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Raised by maids: how the UAE's nanny culture could be harming our children

Originally posted in Gulf News on 5 July 2020 by Joanna England

“It was the moment my husband rang me in the office and told me he’d just found our six-month-old baby alone in her high chair and gagging on chunks of raw carrot that I realised something had to give.

“Shockingly, our youngest child had been put at serious risk of choking because we’d left her with a housemaid who was not up to the task,” says Anne Browning*. The British mother of three had hired her home help several months earlier, and was certain she’d made the right choice.

“In our defence, we thought we’d taken sensible precautions. Our maid spoke excellent English and had completed a paediatric first-aid course – and I’d spent my three months of maternity leave coaching her meticulously in newborn and infant care. I’d also left strict instructions that no finger food was to be given unless I was present.”

While Anne was angry that her maid hadn’t followed her directions, she realised she wasn’t terribly surprised. “I’d left two vital components out of the equation,” she admits. “That is, if you want something done properly, you should always do it yourself – and outsourcing the most important job in the world to someone who isn’t a qualified nanny just isn’t a great idea. Ultimately, although our maid lost her job over the incident, we could have lost our daughter – an unthinkable consequence.”

Accidents in the home

Unfortunately, Anne is not alone in her experience – especially in matters of health and safety. Rashid Hospital in Dubai released a report stating that a massive 70 per cent of burn-related accidents involving children in the home had occurred while they were left in the care of housemaids.

Yet despite this revelation, 94% of families in Dubai employ a housemaid, according to KHDA figures, and it's impossible to ignore the fact that one of the biggest perks for families living in the UAE is the reasonably low cost incurred to employ a full-time helper in the home. For many working parents, having a live-in maid still seems like the perfect solution – especially if they have more than one child. Financially, it’s much cheaper to hire a maid to care for your children than it is to fork out money for two or three lots of nursery or daycare fees.

And for the most part, these domestic workers are an essential and valued element of the household. They provide support to mothers who don’t have extended families to rely on, they allow parents valuable ‘couple time’ and can make the home far less fraught and stressful. But as families are discovering, striking a balance between hands-on parenting and outsourcing to the helper is not always as easy as it sounds.

Children need parenting

Carmen Benton, a Dubai-based parent educator, has strong opinions on the matter. As a former primary school teacher, she’s seen first-hand the consequences that occur when too much responsibility is placed upon a housemaid. She says, “Children, especially those under the age of seven, need to be parented. And no housemaid, or teacher – however good they are – can act as a substitute for that. Time and time again, I see situations where the key moments in the day are farmed out to the hired help. These times are the school pick-up, homework, evening meals, bath time and bed.” Carmen points out, “Those who consistently leave these key responsibilities for the maid to deal with are missing out on providing their children with valuable life lessons. Meal times are when we teach our kids table manners and vital social skills, while bath time is when we show them the importance of personal hygiene.

Children falling behind with their schoolwork is another common scenario, says Carmen. “Simply put, homework should be something parents help their kids with. It really shouldn’t be left to a person who isn’t qualified to do it. When all these elements are missing, parents do start to experience problems with their children’s behaviour and performance.”

Losing control

Instilling discipline can be a big issue in households where maids are the main caregivers. Stay-at-home mum-of-two, Shasi Ahmed says, “I was originally working full-time when we hired our first nanny. But very quickly we noticed a rapid decline in our oldest son’s behaviour. He became clingy and anxious – but also increasingly angry and disobedient.”

After several months of his behaviour worsening, Shasi realised what was happening. “I came home early from work and found my son utterly inconsolable. When I asked him what was wrong, he said the maid had told him she had called the police to take him away – and he was absolutely terrified. I questioned her about it and she said she had to do it, otherwise he wouldn’t behave.”

Carmen says such scenarios, especially in households where two parents work, are not at all uncommon and are caused by the maid, or nanny, losing control over the children.

“Very often maids will have a permissive relationship with their charges,” she says. “This means they are highly responsive to their needs but [don’t enforce] any boundaries or discipline, so the children tend to take over. What usually happens is that parents then have to redress that balance at the weekends. So instead of everyone enjoying quality time together, it becomes a very stressful and creates an ongoing power struggle.”

Unique in the UAE

The heavy reliance of UAE-based families on nannies or maids to do so much of the child-rearing is unique to the region - so much so that artist founder of High Life Dubai, Claire Napper, has satirised it in one of her popular retro-style posters, which shows a child clutching his nanny in tears because he doesn't recognise his parents. "It's OK dear, these aren't strangers, they're your parents," says the nanny; the implication being that it is she, rather than the parents, who does almost all of the childcare.

While this sort of satire pokes gentle fun at the 'first world problems' of a certain demographic of expats in the UAE, there is a more serious side to this outsourcing of parenting duties, says Juman Karaman, head of projects at the KHDA. "The child-at-home model for children under four in the Gulf states proliferates predominantly because of the availability of low-paid nannies/ housmaids, who typically have no professional qualifications in childcare," says Karaman, who is the author of a policy brief on early childhood education for the Dubai School of Government.

"According to studies, 58% of children under the age of three in the Arabian Gulf are cared for by housemaids for 30-70 hours per week," continues Karaman. "This length of time is far greater than most institutional childcare hours in the US or Europe, which are increasingly criticized for being too long."

Striking a balance

As a long-term expat and mother of two, Melanie Gissing grew up with housemaids and enjoys help at home raising her twin daughters. But, she says, knowing when to be the parent is key in creating a successful situation.

“I’m very lucky because I’m in a position where I can work from home and, therefore, plan my workday around my children’s needs. I view our housemaid as my assistant – she’s my extra pair of hands and I know I’m extremely lucky to have her. I’ve always been of the opinion that it is not her job to discipline my children because that’s my responsibility. So I take full charge of homework, school pick-ups and drop-offs, meals, bathtime and bedtime. I often end up working at weekends as a result – but that’s OK, because I’ve spent a lot of valuable parenting time with my children during the week. For us, it’s a fantastic situation and I’m so thankful to have help at home.”

Melanie adds, “I’ve always been very careful about the amount of responsibility I place upon our housemaid. This is because over the years, I’ve seen so many situations where children are being ruined through not being parented properly. You can spot them a mile off in the playground and it’s a sad situation.”

Carmen agrees. “I see a number of serious issues that take a very long time to redress in children – especially in those under seven – who have lacked proper parenting,” she says. “Language skills can be affected and their daily routine can be poor, so they don’t eat or sleep well.

“They can also lack independence because their maid does everything for them – like spoon-feeding and dressing them. This in turn can affect their fine motor skill development, which can hinder things like pen control when they start primary school.”

Emotional health is also a consideration. “These children often don’t deal well with disappointment,” says Carmen. “This is because a parent will usually stand their ground, say ‘no’ and put up with the screams when an unreasonable request is made. For example, ‘I want sweets!’ Whereas a maid will often give in."

Joanne Jewell, child counsellor and parenting educator and founder of Mindful Parenting in the Middle East, gives a more optimistic view. "Nannies can work very well for families and it really depends on the quality of the childcare that your particular nanny is able to provide. There are also a number of organisations now providing additional training for nannies and I think this can only be a good thing."

But Jewell has a warning for parents employing nannies: "One of my concerns about nannies is that many seem to be expected to look after and entertain children as well as maintaining a full housekeeping role in addition and I think this is unrealistic. If you choose to have a nanny the important thing is you are realistic about their duties and they understand what their priorities are during the day - you can also organise play dates and opportunities for them to mix with other children as well as arrange activities at home."

Making it work

So what’s the solution? For families where neither parent can afford to compromise their career prospects and both have to work full-time, employing a maid is the only affordable viable option – and the future looks fraught.

“It’s a tough one,” admits Carmen. “And I really do have sympathy with families who find themselves in this situation. The only way forward would be to ensure that, as a parent, you are taking control as much as possible.

“Even if you aren’t there physically, make sure that you have a strict routine for your children mapped out that must not be deviated from. There are also daily forms used in a lot of nurseries here that detail your child’s meal times, nap times, the number of poops, etc. It’s worth using a system like this at home if you’re not going to be around.

“It’s a good idea to put your maid through a first-aid course so she knows what to do in the event of an accident. On Fridays and Saturdays, plan out your kids’ meals for the week ahead so you know exactly what they are being fed.

“If the children make unreasonable demands and don’t behave, make sure they know that you set the boundaries – not the maid – and that she is just following your instructions.”

Being home in time for important moments can also help. “Make an effort to be home in time for the evening meal, bath and bed time as often as you can,” advises Carmen.

“Yes, that’s the time when being with your kids is really hard work, but that’s what real parenting is. It’s important to accept that it’s never going to be the ideal scenario.

“None of this is meant to be judgemental, or put people off having help at home – far from it. In fact if you get the parenting balance right, having a maid can be an absolutely wonderful experience and can lead to parents spending more quality time with their children. But an over-reliance, which happens far more than it should do here, is really not a good thing at all."

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