“Part of it is just a shorthand way of saying what you’re looking for, and what qualities you’d like to instill in your children,” the book editor continued. “Before I knew that Tibetan nannies were a status thing, a friend’s friend was telling me that they were the very best. You hear that Filipina nannies are the best because they have a history of being caretakers in the Philippines. You hear that Caribbean nannies are a bit tough, so they’re good if you have an unruly child with discipline issues.”
Lucy Kaylin, the executive editor of Marie Claire and author of The Perfect Stranger: The Truth About Mothers and Nannies, explained that many mothers are simply grasping at anything in the arsenal that might help them make what is at base a very emotional decision.
“As a good liberal, I certainly recoil at the labeling of people based on where they come from,” Ms. Kaylin said. “But among the mommy ranks it is strongly felt that you can make these distinctions. Some of the more common stereotypes that you hear are that Filipina nannies are deferential and quiet, whereas Caribbean nannies might be more inclined to be assertive about how the child should be dealt with. You hear that Latina nannies are very affectionate, and that English nannies and German nannies will run a tight ship.”
“When it comes to this high-risk critical juncture in your life as a family, you find people talking in terms that they would never normally use in polite society,” Ms. Kaylin continued. “Mothers caught in the grip of the nanny search can get a bit crazy. You’re desperate for clarity and information, and you find yourself poking around in realms of your psyche that you thought were well sealed off.”
Though much—some say most—nanny-hiring in the New York area is done illegally, the directors of Manhattan’s nanny-placement agencies are quick to point out that requesting a nanny from a particular nation or ethnic group runs afoul of U.S. anti-discrimination laws.
Joan Friedman, who has run the A Choice Nanny placement agency with her husband since 1991, said that she frequently hears requests from families for a nanny from a particular ethnic group.
“I don’t think people are trying to discriminate,” Ms. Friedman said. “I think it’s a simple lack of education about what the laws are in terms of discrimination. It’s funny. I’ll get a call from a family one day saying, ‘Please get us a Filipina nanny no matter what.’ And then the next day I’ll get a call saying, ‘We’ll take anything but a Filipina nanny.’ But there are a number of things that we’re not allowed to address with our nannies. For example, we can’t ask her whether she’s married or has children or what her religion is. And these are all things that are important to many people when they’re having someone working in their home.”
Cliff Greenhouse, the president of the Pavillion Agency, a Manhattan nanny agency, said that he can only field requests for nannies from a specific ethnic group if there is “a bona fide educational reason.”
“It certainly is totally legal for families to have any nationality preferences that they wish, but as an employment agency we’re not allowed to search for people from a particular place unless it’s related to a bona fide occupational qualification,” Mr. Greenhouse said. “If there is a bona fide need for a nanny who is actually an expert in the Tibetan culture—that could be for religious reasons, or for dietary reasons—then that’s one thing. But when someone says to us, ‘I heard the Tibetan nannies are great,’ then that’s something else, and we can’t do that.
“I get lots of families in New York who want Mandarin Chinese culture and education in their homes, and of course that is a bona fide educational request,” Mr. Greenhouse continued. “We’re seeing this more and more. It’s a result of the growing number of extremely wealthy families who can afford to seek out and employ someone to teach their children a language. And as the pool of Tibetans doing household work grows, then people are starting to request them as nannies more. People love the Tibetans.”
Of course, people of different cultures do raise their children differently; that’s why there’s such a thing as culture. Could there be some grains of truth behind the current hype about Tibetan nannies?
Malika Browne, a diplomatic wife who had her baby two years ago while on a posting to Nepal, where there is a large Tibetan community, explained in an e-mail why she’d never considered hiring a Tibetan nanny.
“They are a matriarchal society and you do not want to mess with Tibetan women!” Ms. Browne wrote. “Plus, Tibetans are stupendously beautiful most of the time, and I would worry!”