For those who can afford them: a crop of American nannies

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

John Cheronis and Shirley Browner-Cheronis had a problem. They have a typically hectic life style that goes with a two-career marriage (they are both physicians), two children in different day care centers, and a hodgepodge of babysitters called at the last minute when sudden calls, beepers, and travel pulled them away. It wasn't working. What solved their problem? A nanny.

From helping older brother Chris (6) with his reading, to taking the boys to get haircuts, to squelching bathtub squabbles, 19-year old nanny Sandy Shores does nearly everything three-year-old Niko's parents would do if they were home.

``She's reliable,'' says Mrs. Browner-Cheronis, over a goulash dinner Miss Shores has made. ``And she's here all the time. My schedule is so flexible with being on call. I can tell Sandy I'm on call, and to please hang around. I don't have to take the kids someplace if I get called.''

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The Browner-Cheronises aren't alone in their needs. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 8 million working mothers with children under the age of 6. Finding suitable child care is a major national problem. For those who can afford it, having a trained person in the home full time has become an increasingly attractive option.

About 20 nanny schools have cropped up around the country in the last three years to supply ``child-care professionals'' versed in everything from Piaget to Pampers. Shores was trained at the National Academy of Nannies Inc., in Denver, founded by Terri Urich three years ago after she had to quit her management-training job because she couldn't find adequate care for her daughter.

While the traditional British nanny schools have a two-year curriculum, nanny courses in the United States generally last 12 to 15 weeks. (NANI's is 30 weeks.) At all of the US schools, the students are taught infant care, meal planning, child development, creative activities, and first aid. Part of the NANI training includes studying newborns at a hospital and helping with toddlers at a local preschool. At the Sheffield School for Nannies in Hopewell, N.J., in addition to teaching methods, the students learn how to set up a play space, select clothing, and manage a party.

``We believe a student should be able to help a kid through the school process,'' says founder Ellen Sheffield.

American nannies are likely to differ from their British counterparts in other ways: Their ``uniform'' is likely to be pink sweat shirts and white athletic shoes.

``A British nanny would not think twice about working round-the-clock,'' says Ms. Sheffield. ``American nannies are more conscious of their freedom and independence.''

Nevertheless, the nanny's place in the less formal American family is more than just taking care of the children - ``you learn how to be a good roommate, too,'' says Urich.

In NANI's program, students live with and work for a host family in Denver for free room and board. When they move in with their employing family, they have 12 weeks of on-the-job training, complete with periodic performance reviews, and written and oral exams.

The nanny schools, both private institutions and courses set up by community colleges, have turned out about 500 nannies in the last three years, according to Sheffield, who's also vice-president of the American Council of Nanny Schools. And they're snapped up, she says. The Sheffield School currently has 30 clients waiting for each nanny.

Trained nannies can expect to earn from $900 to $1400 a month, free room and board, two-week paid vacations, holidays, and other benefits, including travel. It can be a lucrative profession for someone taking a break from school.

One nanny, says Mrs. Urich, went to graduate school on the money she had saved.

Despite that, suitable candidates are not beating down the door. Several nanny schools have closed.

``Recruiting has been the hardest problem,'' says Sheffield. ``Why England can train 25,000 a year and we have to do triple somersaults to get people is beyond me.''

``The image of the nanny is notoriously undervalued,'' says Urich. ``Those who might go into the profession have the misconception that nannies are those who can't do anything else; that they're glorified babysitters. The other thing that we face is the belief that for a woman to be successful, she has to leave the house every day carrying a briefcase.''

The heavy demands the schools place on students might be another reason students aren't more attracted. Nannies-to-be are given psychological tests and background checks are made of criminal and driving records and academics.

``We lose 50 percent before we even start,'' says Sheffield. And the attrition rate runs 10 to 15 percent in the schools.

Once they make it through the gauntlet, the choice enables them to choose what part of the country they want to live in, and what age children to take care of. The job situations are as varied as the types of families. But nannies generally work about a 55-hour week, have their own rooms, and have two days off a week.

``Each situation is unique: Some parents want to come home at 6:00 and have the nanny be gone; others have them make dinner and eat with family,'' says Urich. ``One thing they all have to work on is the transitional time when the authority changes.''

Sandy Shores has no problem turning her charges over to the parents. She has dinner on the table at 6:20, and then scoots out for a 6:30 aerobics class, leaving John and Shirley with the children for the evening.

``I really enjoy it when they come home,'' she says. ``I'm like, `Hi guys, they're yours!'''

While Shores may clean up the breakfast dishes, cook dinner, and straighten up after the boys, she does no heavy cleaning. Nannies generally do not clean or cook, except for the children. But families can make whatever deal they want with the nanny, and many work out written job contracts.

``I know nannies that work 24 hours a day; they're in charge of the house, they're in charge of the kids,'' says Shores. For all this, they don't come cheap. Shores, at $900 a month for a 40-hour week (with overtime) - is on the low end of the scale.

``Yes, nannies are expensive,'' says Mr. Browner-Cheronis, ``but you have to factor in the intangibles. The idea of having two kids of different ages in day care, which is usually not in the same area, you're talking a logistical nightmare of getting them back and forth second only to the Normandy invasion.''

And, he says, when you figure the cost of having two children in day care, the cost of a nanny seems more reasonable.

Even so, the families that can afford nannies are ones with two working professionals bringing in a steady income.

``Not necessarily wealthy,'' says Urich. ``A family making $50,000 could afford a nanny if they shared her with another family.''

``Some families are ordinary people, like teachers,'' says Beverly Benjamin, president of American Nanny Plan, a nanny school and agency in Claremont, Calif. ``If you want to continue with your career, the mother figures she has to use her whole salary [for child care]. Then when the children are older and don't need a nanny, she's still in the mainstream of her career.''

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