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In Search of Super Nanny

How to Hire a Nanny
How to Hire a Nanny

Jocelyn Lucas Rosenberg's maternity leave was almost up, and it was time to hire a sitter for Nina, her 3-month-old daughter. After interviewing a dozen candidates, the mom from Brooklyn offered the position to a seemingly wonderful woman. "She appeared to be an open, gentle person, and her references had wonderful things to say about her," says Rosenberg.

It wasn't until she had been on the job for a few months that Rosenberg learned the horrible truth from the other sitters in the neighborhood. Instead of going to the park during the day, she was leaving the neighborhood, baby in tow, to spend time with her boyfriend. It even turned out that the references who had sung her praises were fake. "When I found out, I felt like I was the worst parent in the world," Rosenberg says. Luckily, Nina was fine. Rosenberg fired the sitter immediately and has since found one she loves and trusts.

The moral of this story: If you're looking at licensed childcare facilities, chances are that the city or state has run background checks on caregivers for you. But if you're hiring a babysitter or nanny to watch your child in your home, you'll need to play the detective. It may seem strange to investigate someone who you hope will become almost as close to you as a family member. But even though it's expensive and time-consuming, the security you'll gain from having your questions answered will set the stage for a much better working relationship -- and help ensure the safety of your child.

1. Know what you're looking for. If you want this choice position, have a cheery disposition.... Do those words sound familiar? They're the first lines of the most famous Help Wanted ad ever written -- the one that resulted in the employment of Mary Poppins herself. So, just like little Jane and Michael Banks did (and really, you can't argue with their results), begin your search by making a list of the qualities, skills, and duties that matter most to you. Then write a detailed ad. Even if you're not planning to place it anywhere, there's nothing like being forced to really focus on whether "Must Drive" or "Must Love Pets" comes first or to ponder whether there is a person who is both "Mature and High Energy." If you do place an ad, these parameters will weed out people who don't have the skills you're looking for (making your job easier) and, most important, help keep you focused while you're interviewing and checking references.

2. Interview references. To get a clear picture of the person you're thinking of hiring, speak with as many former employers as you can. Always be direct and specific. "Try asking questions that will get detailed answers like: 'Describe three things the nanny did to have fun with the kids,' or 'Can you tell me about a time when the children needed to be disciplined and how she handled it?'" says Lawrence Pfaff, PhD, professor of psychology at Spring Arbor University, in Michigan, and an employment consultant. And remember, nobody is perfect, so make it your goal to elicit at least one negative from everyone you talk to. Questions like: "What was the one thing that annoyed you most?" or "What was her best and worst quality?" can help you dig a little deeper for information that references won't necessarily volunteer on their own.

Be just as direct about possible criminal behavior, says Mary Cagnetta, executive vice president of Mind Your Business, a background investigation firm in Warren, New Jersey. Ask whether there were any signs of substance abuse and whether there was ever trouble with long-distance calls or absenteeism. Many families feel protective of former caregivers, warts and all, so they might not offer up this kind of information without being asked point-blank.

Finally, be on the lookout for bogus references -- such as a friend masquerading as a former employer. "That's the biggest problem we run into when we screen nannies," says Pat Cascio, president of Morningside Nannies, an agency in Houston. Fakes often give themselves away by bungling details about employment dates and children's ages. Make sure information from the reference and the caregiver match up.

3. Do a background check. This may feel awkward, but it's routine in the workplace, and it's important that you think of yourself as an employer. Plus, if a person has nothing to hide, she's not going to mind. Though it's expensive -- about $100! -- it's really the only way to find out many of the things that fill a mom with dread. If you're going to do it, make sure it's a thorough investigation that includes a search of criminal records, a Social Security-number verification, and a driving-record check. Tread carefully when it comes to online investigation agencies. Many only look at the records available on the Internet, which comprise just a small percentage of actual criminal files. "If it says 'nationwide criminal check,' that's a real red flag. There's no such thing," says Lynn Peterson, founder of PFC Information Services, a background-checking agency. There's an FBI database, but it's incomplete, and doesn't include misdemeanors that parents need to know about, like shoplifting, petty theft, or assault.

Typically, you'll need your candidate's written consent and Social Security number; the check will take three or four days to complete. The good news is that most reports come back clean -- only about 7 percent of background checks that Peterson runs turn up criminal problems -- most of them misdemeanors. If you're considering hiring someone who is not legally permitted to work in the United States, you're not going to be able to do an effective check because most undocumented workers don't have a Social Security number. Though there's really no less expensive or more hassle-free way to obtain this kind of information, you could bluff and say that you intend to do a background check -- this might scare off those that have something to hide.

4. Find out the wheel deal. Will your nanny be driving your car? If so, you need to be sure that she has a license and a perfect or near-perfect driving record. If you hire an agency or investigator to do a background investigation, it usually includes a driving-record check. If not, ask a serious candidate to order a copy of her driving record and show it to you. (You can't legally access this for another person.) She can get a copy for a small fee through your state Department of Motor Vehicles and she may be able to order it online. (Offer to help with the paperwork or provide computer access to make things easy.)

5. Review her credentials. Most of the qualities you want -- love, patience, and reliability -- can't be taught in a class. But some important skills can. All childcare providers should be trained in child and infant CPR and first aid (and so should you!). If either of you are missing this important credential, it's an easy fix. Your local Y or community center probably has a course for about $60. To find one near you, go to redcross.org.

6. Make sure she loves kids. It goes without saying that you want a sitter who is in the business because she adores children. But how do you know for sure? Listen to how she talks about kids she's cared for in the past. "Sometimes nannies bring photo albums they've made or describe how they still get holiday cards from the children," Cascio says. When you're close to making a decision, invite the candidate to spend a couple of hours with your kids. This isn't always an easy situation -- both parties can feel scrutinized and self-conscious, so take the awkwardness factor into consideration as you check out their interaction. One way to make it less forced is to give the encounter a little structure. If you have a baby, have the nanny give a bottle or feed her. With an older child, enlist him to give a house tour or suggest they play a favorite game. Then, without getting in the way (maybe do a little inconspicuous housework), pay attention to the overall vibe and try to pick up on some of the specifics: Does she seem engaged, interested, and confident? Does spending time with your children seem to make her happy? Do your kids seem to respond well to her?

7. Listen to your gut, kind of. When your intuition tells you not to hire someone, go with it. "If something doesn't feel right, then don't second-guess yourself," says Susan Tokayer, director of Family Helpers, a caregiver placement agency in Dobbs Ferry, New York. If you have a bad feeling, then the situation most likely won't work out anyway, even if the caregiver is, objectively speaking, perfectly qualified. But don't be tempted to hire someone you really like without conducting a thorough check -- even if your inner voice says, "She's fabulous."

8. You've got the pieces, now put them together. After all the interviewing, reference checking, and investigating, how do you finally decide on "the one"? What should you do if you don't have as many references as you'd like or you couldn't conduct an official background check? "Put together everything you know, look at it carefully, and then make an informed decision," says Cagnetta. If your first choice doesn't have a Social Security number and you can't check her background, look at her references extra carefully. Find out whether anyone you know well has worked with her or seen her on the job.

The bottom line is that even after you've hired someone -- no matter how much checking you've been able to do -- you need to be alert and make sure she's living up to her promise. Drop in unexpectedly, ask friends to keep an eye out. If all goes well (and it usually does) you'll soon be asking yourself, "How did my family ever live without this wonderful person?"

You've finally found your dream childcare provider -- wouldn't it be tragic if you accidentally drove her into the home of a more nanny-friendly family?

Your relationship with the person who watches your children is the most important (and possibly the trickiest) professional relationship you'll ever have. In many ways, your babysitter is a member of your family. But you're still her boss -- and you want to keep your employee happy so you can continue to reap the benefits of her expert car-seat buckling, Lego building, lunch making, and tantrum soothing. The person you don't want to be: the mom who -- oops -- lost her nanny in 10 days. How would you do that?

Arriving home late on a regular basis. Even worse, you don't even call to tell her you won't be on time.

Reality check: Nannies have lives, appointments, and families too. Try to be prompt whenever you can, and if you can't, at least give her the courtesy of a phone call and pay her for the extra time (depending on how late you actually need her to stay).

Expecting her to be Supernanny (or, at least, a better parent than you could be). Sure, sometimes it's hard for you to get your child to stop crying, nap for a full three hours, eat all her veggies, and stay dirt-free at the playground -- but your nanny is a paid professional. Shouldn't she be able to handle it?

Reality check: Kids will be kids, and nannies are human. Don't have ridiculous expectations that even you can't meet. On the other hand, you are paying her, so while you might try to multitask by putting your kid in front of the TV for a few minutes while you check your e-mail, your babysitter should always be on duty.

Paying her less than the going rate. Who doesn't love a good bargain?

Reality check: You get what you pay for. Trying to hire someone on the cheap can backfire -- this will be the person who is either perpetually unhappy on the job or who is just biding her time until she gets a better offer. You don't need to splurge, just consult with other moms or call your local nanny agency to find out what's considered a fair wage in your community. And expect to pay her for vacation and holidays too.

Creating a vibe that makes her feel like a stranger in your home. You put your fridge off-limits and don't let her make any personal phone calls, period.

Reality check: Your nanny is your new part-time family member. A simple offer like suggesting she help herself to the Fudgsicles in the freezer could be all it takes to make her feel welcome.

Making it clear that you don't trust her. You ask her to keep a minute-by-minute log of your child's activities -- in case you don't get to call and check in every hour to make sure she's on schedule.

Reality check: If you can't trust your nanny, find someone else. The fact that you're leaving her alone with your children on a regular basis means you can't micromanage. If you're suspicious that she's doing something wrong, talk to her about it immediately. Don't be an annoying helicopter boss (don't hover!).