Babysitters Provide An Important Service

car-children-dad-8509BY KATHY P. BEHAN

Over the years, we’ve had lots of babysitters for our three kids, and truly, most of them have been terrific. There’s one in particular who’s almost part of our family. She’s known and cared for our children ever since two of them were born. She genuinely cares for my kids, and that’s probably why they in turn, like her so much. (I’d mention her name only I selfishly want to keep her for myself!)

We’ve had other good sitters as well. Teenage girls and boys, who have also been conscientious and wonderful. They’ve managed to engage the kids in constructive, fun and imaginative pursuits. And even though my children can give any experienced mother a run for their money, the sitters have been able to handle the kids like pros.

In the good old days we didn’t need babysitters. We lived in New York, and my parents and other relatives would watch our son (the only child we had at the time). My mother would actually call us up on Saturday nights and say, “I’m coming over to watch Cullen. Where do you two want to go tonight?” And of course, my husband and I would happily go out on the spur of the moment, knowing that our sweet boy was well taken care of.

Our first non-family babysitting experience occurred on a house-hunting trip to Massachusetts six years ago. We were staying with my husband’s brother, his wife and young daughter. Our hosts suggested going out for dinner, and had lined up one of their regular sitters. Though this was going to be the first time we would be leaving our 18-month-old son with a “real” babysitter, I didn’t have strong qualms about it. After all, we were going to a restaurant nearby and would only be gone for about two hours.

Before we left, I carefully explained my son’s bedtime routine, and added, “He’s been really difficult to put to sleep lately, so it might be easiest to just let him stay up until we get back. Especially since he had such a late nap this afternoon.” The sitter nodded her head in understanding, and we said good night to the kids and left.

When we returned two hours later, the sitter was on the phone, and Cullen wasn’t in the playpen or family room. She abruptly ended her phone conversation, and explained, “Oh, he started crying right after you left, so I put him to bed.”

With a sinking heart, I started up the stairs for the guest room and found our son bright pink, and sweat-covered in the crib. He had obviously been crying for a long time, and even though he was asleep, there was still a sobbing catch in his breath. I’m sure you can imagine how I felt. Her treatment of my baby was incomprehensible. I ended up saying nothing about this incident to my in-law’s, and their sitter. To this day, I’m still haunted by my silence.

We’ve had other problems with caregivers. For example, one sat my daughter, who was 6 months old at the time, on the couch. Not surprisingly, minutes later Taryn tumbled onto the floor, landing on her head. I only know this because my second son reported it to me after the girl had left (and the large lump on Taryn’s head verified Brendan’s story). Then there was the time that I specifically told a sitter not to let my sons watch TV. She not only disregarded my wishes, she barely waited for my car to leave the driveway before doing so.

All of these experiences, good and bad, have taught us some valuable lessons. We’ve learned that parents are in partnership with the people who take care of their kids. In order to best help them do their job, they need information. For instance, tell them where you’re going. When you’ll be back. Make sure to write out the phone number of where you can be reached, your cell phone numbers, as well as the numbers for the pediatrician, fire and police departments. Also, leave the sitter your home phone number and address. In an emergency, a flustered caregiver may not be able to remember exactly where she is.

She also needs to know what you expect from her. Do you need her to feed, bathe or put the kids to bed? Tell her a little bit about your kids, including, what they’re allowed (or not allowed) to eat, whether it’s OK if they watch TV, when they should go to sleep, and if they have any bedtime rituals, etc. One of my friends even leaves detailed lists of what her kids like to do, and what distractions to try if her baby cries.

Speaking of babies, briefly go over the child’s developmental stage with the sitter. A teen-ager might not realize that you need to support an infant’s head when you lift him. Or that most 6-month-olds can’t sit unsupported, or that 19-month-olds will put anything small into their mouths.

It’s also important that you treat a babysitter with consideration and respect. She’s not a servant, and shouldn’t be expected to perform non-child related tasks. Plus, it pays to get to know the caregiver, and to establish some kind of rapport. You’ll be able to learn more about her, and it’ll help her to like you. And after all, if you and your kids want her to come back, she’ll be more inclined to do so if she likes you.

How do you know if a sitter is good? There’s no sure fire way, but for starters, get some recommendations from friends. They can give you the names of their favorites. Then, give the sitter a dry run. Try him or her out for a few hours while you remain in the house. Keep tabs on what they’re doing with the kids. Do they play with them, or simply watch them? How do they behave if the kids misbehave? Do they seem to enjoy being with children, or are they simply enduring them? By the way, with sitters, older doesn’t necessarily mean better. We’ve had eighth- and ninth-graders who were great. What they lack in experience, is often made up for in interest and enthusiasm. And older sitters often have more social, school or work conflicts, so they may not be available as often.

You may also want to do what I do, train your kids to be squealers. After the sitter leaves, I quiz my kids at length about what went on in my absence. Even allowing for some exaggeration, my children have become pretty reliable and accurate spies.

The bottom line is that chances are, you’re going to have to use a sitter at one time or another. With a little research, you can find someone your kids like and whom you can trust. And isn’t that worth a little extra effort?

Kathy P. Behan, a mother of three, is a nationally published freelance writer, specializing in health and family issues.

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