Advice to parents from a babysitter

Guest post today, written by reader Vanessa Steck, a professional babysitter, who writes a blog at barelycontrolledchaos.blogspot.com.

When I was in middle and high school, I was always surprised tohear people say that they had babysitters. Babysitters? Really? The summer I was thirteen I lived with a family for a week and watched the kids all day. I didn’t understand this business of older kids having babysitters.

Now I do. There are the babysitters that you hire to watch your four-year-old for a couple hours when you run to grocery store, and there are the babysitters that you hire to manage anything that might come up with your children through the process of putting them to the bed, or taking them to activities, or whatever. I’ve been both.

I started, of course, as the former and have moved into the latter. Right now, I have 4 families that I work with. On Tuesdays I take three boys from three different families. On Thursdays I take 2 of those same boys and 1 girl from yet another family. On Fridays, I watch that girl and her three siblings. It’s a great schedule. But I spent a fair amount of time thinking about babysitting and how the connection between babysitters and parents works.

I have chosen these four families carefully. I’ve known them all now for years—at least four—and one I have known for ten. This helps. But as a babysitter, I feel I have a responsibility to work only with families that I am comfortable with. Last winter, after much consideration, I stopped working for a family because I was not comfortable with the parenting style. It broke my heart, because I loved those girls. But I cannot work for people whose parenting styles I don’t support.

This is not to say that I must be in 100% agreement with you at all times about the ways in which you parent your children. But as their babysitter, I need to feel comfortable enough to talk to you about your child without feeling as though you are going to flip out (why I never work for parents who spank, ever.)

All this to say, I know a fair bit about babysitting. So I thought I should share it with you.
Finding a babysitter: you’ve all probably done this before so I won’t say much about it except this: trust your gut. If the girl who all your neighbors rave about comes in and meets your kid and you get a feeling that something is off, keep looking. If you find a teenage boy who seems to have a great rapport with your kids, let him try babysitting-boys can be babysitters too. Little known fact.

My favorite conversations with perspective parents have been the ones in which we chat not just about their children’s logistics—Jimmy goes to bed at eight, etc—but about larger and broader topics. I like for parents to ask me about discipline and give me hypotheticals. What would I do if Hannah threw a tantrum? I like to discuss philosophy with parents. It always makes me incredibly happy when a parent says they love “How to Talk So That Kids Can Listen…” which is my favorite book about kids.

Overall when I meet new parents the thing I most want to know is that we are going to be on more or less the same page. We certainly do not have to be exactly in line on everything, but I need to know that parents are willing to consider different viewpoints. For me, I need parents to be able to accept that sometimes their kids will come home dirty. Sometimes the house won’t be perfectly cleaned because, well, I had to have a discussion about what would happen if Mommy and Daddy died.

This brings me to by far the most important point. Trust. You have to trust your babysitter. Otherwise the entire thing is a useless exercise. This is why I hate the idea of nanny cams so very, very much. If you do not trust your sitter to take good care of your children, then what on earth is the point in having a babysitter? Ideally, babysitters—especially the long term ones who you use frequently—should be partners with parents, just as teachers are partners.

I’ve had discussions with children about some pretty intense topics. See above re what happens if Mommy and Daddy die. And I’ve had the experience of explaining that yes, it is possible that Mommy will get shot, but not likely, and we hope she won’t die until you are much older. I’ve had the experience of holding a child tight and telling him that no, attacking his brother is not acceptable. And it is for the fact that I am comfortable with these things as well as my ability to play endless rounds of Zingo that people hire me.

So I guess I’d like to open this up for discussion, after I make a few final points.

1. Babysitters are not housekeepers/cooks/dog walkers/maids. Yes, you should expect your house to be in the shape it was when you left—when the caveat that sometimes things happen and your sitter didn’t have time to guide the kids in cleaning—but babysitters do not exist to cook your dinner (making something for the kids is fine, of course), wash your clothes, walk your dog, whatever. We are here to watch your children. Period.

2. Be nice to your sitter! Ask her questions about what she’s doing with her life. Find out her interests. Ask your kids to make her birthday and holiday cards. Show an interest in her life.

3. Follow your instincts. If your kids are miserable every time you mention the sitter, think twice.

4. At the same time, remember that kids are kids and don’t always like babysitters. If you’ve hired a sitter that you trust you should be comfortable leaving your screaming child with her. Yes, it’s hard to walk out while your child screams in someone else’s arms, stretching out his arms and begging for you—but you need to trust that your sitter can handle it. Don’t let your child become the adult in a situation.

5. This is somewhat voided if your child is having specific serious emotional problems or going through a really rough time. That may necessitate that you take special measures.

6. If something is going on with your child, please tell your sitter. You don’t need to divulge every detail, but your sitter does need to know if your son is worried about death a lot, or if your daughter is feeling especially needy.

7. Please, please, please honor your commitments. If you say you need a sitter on Saturday from 5-9, please be gone from 5-9. If you need to cancel on short notice, it’s polite to pay your sitter anyway. Many babysitters work out what they can and cannot afford based on the work they have that week.
8. If you are going to be late, call for heavens sake.

9. And on that note---please, please leave your cell phone on, at least on vibrate. There is nothing more terrifying than having an injured or sick child and not being able to reach his or her parents.

10. Understand that accidents happen. I’ve had two serious injuries in my ten plus years of babysitting. Once I was holding the hand of a young boy, about 2, and tripped, pulling him over. Poor boy needed stitches in his forehead: when his mother arrived, he was burying his head in my chest and we were both a bit bloody. Another time, a 3 year old was climbing a shelf—just as I turned to tell him to GET DOWN, he fell, naturally, and sustained a HUGE black eye. I felt horrible. But things do happen.

11. However, if things happen ALL the time to your children, or if an accident that is just common sense happens—baby falls off the changing table, for example—rethink your choice of a sitter.

12. Listen to your babysitter. Sometimes people who don’t know your children as well as you do or who don’t have the same connection can see things you can’t.

Most of all, remember that ideally, you want this to be a working, dynamic partnership. If you find a sitter that you and your children love, consider yourself lucky, and hold onto her.