Hiring a trained nanny is a serious investment when salaries for less experienced professionals start at HK$15,000. But solicitor C. Ng, who employed a nanny to look after her two children until she began working part-time a few years ago, says the expense was worth it.
'Having a trained nanny gives me peace of mind,' she says. 'As a working mother, I wanted to rely on a professional nanny rather than face the distraction of having to call home and give instructions to a domestic helper every 30 minutes.
'I didn't just want someone who could make sure my children ate at certain times or wore enough clothes. I wanted someone sensible who could stand up to my kids so that I could give them some aspects of a mother's concern even though I wasn't at home.'
Demand for nanny services, part-time and full-time, is rising, says Shirley Robinson of recruitment agency Rent-A-Mum. Working parents often seek professional help because they're reluctant to leave their children in the care of a domestic helper who isn't trained in childcare or childhood education, she says. Although most employers used to be wealthy expats, Chinese now make up a growing number of families hiring nannies, say major recruitment agencies, including the Nanny Experts and Annerley.
'More Chinese employers want a nanny to help improve their children's language skills,' says Janine Canham, director of the Nanny Experts. In many cases, they want help with English, although most of Canham's clients are looking for part- time Chinese nannies to teach Putonghua because they realise its importance for the child's future.
Full-time nannies, who usually work 10-hour days in a five-day week, tend not to live with the family. Live-in arrangements are mostly for temporary nannies hired when parents go abroad without the children. 'It depends on the parents' work schedule. If they have long working hours and an extra room, they may want to have a live-in nanny to take care of their children,' says Deborah Taylor, director of Annerley. 'But some parents may want to have time just with their children rather than always having a nanny around.'
Experienced nannies are mainly from Britain, Australia and New Zealand, where there are specialist courses, and command monthly salaries of up to HK$40,000. Professionals from other countries usually hold degrees in early childhood education.
Edith Lemardelee, who has worked as a nanny in Hong Kong since 1994, holds a degree in social work and is also a qualified nurse. Chinese parents typically turn to western nannies because they want to expose their children to a different culture and learn to adapt to people from a different background, says the Frenchwoman, who looked after Ng's two children.
Chinese parents should be culturally aware when hiring an expat nanny, Lemardelee suggests. 'I respect Chinese culture. But it's also important for parents to be more open to communicating with their western nanny about their children's upbringing' because they may have different expectations,
Chinese families tend to concentrate on their children's academic success, but sometimes forget other aspects of their upbringing such as playing with friends and letting children express themselves through art, she says.
Besides ensuring the children's well-being, nannies are required to foster their physical, intellectual and social development. Lemardelee's daily duties, for example, include organising play dates, making sure children do their homework and arranging activities such as swimming and rock climbing so they have a balanced lifestyle.
Organising educational and fun outings is an important part of the routine for Australian-born nanny Rebecca Schott, who worked in London before coming to Hong Kong. Most of her time is spent outdoors with her young charges, getting them to play ball games and swim instead of watching television. 'I've seen many children in Hong Kong addicted to electronic games and television. Studies show that this may damage their health ankd concentration,' Schott says. 'I hope to teach children from a young age to live a healthy, active life so they're more likely to follow through with that outlook in later years.'
Lemardelee aims to instil some discipline so the children won't be spoiled. For example, she teaches children how to become independent by asking them to do small chores such as putting their soiled clothing in a laundry basket rather than leaving it on the floor for the helper to pick up.
'There's nothing as frustrating as a 'child emperor',' Lemardelee says. 'A child can be allowed to cry. He also must learn to take 'no' for an answer; he has to realise he doesn't always get what he wants. I try to teach my charges respect for people, not just their family members but also helpers, teachers and friends.' Besides western nannies, there has been a big increase in demand for part-time Putonghua-speaking nannies. 'Most of our clients want their children to become proficient in Putonghua, the language of tomorrow,' says Canham, who also employs a part-time Chinese nanny for her three-year-old twins.
'Parents realise how beneficial it is for their children to learn Putonghua at a young age. If they learn it later, for example one or two hours a week in school, it'll be harder to pick up.'
Canham says parents often prefer a nanny to a tutor because besides helping with the children's language skill, she can help discipline them and take them to a doctor when they're ill.
Television executive Brenda Li Kit-ling is one such parent. Instead of sending her seven-year-old daughter to Putonghua classes, she employs a part-time nanny from Taiwan for HK$320 an hour.
'I want a native speaker who can improve my daughter's language skills in a fun way, but I don't want just a tutor,' Li says. 'I want a decent nanny who can teach her manners; I won't allow my daughter to run wild around the house, throwing things and having tantrums.'
That's not to say she's giving up her responsibilities as a parent. 'No matter how professional a nanny is, she can't replace a mother,' Li says. 'If I didn't have to work, I'd take care of my daughter myself. As a mother, I want to spend as much time with my child as possible.'
On the nannies' part, saying goodbye to their young charges at the end of a contract is difficult. 'It's hard to leave a job as you leave a child behind,' Lemardelee says.
Lemardelee tries to stay in touch with children she has looked after. Two of her charges are now 19 and 23. 'It's nice to see how they grow and that they don't forget me,' she says.
'Being a nanny is a demanding job, but it's great to go home thinking you have made a difference in a child's life.'