Living proof that Nanny knows best: In a lifetime of caring for children, Jean Smith never met a 'difficult' one. She explains her theories to Elizabeth Udall

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ONE DAY you will be desperate. You will read every book you can get your hands on, ask everyone you know for advice, even try a few ideas of your own, but nothing will work. If your child is sleeping peacefully in its cradle at this moment, don't be fooled. The little babygro-clad bundle is only saving it up for later. There is no escape. Every parent will one day know the absolute, crushing helplessness that comes with a problem child. Every parent, that is, who doesn't know about Nanny Smith.

'There is no such thing as a problem child. The problem is usually with the adult,' she says. And you believe her. 'Parents have been influenced by what they have been told, what they have read or observed and so often those things are wrong. But you can't blame them,' she sighs. 'I know what to do but that's because it has been my life's work.'

Born in Yorkshire 71 years ago to a policeman father and a mother who was 'an excellent housekeeper', Jean - as she was known then - was only 12 when she decided she wanted to work with children. One day when her mother was scolding her, Jean realised her mother never tried to understand her viewpoint. She vowed then that she would never treat a child in that way. She would look at things through their eyes and she would never force them to do something simply because she wanted them to do it. Nanny admits that the thoughts were a little less coherent then than she can express now, but the resolve was there.

At 16 she began a one-year course for nursery nurses at St Monica's Home in Bradford. Run by a church committee, the home catered for unmarried pregnant girls. Her first job, nannying for two young children, lasted for seven years. Then she decided to marry and so began looking for a temporary nannying job. She was offered a position caring for a six- month-old baby, but the family insisted she work permanently. Jean chose the job over her fiance. 'I was so very interested in this little girl and my young man was sorry when I told him,' she admits. 'But I have never once regretted the decision.

'At school the girls wanted to marry the first man that came along because they were terrified of being left on the shelf, but I was not the least bit ashamed of remaining unmarried. Children were my burning interest, and if that is the case you question having children of your own because they grow up. Being a nanny, you will always be around young children.'

Nanny, who was always known as such and took on the surname of each of her employers, retired in 1983. She continued however, to accept occasional jobs as a maternity nurse. The last of the Kensington Garden nannies, she laments the changes in her old profession, and in child care in general. The result, she believes, is that children suffer.

'People think the way parents handed over their children to me for 23 hours a day was very strange, but a nanny had no advantage over anyone else, it was simply that the children had consistency of care and the parents could have their own lives. And the children always loved their parents best, although nanny was their special friend. It was nice for a child to have three people who loved him.'

Although Nanny acknowledges that the variety of circumstances - particularly financial - in which parents find themselves mean they do not always have choices about child care, she maintains that consistency is still of prime importance. A day with a child minder, followed by an hour with an obliging neighbour, a bit of time with the parents and then an evening with a baby-sitter should be avoided wherever possible.

Nanny is also wary of playgroups. She feels children cope better in a home environment, uncomplicated by large groups of children they do not know. Nanny agrees that in some cases, a child who cries bitterly every morning before he or she goes there will get used to it. But you are killing the child's spirit in the process. Don't listen to the carers who tell you your child stops crying when you leave him at the playgroup, she warns. 'Of course he stops crying. Why should he cry once you are no longer there to hear him?'

What about 'quality time'? Surely a child benefits from a couple of hours well spent with a content parent than a whole day with one who is frustrated? Nanny chooses her words carefully. 'I suppose some time is better than none at all, but I really think the parents use 'quality time' as an excuse to appease their guilt. But why feel guilty? If you have chosen to go to work and only see your child for a certain amount of time a day, you should accept your own decision and not make a big deal of the time you do have with your child.'

Nanny does not believe that parents can make up for lost time by cramming everything in. Instead, they should appreciate that their child is simply happy to be with them, to laugh and be talked to. A relaxed atmosphere is the general aim. Neither should children be pressured into doing things together. Most are happy being left to amuse themselves with a few toys around them on the floor, something to push along or whatever is appropriate to their age. 'I imagine this 'quality time' is an American idea,' says Nanny. 'I don't think much of what they've got to say.'

Nanny feels that bombarding a child with attention is something we are all guilty of from the moment a child is born. She maintains it is such a shock to the system for a child to arrive that parents must do everything to allow them to adjust gradually. It is a good idea to put children in the garden if the weather is fine, to hear birds singing and watch the leaves on the trees. Gradually they will feel relaxed and safe: 'You know how calming it is to take a chair and sit in the garden yourself,' she explains. 'A child does not need a million toys squeaking and playing tunes.'

A relaxed attitude is the key to all Nanny's advice. She urges parents to ignore family and friends who suggest children should be doing such and such by a certain age. Other parents love to boast, but you don't have to listen. Enjoy each stage as it comes.

Ignore also the constant urge to 'bond' with your child. 'I am surprised mums don't turn against their children, they have such a hard time delivering them]' she laughs. Bonding, she insists, is an ongoing process. It is unlikely to happen instantly, so don't keep expecting it to hit you like a bolt from the blue.

Nanny may feel that adults cause most of their children's problems, but she is as eager to provide support for them as for their offspring. If a child has colic, be prepared for a rough time in the evening - 'the six to tens', she calls it. But if a child will not stop crying and you have something to do, simply put it down and go and do it. A parent has a life outside the child. Likewise, if someone has told you to take your child for a drive in the car to stop his crying, do so if you wish. 'But realise,' she insists, 'you will have to keep doing it. The child will get used to it and then it will be unfair to stop.' The moral? Always think ahead.

Similarly, parents arriving home late like to see their child awake but, again, will suffer in the long run. 'As long as a baby has a full tummy, has no pain and his bottom isn't sore then that is all that matters beyond a certain point. You must get some time to yourselves. You will both be happier for it, and that can only be good for your child.'

Nanny goes so far as to suggest that time spent with a partner is so valuable that it is perhaps better for a woman to delay having a child until she has enjoyed a career for some time and generally 'had some fun'. It will be easier to sacrifice elements of her working and social life. She will be more patient and, perhaps most importantly, will not resent the child for curtailing her liberty. Women who leave it to the point of menopause, on the other hand are, says Nanny, 'just pleasing themselves'.

After 50 years in the field, Nanny confidently asserts that there are only half a dozen basic problems children have, and that they can all be coped with by looking at the problem through the child's eyes: 'I don't believe that there are difficult children,' she says. 'They just have times when they find it hard to cope with life.'

Nanny has no problems coping with her life since retirement. She has a flat in Victoria and, despite being a Yorkshire lass at heart, loves London. She is an avid theatre-goer and adores exhibitions and art galleries - 'the Tate is my favourite'. Every Christmas she gives a party for all her ex-charges. It used to be a tea party but they are too old for that now, so Nanny serves drinks.

But Nanny Smith has found it difficult to become plain Jean Smith once more. She recalls one night soon after she retired 10 years ago. 'I was asleep in my flat when I woke with a start. Someone's brakes had screeched in the road outside my window but I already had one foot out of bed. I had thought it was a child crying. Suddenly I realised how terribly I missed it all. It brings tears to my eyes even now.'

What Nanny Smith keeps in her handbag

EVEN though she no longer works full time with children, Nanny Smith is still prepared for most emergencies. If you stopped her in the street tomorrow, you would find in her handbag, as well as her purse, bus pass and keys, all these items:

A thermometer

Folding scissors

A few plasters

Plastic spoon and knife

2 combs (one for Nanny, and one clean spare one)

Wipes

A book of soap leaves (often public washbasins do not have any soap)

Spare clean handkerchief

Packet of tissues

Sugar lumps - in case Nanny meets a horse

Nuts - for squirrels

Little bits of bread crust - for feeding the birds

Folding umbrella and plastic rainhat (just in case it is too windy for the umbrella)

A tape measure

A folding clothes brush

A travelling sewing kit

A pen and notebook

A packet of throat lozenges (in case of tickly cough)

Diary

Lavender pouch made by one of Nanny's girls - it makes her handbag smell nice.

'Nanny Knows Best', a six-part BBC 1 series, begins on 12 September. A book co-written by Jean Smith and one of her ex-charges, Nina Grunfeld, on how to bring up a happy child, will be published by BBC Books on 9 September.

(Photograph omitted)

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