The Mary Poppins Hunt (or how to find and keep a great nanny)

I used to scoff at parents with nannies. Cop outs, lazy bums, selfish meanies who put themselves above the wellbeing of their children.

And then I became a mother.

In truth, if you can afford it, a good nanny can strengthen the relationship with your children, as well as with your partner, your boss, your extended family… A good nanny can turn a family’s life around.

I’m talking from a personal perspective. After moving countries, with a husband based abroad and looking after two kids on my own (including a sick newborn) a lady called Becky stepped in.

Me and my boy (after nanny Becky arrived)

It wasn’t just the emergency help, (‘quick, you change the nappy, I’ll prepare the medicine…’) it was the knock on effect too. More time to spend with my other son, so he felt valued at this difficult time. Less dependency on my parents, so happier, more energetic ‘grandparenting’. Less stress for mummy, less stress for everyone else.

My father’s fool proof approach: if in doubt, buy him an ice cream.

My sister in law, a mother of five, swears by nannies. She debunks the myth that employing a nanny creates distance between a parent and child: ‘My nanny does the work behind the scenes so I get to focus on my children. She prepares the food, so I can sit and eat with them. She prepares the bath; I chat to my kids about their day’.

OK, so nannies can be great. But how to sift through the nanny nightmares for the ultimate Mary Poppins? Here are some tips:

mary poppins child photoPhoto by GranniesKitchen


Consider the options. Discuss the various options available with your partner (or anyone else involved in your children’s upbringing). Perhaps a childminder, governess, temporary maternity nurse, night nanny or au pair would work better than a live-in nanny? Perhaps you don’t really want a nanny, but a housekeeper or some temporary admin help during a relocation? One agency, Nanny & Butler specialises in childcare and household help for families across the globe, including bilingual nannies, as well as butlers, chefs and caregivers. Meanwhile their sister relocation company, Sigillus, offers expert services which include a children’s concierge, family holiday planning and an education consultancy.

Photo: Norland College

Personal space. A good nanny will remain professional at all times, but they will also be human. You will need somewhere comfortable and private for them to escape to. Sure, expect them to work hard, but let them recharge. If you haven’t got the physical (or emotional) space to share your home, a ‘live-out’ posting might be more practical.

Photo: Norland College

Shop around

Choose an agency. If you’re new to the country, or the nannying game in general, a registered agency is well worth it. While agencies vary hugely in terms of style and price, a good one will have experience, know the questions to ask, can dig deep for any skeletons and also clarify to parents what is expected of them. They should know their nannies inside out and understand exactly the type of person you are looking for. Choose wisely and read the small print. One Expater friend got caught out when she decided to extend a nanny’s contract informally, not realising that for every extra day she worked, the agency (a less scrupulous one whose name I will not mention) was charging a hefty add on.

Safety checks. Even if you’re using an agency be sure to ask questions and check references. One lady I interviewed was rather economical with her truths. She claimed she worked at the neonatal department at a local hospital when in reality she was an admin worker in radiology. Needless to say, she didn’t get the job.

children photo
Your children are your number one asset so it pays to do your checks

Check for qualifications. Certificates are no bona fide surety that the nanny is a great person or a good fit, but first aid, paediatric care, childcare diplomas and other courses show professionalism and dedication. Norland has placed expertly trained nannies since 1892. Their nannies are qualified to degree level and hold the Norland Diploma, a training programme which includes practical experience of working with children, as well as specialist nutrition, party planning, sewing and even security issues such as terrorism related offences and kidnapping.

Photo: Norland College

Wider experience. Most top agencies require at least three years solid experience, often more. Consider also other experience tailored to your children’s lifestyle. After school services, youth groups, holiday kids clubs, softplay… they all count. You might prefer someone with a background of working with children with special needs, speech therapy or specific medical issues. With this in mind, Lucy and Charlotte Boulton founded Lunachild Collective, an agency placing nannies with really incredible skills. Lucy, a former nanny herself underlines: ‘We pride ourselves on placing nannies with unique skill sets, such as yoga, foreign languages, mindfulness and specialist nutrition… skills [that] can really add value to a child’s life’. 

Charlotte and Lucy, founders of Lunachild Collective. Photo: Lunachild Collective.

Consider your lifestyle. While you might not be a tiger mom, dictator daddy, or attachment parent, you will have your own parenting style. A good nanny will adapt to your style but you may prefer someone who really believes in your ethos and is prepared to go the extra mile. In my case, Becky hadn’t worked with a mother who breastfed her children, let alone someone who felt so strongly about the issue, but after just one visit she was reading up on the science, emotional aspects and general practicalities of breastfeeding. Head of Norland Agency, Rebekah Frankcom, underlines the importance of a good match: ‘Our clients are based all over the world, and as every family is unique, it’s our job to match their requirements with the right Norlander.’ 

Culture. Consider your background and who might be the best fit for your household. Lunachild’s Charlotte explains to me that Emirati and American families tend to prefer British nannies due to their training, however there is a rising demand for bilingual and multilingual nannies, with those from Spain, Portugal, France and Italy becoming increasingly popular. Meanwhile ten different language options are available through Nanny & Butler’s bilingual nanny service.

Photo: Norland College

Personality. Being good with children isn’t enough. Lunachild’s Lucy notes: ‘It goes beyond a passion for working with children and really takes an understanding of how families work and being flexible to their needs and [those of] their children’. The shopping list of ingredients which make up a good nanny are endless but look for the key staples:

  • Positivity and energy.
  • Organisation – someone who thinks ahead, stays ahead of the curve, who cooks for tomorrow and prepares for the worst.
  • Trustworthiness – a mutual respect between the nanny and the parents. As Zoe, a friend’s nanny and herself a Norlander explains to me, ‘A nanny who feels she isn’t trusted may resent the parents and will most likely leave. Trust is incredibly important’. 
  • Communication – a nanny who keeps their employers updated on their child’s progress and daily life. Photos and comments in a nanny diary are not just cute keepsakes for the parents but can help on a practical level, for example in identifying allergens and recording medicine intake to avoid overdoses.
  • Confidence – someone who is confident enough to take the lead and discipline in an appropriate manner. As Lunachild’s Lucy puts it: ‘Confidence plays a huge role … a wallflower just couldn’t hack it. We look for Nannies that can demonstrate to us how they will go in and take complete control of any household, and this often includes managing other staff with regards to the child’s needs such as laundry, cooking and schedule’.
Photo: Norland College

Trial and no error. When you’ve found your match start with a telephone / Skype conversation, follow with a face to face interview (Norland has more great tips on interviews here) and insist on a trial period. A trial phase takes the pressure off both sides in case things are not working out as planned or a readjustment is required.

Photo: Norland College

Getting started

A fair contract for all. Set out a clear, legally recognised contract with working hours, house rules and salary, and stick to it. (Legal responsibilities vary from country to country but a good template from the UK can be found on the Norland website).  If you want extra ad hoc babysitting here and there, write it into the contract. Otherwise expect flexibility on both sides, or expect your nanny to quit. Don’t demand the impossible. It’s everyone’s interest to make sure the job is manageable, safe, and fair.

mary poppins disney photoDon’t expect her to sweep the chimney. Photo by ross_hawkes

Terms of address. Ask yourself how you see your nanny fitting into your family’s lifestyle. While a good nanny will remain professional no matter how friendly they become with the family, terms of address set the path ahead. In most spanish speaking environments I have come across parents prefer to be addressed as ‘Senora’, whereas in the UK it varies wildly from ‘Lady…’ to ‘Mrs…’, to first names. It may seem cold to be addressed as ‘Mrs …’ but for some, first names can can imply a lack of professionalism. It’s certainly easier to go from formal to colloquial, than the other way round.

parent photo

Consistency. From day one make sure your partner, your nanny and anyone else involved in your child’s education is on the same page. When one parent sets the discipline bar higher than the other it is confusing for the child, as well as the nanny. As Zoe points out: ‘A confused child can quickly become a disrespectful child… consistency is key’.

nanny photo

Progress checks. A good agency should help every step of the way, from the initial settling in phase, to ongoing checks in the host country. While you might think everything is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, your nanny may feel differently. Lunachild runs twice monthly check-ins for the first six months and links nannies with ambassadors and other nannies to help them settle into their new host country. Meanwhile Norlanders follow a professional development programme keeping them up to date with the latest developments in everything from emotion coaching, reflexology and postnatal depression, as well as more traditional refresher courses.

happy parents photo

For every horror story there are many, many more Mary Poppins out there. Like a good teacher, anyone who has lived with nannies in their childhood will always remember and cherish the truly great ones. A British politician, Jacob Rees-Mogg, even took his former nanny campaigning.

Becky was temporary for us as we are embarking on a new expat adventure. Now I realise more than ever how much she helped. You don’t need a good nanny to bring up wonderful children, but it certainly helps the parents.

happy parents photo

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