Life & Style | Parenting

94 per cent of Dubai children reared by nannies

Parents in Dubai are so preoccupied they barely have time for their children. The result: an entire generation raised by complete strangers

  • By Sharmila Dhal, Senior Reporter, XPRESS
  • Published: 00:00 March 17, 2011
  • XPRESS

  • Image Credit: © XPRESS/Pankaj Sharma
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Dubai: It's 7.30am and media executive Ranjini, 25, is running late for work.

She makes a quick stop at a neighbouring apartment in Al Nahda and drops off her 11-month-old daughter after hurriedly kissing her goodbye. "You will be fine with aunty," she says, before driving off.

Elsewhere, in Bur Dubai, Janet, 31, is more relaxed. She has just woken up, but her three-year-old son is all showered and dressed. The help at home has taken care of that, just as she has with his milk and breakfast. She also packs his nursery bag and lunch box, before escorting him down the building to catch the school bus.

Welcome to a society where childcare is outsourced like nowhere else in the world.

The result: Little ones being raised by complete strangers ranging from neighbourhood babysitters to daycare providers and stay-at-home nannies.

A recent report released by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) is a telling comment on the state of affairs - 94 per cent of 23,851 Emirati families surveyed in Dubai keep nannies or housemaids to help in the rearing of their children and other household tasks.

The Dubai Women's Establishment which surveyed 1,186 working women in government departments of Dubai found that 62 per cent of children under four are looked after by housemaids, 32 per cent by extended families and five per cent by private nurseries.

Among expatriates, the picture is no less bleak. Of the 144,630 families surveyed in Dubai, 90 per cent send children to nurseries while five per cent keep nannies.

Parents are spoilt for choice. And it's not hard to figure out why. Besides an unaccounted number of babysitters, there are 82 private and two public nurseries in Dubai, many doubling up as pre-schools or daycare centres for children up to four years old.

Unruly children

New Zelander Carmen Benton, a teacher at a British school in Dubai, says she was so appalled to see the unruly behaviour of some students - a possible fallout of being raised by nannies - that she decided to quit her job to counsel parents.

"While it is unrealistic for parents to be spending all their time with the children, it is important to understand that if they leave their children for too long with someone else, they are co-parenting with that person," she said.

Benton, who set up Lifeworks to conduct workshops for parents, says children growing up with such co-parents are invariably confused, insecure and have low self-esteem. "They also have little discipline and independence," she noted.

The ramifications can sometimes be more even serious, says Marissa Lobo Bidappa, Clinical Psychologist at the Child Early Intervention Centre. She knows better, having dealt with a string of shocking cases: a three-year-old girl exposed to her nanny's intimate scenes with her boyfriend, another three-plus girl sexually abused by the house help and a four-year-old boy trying to jump from a window while the nanny busied herself elsewhere. "I have also had cases where nannies, wanting time for themselves give cough syrup to children to make them sleep," says Bidappa.

Even when parents are at home, overwork may leave them with limited time, attention and energy for their children, says American economist Sylvia Hewlett, warning that child neglect has become endemic to society. Hewlett links parenting deficit to a slew of problems among the youth, including poor performance in school, mental problems, drug and alcohol use and teen suicide.

As the KHDA report notes, the early years from 0-3 are critical for brain development in the spheres of socio-emotional, cognitive and language development. It is the foundation stage not only of education, but also adult well-being, physical and mental health and parents can ill afford to neglect these.

The widespread practice of outsourcing childcare to nannies has even prompted His Highness Shaikh Humaid Bin Rashid Al Nuaimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Ajman, to warn parents against neglecting their children. WAM quoted him as saying that parents are not passing on morals and traditions to their children and are neglecting them by having them raised by nannies.

"We give far too much responsibility to complete strangers by letting them do tasks that we should be doing," says Benton, adding that such children are denied a chance to learn appropriate behaviour or boundaries from them.

For example, a nanny instructed to feed a child will do anything from running after him and stuffing his mouth to bribing or threatening him to finish his food - all of which sends wrong signals to the child. "Anorexia in later stages can be traced back to such early power struggles with food," said Benton.

A parent, on the other hand, is likely to teach the child what, when and where to eat, besides the essential ‘how'. Similarly, children growing up with nannies lag in language development as they hardly talk to them, unlike parents who keep up a constant dialogue.

In one case, the parents of a child in a Dubai school did not know she had delayed speech until her teacher told them. "The parents were both working and would leave the child with a nanny all day," the teacher said.

Executive guilt

Many parents admit to what they call "executive guilt". "But there is no choice. I have to work to supplement my husband's income," says the wife of an Indian executive, who has brought a nanny from back home to look after her daughter.

The monthly wages for nannies range from Dh700-Dh1,184, says the KHDA. Parents who sponsor nannies are responsible for their food, accommodation and medicines.

Besides sourcing nannies from their home countries, parents also hire them from local agencies. Majestic Nannies, a branch of the UK-based nanny agency, says it sends out an average of 10 nannies every month. "We source them from our local pool or specially bring them from overseas," says a source at the agency.

Part-time nannies from local agencies come for as little as Dh20-Dh40 an hour. "We supply Ethiopian and Filipina nannies at Dh35 an hour," says M. Jonathan of ARD, an agency in Al Quoz, noting they do everything from cleaning to feeding and entertaining children.

Neighbourhood babysitters too come cheap. A Sri Lankan woman residing near Al Taawun Mall says she babysits up to five children from neighbouring areas in Dubai and Sharjah five days a week. "They stay in my house from 9am to 5pm and I charge them Dh400 a month," she says.

With children spending considerable time with these co-parents, it's not surprising that some of them relate more to them than their own parents. "Our two sons would rather listen to our nanny than us as they are very attached to her," says a Filipino executive.

But thankfully, as Bidappa says, "Not all nannies are bad. It also depends on how well parents treat and train them."

Taking stock

The Bennett Report on Early Childhood and Education Services, released by the KHDA, makes a case for structured early childhood services, but cautions that they should work with families and communities.

"Their function is not to replace parents but to support them. Unless there is an emergency, it may not be advisable to place infants in childcare services from the age of two or three months for long hours," it notes, adding, "Many experts do not advise childcare for children in the first year of life." If both parents are working, parental leave policies can help secure a stable family environment for the child during the first critical year of life, it suggests.

Comments (10)

  1. Added 14:30 March 19, 2011

    Yes, I agree 100 per cent with this article. I am from South Africa and moved to Dubai to give my child (now two years old) a better and safer future. I did not consider the social influences I might face here in Dubai, especially from children raised by nannies with whom my daughter has to grow up. I had a first hand experience of a wonderful nanny who was very good at looking after children but was not good at teaching values. This influenced not just the child who was raised by the nanny but also my daughter who was her friend. Values differ and we cannot expect a nanny to instil our values and beliefs into our children. A nanny may have a totally different set of values and beliefs. I cannot help wonder what will happen to these kids when they grow up and start following different set of beliefs. This can only cause conflict and confusion. Whenever I go to the park with my two-year-old, I only find nannies looking after the babies and toddlers. Where are the parents? I don’t work but I do want to find a half-day job. I want to put my child in a nursery as I feel that she will learn better skills in school than at home. So I shall spend half-a-day with her and she will be in school for the other half. My husband does not earn a huge salary and I would love to work. However, we have made a decision that I shall care for my child and spend quality time with her, especially while she is young. Why your child to be raised, cared and taught by someone else?

    Michelle, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

  2. Added 14:20 March 19, 2011

    Thank you for this great article. Hopefully, it will open the eyes of those parents who do not give their children what they need most: a feeling that they are a part of the family and not annoying little bugs. I sometimes feel pity for those women who lead an overactive professional life and yet find time for the hairdresser, spa, etc. However, when it comes to children, these mums just have no time. I decided to stop working the moment I became pregnant. The decision was hard to make as extra money is always helpful. But I realised that we can always have a second chance with another job but not with a child. If there is one thing on earth I want to take care of – it’s the education of my child. Sometimes I do miss my colleagues but when I look at my child laughing with me, I am filled with true happiness. I do not have a nanny. Earlier, I used to have a maid but she only helped me with cleaning. Educating my child is my responsibility. My child is happy and well mannered and this has been acknowledged by both our friends and her teachers. In a class of 25, she is the only one to have good manners! I am seriously thinking of home-schooling since she is losing much time as her teacher has to spend more time disciplining the kids! I feel really sorry for all those kids -- they are not welcome at home; they do not have a space in their family. How do you think they feel? Useless, worthless? They cannot talk because their parents are either busy or tired or unavailable. They cannot touch anything in the house because they might spoil the décor or break something. They cannot prepare a snack because they might mess the kitchen. Is this life? Children need to be taught how to fend for themselves. They need good care. There are too many children going wild; their academic achievements are poor; they often suffer from dyslexia, ADD, etc, and turn into bullies. They are desperate for love. What kind of future are we building? What kind of future do we want for our coming generation? Happy kids will grow up to become empathic adults. Frustrated kids will become depressed or aggressive. The only way we can make the world a better place is to show our kids that we love and support them. Good education is the only long term solution. It does not require money, but it does require time and patience. So please take a few minutes to set your priorities right. The worst regret that anyone of us can have is to fail as parents. Your current employer might lay you off sooner or later; your friends just turn their back on you; all objects collected during long shopping hours will finally end in a dustbin; but you’ll always have to face your kids and you must be able to look at them without shame or regrets. You may have no choice but to work, but once you’re back home smile and talk with your child as much as you can.

    Cecile, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

  3. Added 12:06 March 19, 2011

    Unlike the US or the UK, we do not have any laws in the UAE where a mother can leave her job and stay at home for up to six months after childbirth or take a one-year part-time off to be with her baby. It’s important to implement a law to protect new mothers.

    Alifiya, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

  4. Added 16:56 March 18, 2011

    It’s sad too see children and parents apart. Parents must do more for their children.

    Jasmine Terry, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates

  5. Added 13:37 March 18, 2011

    I’d like to know what are these figures based on? How was the research done? Nevertheless, I am sure the numbers mentioned in the article are rather high. It goes to show that children are lacking in many ways.... all we need to do is look at the behaviour and academic performance of children in UAE schools. What exactly is meant by a nanny here: someone trained in childcare or a babysitter?

    ummsabirah, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates

  6. Added 08:07 March 18, 2011

    How are parents expected to look after new born infants when the labour law allows only 45 days of maternity leave? The Ministry of Labour needs to take note of how accommodating labour policies in developed nations are. There is a strong emphasis on work-life balance with even fathers being allowed six to nine months parental leave to tend to a newborn.

    P.S., Vancouver, Canada

  7. Added 18:08 March 17, 2011

    The information in this article is absolutely right. This is life in the UAE. There is no other option for a mother. In order to survive in this expensive country, single income is not enough. Yes, sometimes it’s very painful for parents. My son is one-and-half-years old. From 9am to 6pm he is with the babysitter who speaks an entirely different language. My poor boy often can’t understand anything. However, we have taken a decision – I shall quit my job and be with my son for the next three years till he is four.

    Srilaxmi, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates

  8. Added 16:57 March 17, 2011

    I congratulate XPRESS for publishing such a wonderful article. Most people in the UAE run after money. They even forget their children as they are constantly in pursuit of material dreams. Hope this article will be an eye-opener to all parents who give more importance to money than their children. Once again thanks to XPRESS for pointing this out.

    A.K., Dubai, United Arab Emirates

  9. Added 11:06 March 17, 2011

    I moved to Dubai with my wife in 2006. Six months later, my wife got a very good job and even started earning more than me. We had our first baby in 2009. My wife quit her job right after her maternity leave to be with our baby. She was against dropping the little angle at a day-care centre. After few months, she got an online job offer and started earning from her home. It was initially not so rewarding, but now she has started making good money, though she still earns three times less than what she used to before our baby was born. However, we are all very happy as our kid is getting quality time. Working mothers must look for online jobs if they’re good in writing or have good communication skills. They may earn Dh1,000 to Dh7,000 a month but they can be closer to their dear ones.

    N.J., Dubai, United Arab Emirates

  10. Added 10:37 March 17, 2011

    Thanks to XPRESS, I am really surprised to read this article. I thought human beings are lost all moral values and there is no one to talk about these issues that are the fundamentals blocks of a society. Children till they attain puberty are like a growing tree that needs love, care attention. Many women need to help their spouses to run a family, but I think around 85 per cent of mothers just work for achieving a career. Could we have statistics on this?

    Mohammad Amir, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

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