Monday, November 8, 2010

Choosing a Babysitter: A Brief How-To

Caring for children is a sacred trust and when it comes to choosing who will care for your own when you’re not there, it’s a tough decision. If you don’t live near family, your options may be limited and often times you may find yourself wondering whether to trust someone younger than yourself (a teen or tween) to watch your children.

My two characteristics of a great babysitter would be the two S’s: Sensitivity and Safety. The caregiving literature overwhelmingly points to sensitivity as an important component of good caregiving. A sensitive caregiver can read children’s signals and respond to them warmly and appropriately. When interacting with a child, a sensitive caregiver can follow the child’s lead and keep the interaction at a good pace without controlling it. Think of it this way: When building a tower of Legos, a sensitive caregiver allows the child to lead the way, choosing which blocks to use, where to place them, and how tall to build the tower. She’s there for support, whether the child needs a hand to steady the tower, encouragement along the way, or a smile and a high five when he’s finished.

A great babysitter should also have safety at the forefront of her mind. She should be able to handle stress, know who to call in an emergency, and not leave young children unattended. You, as the parent of the children being sat for, can help the babysitter be prepared for any emergency that might arise by leaving a list of helpful phone numbers (your cell, spouse/partner’s cell/pediatrician/poison control). You can also write out any specific house rules you’d like followed and leave them in a visible location, like on the fridge (e.g., don’t open the door for anyone, let the phone go to voicemail).

Okay, so now you know the two S’s – Sensitivity and Safety. How do you know if your potential babysitter has those two qualities? Here’s what I suggest:

Have the potential sitter over for an informal interview or meeting
    •  Watch how she interacts with your child- Does she get down on your child’s level? How does she respond to your child? Does she make eye contact and speak directly to him? Does she quickly pick up on and expand upon the child’s interests? If your child is a baby, does she know how to hold him? Does she know appropriate strategies to comfort him when he is distressed?
    • How does she interact with you? Does she seem confident? Is she able to express herself?
    • Ask for references- Essentially, this is a job interview, so ask her for the names and numbers of a few adult references. Ask her about her past experience with children. Ask her what she would do in a hypothetical emergency situation or how she handles stress.
    • Ask her outright- Questions that may feel awkward like ‘Do you know who to call in an emergency?’ or ‘What would you do first if my child was choking?’
    • Tell her outright- Things like ‘My rule is that you don’t leave my child unattended at any time’ or ‘My rule is that you don’t open the door at all.’
  • Do a trial run- When you can go somewhere close and for a short period of time, such as a neighbor’s house or a close restaurant for 30 or 45 minutes.
  • Trust your instinctsAt the end of the day, don’t leave your child with someone you don’t feel comfortable with. 
Parents of teens and tweens, preparing your daughter or son for possible emergency situations that could arise while babysitting is one of the most important and best things you can do. Below are a few resources available to help you find courses in your area.
  • Red CrossEnter your zip code to find CPR and other preparedness classes in your area
  • Many hospitals offer babysitting preparedness courses for free or a nominal fee. Simply look up your local hospital’s website or call for information.


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