10. AG

    I think the suggestions above are great, and I just wanted to chime in with my empathy. I have babysat/nannied a lot, and it’s really difficult and awkward when the extended family says anything negative about the children or parents. As I’m sure the OP is, I felt very loyal to the children and their parents and grandparents’ comments really put me on the defensive – fortunately the children didn’t have any major behavior issues, but the grandparents didn’t always agree with the parents’ parenting/housekeeping/life choices and would say things that made me uncomfortable. Nothing to the point where I felt I needed to bring it up to the parents, fortunately, but it was definitely inappropriate.

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