Q&A: help with caring for children who aren't your own

Heather writes:

"I am aunt to two kids {8 & nearly 4} who I get to babysit. This has just started and they have never had a babysitter other than their grandmothers before and we are all learning how to do this.  Here is my dilemma, in my house as a child and with my other nephews and nieces the low menacing "pull it together right now and stop that" voice has value and weight.  In this house it has none {it is a yelling house, I am not a yelling person}, since I don't have kids of my own I don't have vast knowledge of other alternatives to the low menacing voice or yelling and could use some suggestions. 

Oh, and I'm assuming part of the reason the 3 year old came unstuck when his parents left {hitting, "I don't like you, go away", pulling my hair, generally freaking out} was that he just didn't know who was in charge without them.  It calmed down after about an hour but I'm going over there again soon and I'd like to not relive that if I can.

I know that it is off your beaten path a bit, but if you could offer some help I'd really appreciate it."

This is a fascinating one. I spend so much time thinking about how to create the atmosphere I want in my own home with my own kids, and bringing in the good I see in my friends' parenting, that I never even thought about what it must be like to step into a situation in which you have almost no control over the tone.

I think as you do more babysitting for them you're going to have to do less of the low menacing growl or yelling because you'll have them figured out better and they'll have you figured out better. You'll know how to set up the situation from the beginning to get maximum cooperation, and they'll learn how not to press your buttons. Right now they're probably still testing you to see how far you'll let them go, and I'd anticipate that the testing will go on for another few sessions with them. But then they'll settle in. I think if you're not tipped over by the testing behavior and don't give in to the ridiculous things they try to pull they'll probably be delightful kids to babysit. (If they're deliberately trying to press your buttons after the normal testing period you may need to have a little talk with their parents to get some reinforcement on appropriate behavior with Aunt Heather.)

I think you're right about the 3-year-old's outburst. I hope he's not as unsettled next time you see him, but the only real way to deal with it is to protect yourself physically and let him know that it's not acceptable to hurt another person, but that he can hit {a pillow, the couch, his bed} if he feels like he needs to hit something. Let him know it's OK to be upset as long as he's not hurting anyone, and then try to distract him into a fun activity so he forgets about the upset feelings and gets involved in something he likes.

If you're looking for some concrete examples and general pep talks about dealing with kids this age, I wholeheartedly suggest the book Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen. The idea of the book is that kids mostly want to please us (assuming there aren't any bad patterns going on in the home), and that misbehavior is just their completely inept way of communicating that they need something or that something's wrong. (For example, instead of saying "Please talk to me--I need some attention" they'll hit their younger sibling with a heavy toy.) So you can use everyday tasks and even discipline situations to try to tease out from the kids what's going on with them and what they need. I reread sections of it whenever I need a little pep talk, and I think everyone who deals with kids over the age of one year should read it. It's just such a human book.

I think this sounds like such a great situation for all of you once you get the kinks worked out. You're lucky to have so much time with them, and they're lucky to have such a caring aunt who wants to spend time with them.