Maids, Cultural Expectations and the Importance of Modeling–Expat to Expat Advice

I made a mistake this past weekend.

We had a four day window where Elanor would not be in school, and in the wake of her showing a great deal of interest, I decided it was a good time to try to potty train her.  I told B that we were going to try to potty train her and what I (wrongly) thought was enough description of our approach-having her try the potty every 20 minutes.  That was all I said.

There were several reasons I probably shouldn’t have picked this past weekend.  For one, Ravi wasn’t feeling well.  For another, I was scheduled to be a speaker at a conference on Saturday (more on that another day, but it went very well!).  These two things meant that I was not as available as I should have been, and handed some of the training off to B and to Ravi (when I was out of the house, when I needed to do a grocery run, when I needed a shower–selfish stuff like that).

Elanor had a number of successes, but there were also failures.  The biggest being she refused to go to the potty with B.

B had been told by me to take Elanor to the potty every 20 minutes.  What I hadn’t said was how long to make her sit there, how to make it more fun, what the reward system was, what to do if she didn’t want to go to the potty, or any number of little things that I could/should have shared.  Nor did I think to model a trip to the potty for B.  I just gave her one instruction…and she did her best to follow it.

I was in our bedroom on Friday, reviewing my talk for Saturday when I heard E protesting at the top of her lungs.

B was trying to make her go potty.  Elanor didn’t want to.

Which is when I realized I was the one who had screwed up.

None of this changed the fact that after Friday, I was the only person that Elanor would go to the potty for.  She’d go for Ravi a bit, but he was just too sick to share the parenting burden.  After a power struggle between her and B on Saturday (especially coupled with the three hours of sleep I’d gotten, thanks to a double dose of pregnancy insomnia and nerves), I threw up my hands and called it quits for now.  I realized that to have a successful potty training weekend (or fill in the blank amount of time–I’m a first time potty trainer, so feel free to point and laugh) we needed three healthy adults who were all fully on the same page, and a fresh start for Elanor.  So we are going to wait a month or so and then try again (allowing her to use her potty as much as SHE chooses to in the meantime).


What was the point of sharing this anecdote?

There is a giant gulf between what an employer, particularly a Western (and even more to the point, American) employer thinks is obvious and what a maid who has not had a previous Western employer (or American employer) has been taught is the expectation.

To be fair, just about every resource out there that talks about hiring a maid (including the MOM training) mentions that you will need to make your expectations clear.  But there’s a giant gulf between what YOU think that means (take E to the potty every 20 minutes) and what they think that means (take E to the potty every 20 minutes and stay there until she pees/poops, regardless of her willingness to go).  While everyone emphasizes the importance of this during the initial adjustment phase, there probably isn’t enough emphasis placed on the notion that this should be an ongoing thing.

For many maids, they are taught to do their work without asking for additional clarifications.  Some maids are quite shy.  Some have been punished for “questioning” their employers.  And, just as we do, they come to your home with an accumulation of life experiences that make certain things “obvious” to them as well where they wouldn’t think to question something.

I can’t speak to the experience of having a first time helper.  I wanted someone who was already in Singapore partially because that meant they’d at least have more knowledge of the city layout, where to get groceries, and other useful information than I would.  I also wanted to interview my potential helper, which is (from what I understand) significantly more challenging if not impossible to do if they are still in their home country.

B has worked for several families before ours.  While both families had children, and while B is a mom herself, she has never worked for a family like ours.

Expats are strange

It’s no secret that among the maid community that Expats (particularly Western Expats) are considered desirable employers.  We are considered to be more lenient (we’re more likely to give a weekly day off, and have shorter hours during the working day), to pay better, and to be “nicer.”  However, it’s also common knowledge that we’re a bit strange.  We expect our helpers to cook weird foods, behave in strange ways, and do things is a way that is radically different than their home country or their new country’s “normal.”


Assuming your helper knows how to do something or what you mean can be the kiss of death on an employer/employee relationship.  One of the most important things in that relationship is modeling.  When you have a really capable helper, like B, it’s also one of the things we, as employers, forget to do enough of.

We are in a minority of employers in that we allow B to discipline Elanor.  More to the point, we require that she discipline Elanor when she is in charge of E.

However, our discipline is unlike anything B has ever encountered before.  What I’ve heard (and not just from B–I talk to maids who come along with kids to Elanor’s classes, and I talk to B’s friends) is that it is most common for a maid to not have any power to discipline a child at all.  They are most often just expected to put up with things like a child throwing a block at them or biting them or any number of things I would classify as “abuse.”

We use what is considered a fairly standard discipline method in the US (and one that I’ve rarely seen discussed in local parenting magazines).  We give warning 1, warning 2, and at 3 Elanor receives a “time out.”  She has to sit in the time out chair (if we’re at home), in the stroller (if we’re out and it’s handy) or in my lap (if we’re out and there isn’t a handy place to make her sit) for 2 minutes (1 minute per year of age).  She has to verbalize, at the end of the time out, what she did to get the time out (often with prompting) and a time out also usually means an apology.  If she does something unsafe, like throwing a block at a friend, she doesn’t get warnings…she goes straight to time out and has to apologize to both me and the person she wronged.

Several months ago, Elanor realized that she could get away with significantly more with B than she could with Ravi or I.  This led to what looked like Elanor turning into a little tyrant with B.

I had said from the start that we would never allow E to be one of those kids who is abusive toward their maids.  B thought that was good in theory, but had no idea what that would eventually mean.

When I told B that we needed her to start disciplining Elanor, she flat out refused.  I kept trying to start a conversation about it, why I thought it was important, and what I wanted, but they were non-starters.  In what was one of the hardest moments I’ve had as an employer, I had to tell B that if she couldn’t learn to discipline Elanor that we would need to let her go.  An Elanor who was not disciplined would turn into that child we saw in the mall who was yelling at his family’s maid abusively or that other kid who we saw kick her family’s maid…and Ravi and I couldn’t allow it.

It wasn’t the threat of unemployment that made her accede, it was my offer to take a week and model/supervise the time outs.

After a week, with my modeling for two days, spending two days walking her through it (now say “one, Elanor”, now give her the second warning, now put her in time out, etc), and one day just quietly “supervising,” B had mastered the time out.  She now can give one with the best of them, and Elanor knows that while Mommy is probably still the toughest disciplinarian in the house, B is no pushover (the pushover is often Daddy).

“Mistake” or lack of understanding and lack of modeling?

The “mistakes” that have happened…a new bathing suit in a dark color not being handwashed the first time (and the resultant color run in the laundry), a peanut butter and jelly sandwich made with toast instead of regular bread, Elanor being trapped on the potty for 10 minutes when she wouldn’t “go”…all have happened because I issued a request for the first time without modeling what I meant by that.

To someone who doesn’t eat sandwiches as we Americans tend to think of them, making a sandwich out of two pieces of toast is totally reasonable.  After all, I modeled toasting the bread and putting jam on it as an option for Elanor’s breakfast.  B’s toast sandwich makes sense when you put it into perspective.  But in the moment, when B brought out Elanor’s toast sandwich, I looked at her and it in confusion, wondering what on earth that strange gastronomic experiment was supposed to be.  But because sandwiches seemed like such an “obvious” thing…it never occurred to me to model how to make a sandwich.

Learning to ask for clarification

Many, perhaps even most maids are quiet.  They don’t ask for clarification.

One of the hardest things I’ve faced as an employer is trying to teach B that it’s okay to ask for help, to ask for clearer directions.  I don’t know that I’ve succeeded, only that it’s still kind of a work in progress.

The problem with clarification, of course, is that we both often assume we don’t need it.


When differences happen, and they do, there are a few things to keep in mind.  Yes, as the employer, you have the “right” to have things done “your way.”  But you should pick your battles.  Does it REALLY matter if she washes the bathroom differently than you do, as long as it’s clean?  Does she have to fold the towels “your” way?

There are those things that matter–food preparation (particularly if you have an allergic child), discipline of a child, etc.  Yes, there are areas where you absolutely have to have your way.  I can honestly say I would have no compunction about firing a helper who tried to physically discipline my child, especially as I am the type of person who makes it clear that we don’t do that from day one.  But that’s still about making expectations clear and known…and modeling the alternative.

Advice Summary

  • Whether you’ve had your helper for a day or a year…don’t assume that she knows what you mean when you say “Can you do X, please?”
  • Modeling is very important.  If it’s the first time you can remember asking her to do X, take the time to model what you mean.
  • Be understanding of “mistakes” because they’re not born out of spite, they are born from miscommunication
  • Remember that things that are “obvious” to you are not necessarily “obvious” to your helper
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9 Responses to Maids, Cultural Expectations and the Importance of Modeling–Expat to Expat Advice

  1. Paula says:

    We too require Rose to follow our disciplinary tactics. She does well, and sometimes better than we do.

    Not looking forward to the potty training but that is coming up very soon!

    Good luck!

    • Crystal says:

      Rose is awesome.

      They say #2 is easier to potty train because they have the older sibling doing it, so maybe we’ll both get off easier the 2nd time around. I don’t know if either of us will have an easy time around with G and E.

  2. Nancy says:

    I love reading your posts. First, because you’re a great writer which makes reading so much more pleasant 😉 Second, because these cultural glimpses are so interesting!
    Since there’s no real “Singapore” culture as I understand it (more of a blend of several cultures, mostly Asian-flavored with some Brit stirred in?), can you write about your observations in childcaring philosophy – when/how to toilet-train, discipline, the range of typical toddler foods you see other toddlers eating, etc. Your post about giving the preschool children warm water instead of cold is a good example.

    Your old friend Lisa Gatto is doing a free Potty Training webinar in collaboration with Bright Horizons one week from today, Thurs. 6/23 at 8 PM (EDT). I have no idea what time this translates to in Singapore (middle of the night, maybe, but you’ll probably be awake anyway ;). To register:

    Have a great day halfway around the world. The same sun is shining today in Boston MA!

    • Crystal says:

      There is and isn’t “Singaporean” culture, but yes it is LARGELY Chinese with some other Asian flavors, and a hint of British and other Western cultures all stirred in. Let me do some asking around (I want a little more clarification from friends/other parents about those things (like toilet training–most of E’s current class is also in diapers, for example) and that sort of thing. But I definitely will!

      I saw the post about the webinar…it’s 8am for me. I’m going to think about it, but 8am is one of those few times I’m usually asleep (we’re all night owls). I wish it were possible to watch it later…that would be such an awesome thing! For a fee we can watch previously recorded webinars? I’d totally pay for that (and I’m sure some of the other working/otherwise unable to attend mamas) would, too. I’m glad your BFing online chats are at my midnight–I’m consistently up for those, and I’m sure I’ll be joining in regularly after #2 is born.

      Hugs to you and our friends at Isis!

      • Nancy says:

        Click the webinar link I posted above. This one is offered through Bright Horizons (they contacted us to provide the expertise) and it looks like they do often make recordings available (for free) after the event. You might be in luck.

        At Isis, we’re still perfecting the webinar experience in the middle of a big website/tech overhaul (you’ll see these changes in July or August) and by the fall I imagine we will have the ability to make “on-demand” viewing of a variety of educational resources and webinars on our site.

  3. bookjunkie says:

    I think modelling is very useful. I often wish this was done in the office as well…well at least clearer explanations…as some bosses I’ve encountered expect us to be mind readers.

    I think it’s wonderful how you’ve spelt out this out in detail, and I hope it leads to just one helper being treated better as a result. I think most people don’t think about how scary it is to even ask for clarification or instructions.

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