Courses Fill Thinning Ranks of Baby Sitters With Middle Schoolers

Whenever local newspapers announce the after-school baby-sitting course Brenda Clover teaches, she can count on two kinds of telephone calls: those from 10-to-14-year-olds wanting to enroll, and those from mothers hoping to find baby sitters to hire.

"I tell the mothers I'm not a referral service," Mrs. Clover says. Even so, she adds, "I've had mothers want to stand by the door and catch students on their way out. That's how desperate some of them are."

As fast-food chains and malls employ increasing numbers of high school students, they thin the ranks of experienced baby sitters. So more parents are hiring middle schoolers to fill the gap. To teach these young adolescents the basics of child care, communities across the country are offering a record number of training courses this fall. Sponsored by youth groups, hospitals, schools, and churches, the courses cover everything from child development and toys to safety and health.

Although no overall statistics exist, the growth of one nationwide program, Safe Sitter, based in Indianapolis, illustrates the increasing popularity. In the past four years student participation has doubled, from 10,000 11-to-13-year-olds in 1991 to 20,000 this year, according to Jan Petty, executive director. Thirteen percent are boys.

"We try to reach students before they actually start baby-sitting," Ms. Petty says. "We want to teach them good habits so they won't have to unlearn things."

On a sunny October afternoon, 15 middle schoolers gather in the auditorium of the MetroWest Medical Center here for the third class in Clover's four-session course, sponsored by the center. After talking about infants, Clover shows a video about toddlers. She concludes the two-hour class with a unit on simple first aid.

Clover, a pediatric specialist and the mother of three young children, offers gentle, practical advice:

"Never allow behavior that goes against the parents' rules."

"Mealtime with toddlers - we're talking 'messy' with a capital 'M'."

"Be firm but friendly about bedtime."

"Never ever hit or spank a child."

Like most of the 11 girls and four boys taking Clover's class, 11-year-old Matthew Lewis is honing his skills at home before accepting jobs with other families. "Right now I baby-sit for my sister," he explains. "I have a lot of fun with it."

Veronica Phelps, who teaches baby-sitting courses in East Hampton, Conn., notes one advantage of using boys. "We have a lot of single moms in our town, so the boys serve as a good role model for children," says Ms. Phelps, executive director of the Kids of Chatham organization.

Emphasizing the value of these classes, she adds, "A lot of times this is the only background in child development kids get until they have children of their own. If their mother didn't tell them what to do, they wouldn't know."

It is a sign of the times that most baby-sitting courses now place a heavy emphasis on safety: How to deal with strangers at the door. How to call 911 or the poison hotline. How to perform the Heimlich maneuver if someone chokes.

Safe Sitter classes include discussions about gun safety. Phelps also talks about dealing with suspected child abuse and finding drugs in a home.

In addition, Phelps discusses cultural diversity and the importance of respecting a family's customs.

Then there is the sticky issue of money. Instructors urge students to mention rates before they accept a job. As Petty explains, "We teach them to say, 'I charge X amount.' Kids don't want to do that. It's easier just to say, 'I'll take whatever.' "

When Safe Sitter conducted a survey last year in its student newspaper, responses ranged from $1.50 to $3 an hour, though Petty notes that in cities, hourly rates can reach $5 or more.

Teachers emphasize that baby sitters - and their parents - have rights too. Clover gives her students a contract they can use with employers, listing rates, the days they're available, and any curfew their own parents set.

Jane Crowley Pardini of Novato, Calif., the author of a forthcoming book on baby-sitting, adds, "If I were the parent of a teenage daughter, I'd be concerned about the homes she was going to. I'd want to be sure she was safe."

As the mother of two small children, Ms. Pardini sees both advantages and disadvantages in hiring young baby sitters. "Some of these kids are great," she says. "They're more energetic and more likely to play with the kids than high school students. But they're still young themselves, so it helps to have a parent or someone in the neighborhood, just in case there's a need."

Once a baby sitter becomes well-trained, experienced, and competent, word travels fast on the parental grapevine - sometimes too fast.

As Pardini explains, "If you get somebody good, everybody wants to use her."

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