Interview with Nannypalooza Pres. & Founder Sue Downey

August 29, 2016

Sue Downey experienced nanny, president and co-founder of Nannypalooza, an international nanny training conference discusses the industry and why her conference is so vital when it comes to the ongoing training and education of nannies and childcare professionals.

Interview with Sue Downey, President and Founder of the Nannypalooza Nanny Traning Conference & Community

by Clarke Illmatical

Nannypalooza, how did that get started?

“It came out of a training event… a lot of nanny cities have local groups. And they do get togethers and I said: We should do something like this. INA has a conference, it’s a great conference but it’s a little more expensive for what I would call the average working nanny. I thought that there was a way to do the same sort of thing and provide that same kind of training and support and community, but at a price along the lines of what an average nanny makes. It’s come a long way. This is the 11th year, this year, and I’m very pleased. Not only do we have the conference, but we do have a community, so when problems happen, there are lots of relationships that are made, you know you’re not alone. You can read books about childcare, and you can go college to learn child development… but there’s no place other than nanny training… where you can learn about the dance between and employee and being a family member or where you can talk about what it’s like to be alone with an infant all day long, with nothing else to support you… What I try to do is offer workshops for nannies that they can use right away… The next day, when they go to work, it can change not only their mental outlook for the day, and rejuvenate them, but also practical things about things to do with the kids or discipline techniques or sensory activities… it’s empowering to know that you’re not the only person out there. This year we’re going to have about 150 people, it’s our biggest one yet. We’re close to selling out and that’s exciting. I just did one in Australia for the first time and then next year, I’m going to do one here in the states and then one in London! It’s a unique thing, it’s a professional conference, but we’re nannies… While we’re definitely serious about what we’re talking about we also have a lot of fun. I try to keep the cost down so that it’s affordable… It’s a relatively inexpensive weekend for nannies to come and they get about six or seven hours of training in a weekend.

Based on my discussions with childcare professionals, there are a number of changes that need to be made in the industry. What are your thoughts?

“The problem, at least in the United States, I just got back from Australia and they are in a similar place, it’s going to change faster there because they have a program where the government is subsidizing some nanny care for certain individuals, that will cause some changes to happen. Especially here in the states, I think one of the big things has always been that it’s hard to define what nanny care is. There’s no minimum standard. There is no clear definition of what a nanny versus a babysitter, versus in-home childcare. There are very blurry lines. The reason that is, there is no minimum standard. There is no standard set for who should be left alone with kids and what that entails. I think that is a big issue. What comes along with that is what I kind of do, which is, not only do we need a minimum standard, but we need ways to have individuals meet that standard and then also excel and get better and better. That comes with training and support and those kinds of things. I started off trying to get minimum standards set and that proved to more than what I could do… It’s a big issue and it’s a big problem because it’s such an unregulated industry. And there are so many different viewpoints about all of it. It was very difficult, that’s how Nannypalooza came out of that process.”

You mentioned Australia. When you look at European countries, most have better maternity leave programs. Here, there is no support for the family, which has an effect on the workers. There is no support for the workers. The invisible workers…

“They are invisible workers but there is also a schism in the nanny industry. Nannies that look like me and have college are not quite so invisible. They are thought of as a luxury. And then there are a lot of workers who don’t look like me, who don’t speak the way that I speak or have the experiences I do, who are just as necessary, and not necessarily a luxury to families…I think in some ways it is a government problem. But I think it’s a bigger societal problem in that… there’s economic disparity involved, there are some things about diversity involved, there is some racism involved, there are all of these things. The nanny industry is kind of a microcosm for a lot of those kinds of problems and so, I think that is one of the reasons the government is hesitant to get involved. They get involved a lot easier with the school setting or even in-home daycare has minimum standards in the United States. They have to get licensed, they have to meet certain standards and certain guidelines, but I think that people think of it as a luxury even though it’s not a luxury. There is this sort of middle ground of these dual income professionals… I don’t know how they can have kids and have careers that cause them to work ten hour days with a commute, there is no school that can provide that kind of care… The Australian government has figured out that, there is this middle place, the day schools and the preschools can’t quite meet that level of care and yet, these families aren’t making enough to pay $30 an hour for a nanny, and so that is where they are starting their focus.

If nanny reform happens, do you think it also has to happen with the parents? Do you think parents should meet criteria before they can hire a nanny?

“Yeah, I think it’s no so much the government that needs to do it. I think it’s the nanny industry first. I think if we set a minimum standard and were able to present to the world, this is what a nanny is and this is everything he or she should be able to know and be able to do and be able to perform. If we could say: This is nanny care. Then we could conversely say, to have nanny care you need to be able to pay this minimum… and you need to provide these minimum benefits. To me, that’s where it comes into place. If we can say, this is the minimum and this is what you have to provide, to get this level of care, then we can also say: If you want this kind of care then is what you need to need to provide. Parents are always going to try and find the best care they can for the least that they can pay. Buf if there was a clearer definition of what was safe and healthy and right for the children in that care, I think parents would pay attention to that. I think we could then change it. That’s how change happens. The in-home day cares, that’s how it happened, they said, the best of want everyone to know, not everyone should be at home alone with kids and this is what that should look like… Unless the government had a lot more resources to crack down on these things, there is always going to be somebody out there probably who might be doing it the wrong way. If parents are present with a clear definition of why it’s important that a nanny knows all of the things that a nanny should know… I think you could change things that way. It takes a lot of time and work, but I think that’s the way to go with it. I think the problem with asking the government to do it is, the government doesn’t know…”

What’s it going to take for the government to get involved? Is there anyone in the government that you’re trying to get involved?

“Well I’m personally not, but I think it would be great if we could. I’m a little disillusioned right now with that since we can’t get reasonable gun reform and people are shooting at schools. These incidents, where a nanny… something happens, those incident have been going on for a long time. I’ve been in this industry 20 years, I’ve heard stories like that my whole career. They get a lot of attention and then they go away… Even if the government got involved, it all comes back down to… that comes along with educating parents on how to screen, how to interview, how to check up on the nanny. I’m not saying that it couldn’t help, it would help. I would love to see the government get involved. I just don’t think it’s going to happen… that’s why I do so much with training with Nannypalooza, I feel like that a lot of times there are people in this job where accidents do happen and they could be prevented if we had more support for people who are doing it. If we had more training opportunities, if there was more support for people who are home all day alone with children and with the best of intentions but maybe haven’t had the opportunities to learn.”

You mentioned qualifications. If someone wants to be serious about being a nanny, should they join the INA?

“The INA is the only organization we have right now, I don’t know that you necessarily have to join it, but you definitely should at least know about it. And I think that it boils down to having CPR and first aid for infants and children. That should be mandatory for anyone who’s alone with children for any bit of time. I wish all parents, not just nannies but everyone who has kids should have that… I think you need to have a basic understanding of child development. Ages and stages, what can be expected. I think that you have to have some experience with children, in different sort of capacities. Maybe you were a babysitter for some years and provided custodial care. Maybe you’ve taught preschool… you need to have some experience with kids. It’s not something that you can just read about in a book necessarily. I think you have to understand about different cultures because you’re walking into a home where the culture is different from yours by definition. Every family has their own sort of ethos.”

The nanny’s role. Is she an employee and a family member?

“That is really what is the most difficult part of most nanny’s jobs. It’s a very fine balance to dance back and forth between that. Every parent I know wants their kids to be loved. That’s really important. When you start loving the children you become part of the family, but at the same time, you’re an employee to those parents. It’s hard for parents and it’s hard for nannies to straddle that line, between setting boundaries, between knowing that ultimately that the parents are the parents… there are times you do things and it isn’t the way you would do them but it’s the way the parents want them done. A nanny’s job by definition means that at some point she’s going to leave. Severing that tie, or figuring out how it’s going to change is a very difficult thing. Because that really is the point, you’re not a member of the family because a member of the family doesn’t leave. It’s very difficult. I think it’s one of the things a lot of nannies struggle with, it’s one of the things that’s the root of a lot of frustration for parents and nannies… It’s very hard when you love a child and you would do anything for those kids, but then at the same time you have to go and ask for a raise, or you have to complain about vacation time, for parents it feels like, you’re having fun and you love us. At the same time, you’re an employee. It’s a very interesting dance that you have to do.”

Shouldn’t parents who are educating themselves about their children and their nannies, shouldn’t they encourage their nannies to attend your conference?

“Yes, and they should be paying for it. It’s a small investment. Literally for a nanny to come, even if she had to fly, it’s less than $500 for the weekend. You get seven hours if they can drive it’s $185 dollars for the weekend, plus the hotel for a night or two. It’s a small investment for families that are paying 30K or 40K a year for their nanny… Not only do the nannies learn, but they bring that back to the home… they’ll be in a conversation or workshop and see this person has that same problem and this is what they’ve tried. It’s a great way for parents to get information and it also, as an employer, most professionals get professional development dollars, towards their careers, doctors, lawyers, even receptionists. There are conferences for all of those professionals and it gives you information, but it also inspires you. It gets you rededicated to your profession… The level of care that you get between the nanny that is excited to be at work on Monday and the nanny that’s there because she has to be, that’s a huge difference to that child.”

If a nanny does her job correctly, does that threaten the mother?

It can for some moms… there’s so many things that can threaten the mom, you can feel guilty all the time because you’re at work, you can feel guilty if you’re at home and not happy because you want to be at work. You can get criticized for so many things… I think that it can for some moms, be difficult and if that’s the case, maybe nanny-care is not a good fit for them… I think that if you have a great nanny and you have a great relationship with that nanny and you’re both on the same wavelength, you can support each other and everybody can win. I’ve always looked at being a nanny as not only being dedicated to the children but being dedicated to the family… I think most nannies try to make sure that the family is supported. That’s why we chip in and do things that aren’t always in the job description or do things that also help the home. If the mom is happy, the kids that I love are happier. Everybody wins… it can be difficult, it’s hard for all of us at different times. In the end, it’s about finding a good fit and if you find a good fit, then I think it’s easier then to deal with those feelings and also admitting them sometimes… we’re a team we can do it. It’s all about keeping what’s best for the child in the forefront. If we have that in mind, we can work out the adult issues.

For more information about the Nannypalooza Nanny Training Conference and Community visit:

Sue Downey President and Founder of Nannypalooza Nanny Training Conference

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