For Would-Be Nursemaids Beth Smith's New Nanny Inc. Offers Lots More Than a Pram Course

updated 06/06/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/06/1983 01:00AM

Mary Poppins was able to float over rooftops and slide up banisters, but could she handle a toddler tossing a tantrum at the supermarket checkout? Or mollify moppets with transactional analysis? Those are just a couple of the challenges raised by Nanny Inc. in Chicago—the first school for nursemaids in the U.S. The $1,500, 400-hour, 12-week course in bathing, burping, toilet training, creative play and interpersonal skills draws on the works of such psychological heavyweights as Erik Erikson and Haim Ginott, and its aim is to elevate the humble baby-sitter into a "competent caregiver."

Although they have an old tradition in England, professionally trained nannies in this country were long the preserve of the wealthy, who imported them to care for their little scions. But since 1975 the number of young American women juggling careers and motherhood has leaped from 37 to about 50 percent—one of whom was an English-born clinical psychologist named Beth Smith, founder of Nanny Inc. "This is the most backward country in the world when it comes to child care," she says of the traumas she herself suffered from three housekeepers after the birth of her son, Grant, five years ago: One charged over $500 in cosmetics at the drugstore, another ran up huge phone bills, and a third left the baby alone in its room for long stretches. "I was normally a bright, competent, organized individual," she says, "and I simply fell apart."

Recognizing that others must be having the same trouble, Smith began running seminars for working moms and found that job productivity depended on a woman's faith that her kids were well cared for. No fan of infant care centers ("They make me shudder—newborns need to be cuddled and talked to, and they don't do that"), she cajoled $140,000 from 11 friends—now shareholders—to launch her school six months ago, though others warned she would be accused of "developing a servant class."

In fact, Smith, 42, is very choosy about whom she accepts: Her students must have a high school diploma and child-related work experience, and they must undergo an extensive personality assessment by psychologists. "Parents need someone they can trust," she says. The course, she notes, appeals especially to women with a strong work ethic from large families with a religious background.

Those attributes describe Smith herself. Born into a hard-working mining family, she has two younger brothers and grew up with her mother, a grandfather and three aunts while her father was off in WW II. After six years of study she took a job as a psychiatric nurse in a Chicago hospital in 1962, and in 1974 got her Ph.D. from Northwestern University Medical School, where she still supervises doctoral students. She divorced her American husband of 15 years, a psychological consultant to organizations, in 1979.

Smith's nannies can expect to command starting salaries of $13,000 to $15,000 a year plus benefits. "Quality doesn't come cheap," she explains. To make sure they won't be compromised, Nanny Inc. also teaches contract negotiating and even maintains a "Nanny Hot Line" for jittery beginners. The school has averaged 300 calls a month from prospective employers (including one from a Southern governor's mansion) and had 37 offers for franchises. Smith would like to go nationwide but, determined to maintain standards, she plans to open only one branch, in New York City, this year. Already, she notes proudly, the Illinois Board of Education has approved her curriculum and Nanny Inc. has won 50 state and county scholarships. She feels "sad that more older people aren't applying, since they have so many wonderful life experiences," but her highest accolade so far came from just such a student. "If only I'd known half of what I've learned here," a 68-year-old grad told her, "I'd have been a wonderful mother."

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