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'90s FAMILY : Man Power : When most parents think of nannies, they think of women. But male nannies--yes, guys --have a lot to offer, say a number of moms and dads.

November 30, 1994|PAULA LYNN PARKS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Damon Walder said he got burned out working with large groups of children as a teacher's assistant. So he became a nanny, seeking to make a difference by working closely with just one or two youngsters.

"I've always enjoyed working with children. They are the future," said Walder, 22, of Los Angeles. "I know it sounds corny, but I feel better knowing I've contributed to the future."

Five days a week, Walder cares for two boys--a 3-year-old who attends preschool part-time and a 6-year-old. His workday starts at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 6:30 p.m., after he has made dinner and tidied up the kitchen.

Walder frequently plays soccer with his young charges, in addition to cooking, arranging play dates, helping with homework and otherwise lending an ear.

Still, despite providing what some parents say is a valuable "guy's perspective" for their children--sons, particularly--male nannies still lack wide acceptance, child-care specialists say.

Many parents just never consider having a man care for their children, said Cathy Orell, co-owner of Baby Buddies, a Beverly Hills nanny agency. Even though she has had positive experiences with male nannies caring for her sons, Orell said she has been able to place only about one male nanny a year despite having many more qualified applicants.

"People who are imagining who they want to leave at home with their children in an unsupervised child-care setting are not picturing a male," said Wendy Sachs, president of the nonprofit International Nanny Assn., based in Austin, Tex. "And they have a hard time when the idea is brought up to put a male's face on that person."

Sachs, who has owned Philadelphia Nanny Network Inc. for 10 years, said she has never been able to place a male nanny.

One South Bay mother of a 3-month-old daughter said she would simply not consider hiring a man. "Women are better, more gentle with a baby," she said. "There is less chance of child molestation. . . . We don't want to take chances, just stay with the normal."

But Walder's employer didn't see it as a risk.

"I've heard that some people are nervous about men. I don't know why. You can do background checks," said Ilana Giannini of West Los Angeles. "Damon is someone whose judgment I trust. He is very warm with the kids and sets limits well. They are nuts about him."

Wariness is appropriate but can be taken too far, said Mari Womack, a cultural anthropologist who teaches at UCLA, UCLA Extension and Cal State Northridge.

"I'm not saying there are not pedophiles . . . but our fear of them is due to our mistaken concept that men can't nurture or relate to anyone in any way except sexually," she said.

"Men do nurture and men can nurture. . . . Both men and women have arms. They can both fix toys and put bandages on cuts," added Womack, who is finishing an anthropology textbook called "Cultural Anthropology: Multiple Perspectives on Being Human" (Prentice Hall).

Until the last 100 years or so, children commonly grew up spending time with their fathers, as well as with other men who worked in the family business. "I think it's much healthier for the children," said Womack, who grew up on a farm, spending time with her father and male farmhands.

Most likely to see the value in hiring a male nanny are parents--some single--of boys ages 7 to 13. In many cases, the nanny is there to fill a void in a family where the father is absent or busy.

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Many parents who employ male nannies say the arrangement has worked out well for their kids. Beyond helping the children with their homework and shuttling them to music lessons and art classes, parents said their male nannies play sports, romp on the grass and provide a male perspective.

Whitney Green, a Disney studio vice president living in Santa Monica, has had nannies care for her son since he was born. Two years ago, when her son turned 7, Green hired a man. She was so pleased with his performance that when he left to finish graduate school a few months ago, she hired another one.

"It's good to have a guy to provide a presence in (my son's) life, a guy as a role model, a man to bond with," said Green, a single parent.

Esther Rydell, a clothing manufacturer who lives in Marina del Rey with her husband and son, came to the same conclusion. She was looking for someone to care for her 9-year-old twice a week on the housekeeper's afternoons off.

"It's a perfect opportunity to get input from another male," said Rydell, who shares a male nanny with a friend who also needs help with her 9-year-old son three afternoons a week.

"It's the new rage," Rydell said of male nannies, "especially in this age range. It seems to be good for boys this age."

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It's also good for little girls, said Lisa Rich of Marina del Rey. She hired a male nanny to care for her then-4-year-old twin girls without hesitation.

"It seemed natural from the moment he came. He had a great deal of love to give," said Rich, a screenwriter.

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