A primer for the parents of new babysitters

There are teenage babysitters, and then there are the parents of babysitters, those who make sure they’re sitting for the sitter as a figure of authority.

An image of the title frame from the video trailer for the 1987 film 'Adventures in Babysitting' starring Elizabeth Shue.

If all the articles and opinions about babysitting were compiled into one book, it would weigh about two tons and take at least ten years to read. 

Most people in the US probably have an anecdote about the best, or worst, babysitter they ever had. I would never claim to be an authority on the subject. 

But, my daughter put in a lot of hours supervising other people’s children during high school, and it was a learning experience for our whole family. As parents of the sitter, my wife and I discovered a few things that might be useful to other parents who find themselves in the same position.

This isn’t a comprehensive list; just a few very basic suggestions that should be carefully considered before your own child begins the great adventure of babysitting.

First of all, it’s important to take the job seriously. This may seem obvious, but obvious points sometimes get overlooked. 

When your child is babysitting, he or she is assuming full responsibility for the safety and security of someone else’s kids. If a serious problem pops up, the babysitter is the first responder. But the chain of command doesn’t end there. In a sudden emergency, the babysitter’s immediate reaction may be to call home. Any prospective sitter, and the sitter’s parents, must be absolutely clear about this possibility right from the start. If you’re going in, you have to go all-in. 

Equally important is to make sure everyone involved in the activity agrees on the details ahead of time. I’m a big fan of clarity. The sitter shouldn’t hesitate to ask a lot of questions. If your child has a shy personality this may be tough, but it’s important for them to nail down the answers ahead of time in order to avoid misunderstandings later.

Is the sitter supposed to feed the kids, or give anybody a bath, or help with homework? Are there pets in the mix, and, if so, do they require any special treatment? I don’t think these are trivial issues. The goal is simple: Make a plan, and then stick to it. Mature adults who are looking for a reliable, responsible babysitter shouldn’t have a problem with this policy. 

The first clients may be neighbors, and in that case it’s easy to slip into a relaxed attitude because you think, “Hey, everybody knows each other and we can just work things out along the way. Everything’s going to be fine.” Sometimes this is true, but not always. 

Suppose, for example, that the babysitter is told to “try to have everybody in bed at 10 p.m.”  The word “try” is where this scenario can go off the rails. Now suppose 10 o’clock rolls around and the kids say, “We want to make brownies. Please! We’re not tired. Let’s make brownies first and we promise to go to bed!” Then at 11, when the parents come home and discover nobody is asleep and the kitchen is trashed, they may turn to the sitter and ask, “Why weren’t they in bed at 10 like we agreed? And how did making brownies get the green light?” Let the unpleasantness begin.

Often, this situation leads to a debate about who deserves the blame for things not going right. It’s a really good idea to avoid having the “whose fault is it?” argument. That’s why I strongly recommend avoiding vague directions. Clients should be encouraged to give their kids very clear instructions about what’s OK and not OK once the babysitter arrives and takes charge.  

Sometimes, the preliminary research for a babysitting job may reveal that a particular household just isn’t compatible with your own family's behavior standards. Feel free to give them a pass and move on. In modern America, it’s not unusual to encounter families who favor codes of conduct that combine high risk with low supervision. 

Imagine visiting a home with a backyard swimming pool, and as the parents explain the recreational guidelines to the babysitter, one of them says, “The boys like to jump into the pool from the garage roof. Don’t worry, they’ve been doing it for years.” This may sound like an extreme example, but you get my drift. The old saying is correct: Don’t borrow trouble.

Finally, and in my opinion most important, always keep in mind that the parents of the babysitter have full authority over the who, what, when, and where aspects of each job. Sometimes, asserting that authority can be awkward. I’ve done it. 

Picture this scenario, which actually happened: Parent A, a regular client, sets up a job to babysit A’s two kids at their house. But then A calls the babysitter and says, “Can you handle three kids? The third one is someone we know and he’s great. And it won’t be here anymore. Come to my house and I’ll drive you and my kids to the other child’s house. They’re friends of ours, really nice people. Is that OK?”

Not with me it wasn’t. I didn’t know the third family, nor did I like having the venue changed at the last minute. But the main point I emphasized when I called Parent A was this: these changes in the plan may seem minor to you, but you need to run them past the babysitter’s parents before you ask the babysitter. Don’t put her on the spot. The new arrangement may be fine with her, but first it has to be fine with me. 

I know this makes me sound like Crabby Appleton (oops – I just dated myself) but it goes back to what I said earlier. If your own child decides to try babysitting, you have to go all-in. There are always going to be surprises that pop up. That’s why it’s important to establish control over the basics. The job should get easier as time goes on. Expertise comes from firsthand experience. Try to build a solid base of friendly clients. Have fun doing it. And always remember that brownies need to cool down before slicing, and that cutting them into really small squares makes the enjoyment last longer.

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