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Nanny Schools ‘Put the Polish’ on Child Care

Times Staff Writer

With the attentiveness of a mother, Jodi Roderick gently stroked the back of 6-month-old Elizabeth Cross, who lay on a quilt amid the suburban elegance of The Claremont Club.

Roderick’s blue smock, displaying an embroidered antique pram, testified to her calling. She is a student at the American Nanny College, in Claremont and Montclair. As part of the college’s learning laboratory, she and 10 other students care for the infants of parents who drop off their children before swimming, playing tennis or exercising at the club.

By September, Roderick, a graduate of Redlands High School, will have completed her three-month course. And then, she said, she hopes to become a full-time, live-in nanny.

“All the girls here love children. This is just an opportunity to learn to love them professionally,” said Roderick, 19, as she baby-sat in the club’s day-care center.

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Nanny schools across America are training women, and even a few men, to fill the growing child-care needs of not only the wealthy, but of working professionals.

“It’s an anthropological experiment. We’re bringing a British idea to America, and it’s an idea whose time has come,” said Beverly P. Benjamin, who founded the American Nanny College six years ago in Claremont, when only a handful of nanny schools existed in the United States.

Now more than 50 educational institutions offer nanny training.

A company that runs bartender schools last year--in an oddly American twist--bought a Beverly Hills nanny school, which has since relocated to Van Nuys. Furthermore, Benjamin said, the operator of a truck-driving school has expressed interest in getting into the booming business.

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“There’s a tremendous demand for in-home child care,” said Sandra Lewis, director of the Nanny Institute of Beverly Hills. “But it just hasn’t been a part of our American culture for people to go to school to learn how to care for children in the home.”

But acceptance of nanny training has grown, she said, and the American nanny movement has matured in the process. Now, Lewis said, classes at her school have expanded from 25 students a year to about 500 a year. Claremont’s American Nanny College has trained over 200 nannies and two mannies, the male counterpart.

In California, there are also nanny schools in Huntington Beach and Sacramento.

Benjamin, a professor in child development at Chaffey College in Alta Loma, had founded her nanny college with two partners: Deborah Davis, a colleague at Chaffey, and British-trained nanny Diana Forne. Her two former partners have developed the International Nanny Assn., a nonprofit clearinghouse for nannies and nanny schools. Originally based in Pomona, it is now in Austin, Tex.

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Lewis is writing a textbook for nanny training. And, as a way to standardize training, the American Council of Nanny Schools wants to create a national nanny exam and the designation of CPN, or Certified Professional Nanny, Benjamin said. She said she is also considering ways to place temporary nannies, who can care for children when they are sick and cannot go to school. And she is investigating the possibility of training and employing homeless women as nannies.

Benjamin said she isn’t bothered that these ideas seem remote from the British prim and proper nanny. “There is no stereotype of the American nanny,” said Benjamin.

The British nanny, she said, had to learn “to iron diapers with an iron heated on a stove because she might be in Africa some day during a revolution . . . or in India. A nanny would go and be a little bit of England in the remote areas of the empire.”

Yet the basic idea is the same whether in America or Britain. “The British nanny was trained to raise the child whether the lord and lady were there or not,” she said.

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Like their British counterparts, American nanny schools teach manners and social graces. “We put the polish on the person who has the background in child care,” Benjamin said.

But the schools also deal with such topics as how to help children deal with loss and grief, and “how to clean everything.” Benjamin’s students spend one day in seminars with Magda Gerber, a Los Angeles educator whose theories of letting children develop at their own pace have gained attention.

The students also visit art museums and hear lectures on music as a way to elevate their awareness of the fine arts. “At one time we even had seven- and nine-course meals,” Benjamin said.

Students read books on childhood education and take courses in household management and self-esteem. Fashion consultants work with them on developing their image. All of this, Benjamin said, is designed to make the students more professional and more marketable.

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In America, it is not just the wealthy who take advantage of the newly trained crop of nannies. Benjamin estimates that 50% of the families that now hire nannies are two-career couples, with the rest evenly divided among the rich and single parents, who often must struggle to pay nanny costs.

The nannies start off earning at least $200 a week, in addition to their room and board.

For all the expense involved, Benjamin said, “parents really want somebody who rides on a magic umbrella . . . a Mary Poppins.”

But nanny students say this British image has little to do with attracting them to the profession; their principal interest is the satisfaction gained from one-on-one child care. “They aren’t all looking for life among the country club set,” Benjamin said.

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“As a matter of fact, I never saw Mary Poppins,” said student Helen Benton, 57. (The fictional character actually was not a nanny, but a governess, whose job included educating older children.)

Working as a nanny, Benton said, is her way of countering what she sees as the impersonal values today in American society, which “seems more concerned with things instead of people.”

For Benton, who worked for two years at a day-care center, being a nanny will offer the opportunity to develop an intensely personal relationship with a child. She is excited by the prospect.

“When children want love, they’re not particular--whether they get it from their mother, their father or a nanny,” she said.

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