Nanny versus Granny: How to Make it Work

building of cardsIn Hong Kong the nannies try to avoid jobs where the grandmother lives with the family. Too much conflict, too much overseeing.

For Americans, grandparents who fly in or visit their grandchildren sporadically or even regularly, the relationship with the nanny is also tricky. Unless the grandparent is the full time caretaker of the children, the parents are dependent on the nanny for the welfare of their family.

Much as grandparents might hate to admit it, the nanny is actually more crucial to the family’s well-being than they are. The parents cannot get to work and therefore can’t keep their jobs, unless the nanny is reliable and keeps their children safe.

The nanny is holding up the house of cards that is every family with young children and in which parents work outside the home.

Having Different Agendas

Grandparents often find it difficult to admit they don’t want to be fulltime caretakers. Many grandparents feel they have done their time and want to enjoy the freedom they have earned. Others can’t take on this responsibility because they are also working or are geographically distant.

The result they may not have anticipated is that some stranger (non-family member) might take precedence over them in the lives of their grandchildren. When the kids go to the nanny for comfort or prefer the nanny’s company, grandparents can feel hurt.

By the same token, when the children run to the grandparents, the nanny may feel a tinge of jealousy or feel that they are declaring she is not a loving mommy substitute.

These antithetical and common emotions complicate the relationship between grannies and nannies. Yet, if managed carefully, the babysitter and the grandparent can be resources to each other.

Making It Work

When grandparents do enter the scene, they should be careful not to disrupt the routine. Ask the nanny how they can be helpful. It is important to build trust with the nanny.

Remember, for the nanny this is her job, her income, she may be supporting her family and therefore is it is very threatening to have a third party seeing her every move.

To the nanny, the grandparent’s loving presence may feel like a human “Nanny Cam.”

The first step in creating a good relationship is for both the nanny and the grandparent to recognize their own complex feelings.

  • To the nanny, the grandmother has the power to ruin her career.
  • To the grandmother, the nanny has the power to ruin her grandchildren.

If the grandparent wants to get along with the adult children, s/he must get along with their nanny. Kindness and polite gestures are always a good beginning. Bringing the nanny a small gift or sending a holiday card or email can help smooth the relationship. The nanny can make the grandmother’s favorite food or ask her to help with an activity she enjoys.

The nanny should stay out of family conflicts. She can be a sounding board but should not attempt to intervene. Family relationships are complex and rarely understandable to an outsider.

Being a Good Guest

The grandparent is a visitor in his or her child’s home. It might be hard for the grandparent to admit that this is their child’s castle, not their own. The roles are now reversed. The parents and the nanny rule the roost, and the grandparents are an addition.

Like any good guest, the grandparent does not have the right to disrupt the daily routine and should never criticize the nanny. If s/he disagrees with the nanny’s methods, perhaps she props the baby’s bottle and the grandparent finds this intolerable. S/he should discuss these concerns with the parents. The nanny may have good reason for her actions. The child may have reflux, or perhaps she needed to both feed the baby and chase the toddler.

The grandparent can offer assistance and can help if the offer is well received, but is not the master of the house. When nanny gives clear and specific instructions to the grandparent about how they can be helpful, it lessens tension.

The grandparent is most helpful when she knows about the changes in parenting trends and in the environment. The more the grandparent understands the parameters of the family environment, the more s/he can be a person the nanny might want to consult.

For example, while the grandmother may have limited her children’s’ TV time, the parent and nanny are managing a much more diverse array of screens and their potential dangers. Nannies and grandparents can discuss these issues, but not dispute each other’s opinions.

Showing Respect

Adults will differ on what they consider the best way to navigate any childrearing issue. None of us knows the absolute best way to bring up children. Everyone makes frequent decisions on the continuum between discipline and mercy, between routine and spontaneity, and between keeping the peace for moment and teaching a lesson for the future.

Nannies and grandparents must use sensitivity and put themselves in each other’s places. Both are supporting actors and essential to the wellbeing of the children. The grandparents do well to assure that they are not a villain who enters, takes center stage, creates turmoil and leaves. The nanny, like all good actresses, must play her part but leave room on the stage for the grandparent.


By Ruth Nemzoff, Ed.D.

Author and Speaker:
Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with your Adult Children and Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family

Resident Scholar, Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University

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