How Nannies Set Boundaries At Work

Two adults supporting a child

Getting a nanny job is a huge accomplishment. Out of dozens of applicants, this family chose you to care for their children. 

But joining a household is intimate. It blurs the lines between professional and personal. That’s where strong boundaries come in. 

Setting boundaries at work, avoids confusion and conflicts, and helps the family get their needs met.   

Setting the stage for clear expectations

For any relationship to succeed, you need to be on the same page about the job and responsibilities. Set up a time to talk about expectations. 

Ask the family to list any duties that fall outside the care and safety of the children. The more specific, the better to make sure there are no surprises.

Then, tell them how you see the role. If your nanny definition doesn’t align with theirs, it’s best to put that on the table as soon as possible. 

Once you agree on a list of responsibilities, you’ll have the starting point of your nanny contract. Writing everything down eliminates conflicts. It gives you something to reference if a problem does crop up.

Working as a nanny means constantly navigating a changing environment. Children (especially babies) develop quickly. Parents are forever creating new rules or finding new parenting philosophies. This is especially true with discipline and schedules. 

Let’s say the family has a strict no-phones policy at the table. But when you try to enforce this rule, the child insists his parents let him have his phone on certain occasions. 

You raise the issue with the parents, who admit that, when meal-time gets hectic, they sometimes bend the rules. 

Boundaries around discipline need to be consistent, or it leads to power struggles between the nanny and the child. If whining to their parents routinely gets them 20 more minutes of screen-time, naturally, they’ll use the same technique on you. 

Help parents decide if a boundary is worthwhile by respectfully having them explain the intention behind it.

You might ask:  

  • What’s the goal for this particular boundary?
  • Is this a non-negotiable boundary?
  • How should I respond if the child ignores or fights this boundary?  

Non-negotiable boundaries aren't open for discussion, and there will be consequences if the child ignores it. Safety often falls into this category; wearing a bike helmet or a life jacket, for example. 

A negotiable boundary has more flexibility. Say the general rule is no sugar after 5 pm. But it's the day after hallowe’en. A negotiable boundary leaves room for discussion and flexibility between you and the child. 

This conversation shouldn’t be stressful. You’re all on the same team. You want the best care for the child and ironing out these details ensures that.  

Talking to employers about nanny “job creep” 

Certain responsibilities come with the territory, from making lunches to laundry to light housekeeping. However, there should be a conversation and compensation before a new task gets introduced.

Let’s say your nanny contract includes “running family errands.” There’s a difference between dropping off something at the post office for your family and buying a birthday gift for their mother-in-law. 

If you're starting to feel more like a personal assistant than a nanny, it’s time to speak up. Politely explain your understanding of this particular task as it appears in your contract.

A busy family might pile on the tasks without even noticing. Try talking to them about it. If the habit continues, it may be time to consider a new employer.

Separating the personal and the professional 

The nanny-family relationship is closer than most employee relationships. You’re working out of someone’s private home, enmeshed in their children’s lives.

That’s why setting boundaries with parents is so essential.  

There will be days when you feel more like friends than employee-employer. Come Friday, you likely breathe a collective sigh of relief that you’ve made it through another week.

Maybe you even share a glass of wine with your employer as you unpack the day. It’s a personal decision that depends on your comfort level. Remember, this person is still your boss. One drink is probably not a big deal, but you might want to draw the line at two. 

Likewise with becoming overly involved in your employer’s personal life. Offering an occasional sympathetic ear is one thing. But a family that over-shares about finances or their marriage puts you in an uncomfortable position. 

A nanny should never feel guilty about receiving their salary regardless of a family’s financial situation. Similarly, a parent who unloads about their partner puts you in an awkward position then next time you and their spouse interact.  

Instead, encourage them to reach out to a confidant. You might say, “It sounds like you have a lot on your plate right now. Maybe it’s time for a night out with a friend." 

Strong boundaries keep a nanny-family relationship friendly but drama-free.  

Remembering that boundaries go both ways

You are not your employer’s therapist. The opposite is also true. Suppose you experience a significant event like a death in the family or a breakup. In that case, it makes sense to share it with your employer.

But think twice about pouring out your heart to them or venting about your brother-in-law. 

Think of it this way: would you share this information with your boss if you were in the office? If the answer is no, turn to a close friend instead.

Honoring financial boundaries

There may be times when money is an issue. You get a sudden rent increase, or your car breaks down. It can be tempting to borrow money from your nanny family in these situations. 

Your family likely loves and feels protective of you and may feel obliged to help. But a loan from your employer further complicates an already complicated relationship.

Not only does it put them in an awkward position, but it also tips the power balance whenever money is involved. If you have trouble repaying the loan, things can get messy. Does it come out of your pay-check?

Respecting physical boundaries

Like any workplace, unwanted attention is a reality for many nannies. A home is an intimate setting. It makes it easier for a boundary to get crossed. 

It’s one thing to give or receive a hug after sharing exciting news. But any unwanted behavior or request is inappropriate. It can be a flirtatious comment, a hug that lasts too long, or a shoulder rub you didn’t ask for.

When this happens, it’s not uncommon for nannies to downplay or diminish harassing behavior. This person is your employer, and you need the job. The fear of losing your position or not being believed is legitimate. 

But no job is worth putting yourself at risk for—emotionally or physically. Learn the nanny laws in your state to find out how to handle the situation appropriately.   

Protecting yourself

No two nanny job descriptions are alike. Before starting any new job, we recommend using a nanny contract

A solid nanny contract will outline your responsibilities and eliminate the grey area. Setting boundaries at work protects you and the family.

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