Babysitters can be a parent’s best friend. At times, they are our lifeline to sanity. This is especially true if you, like me, live far away from any family members who could step in during an emergency or on otherwise short notice.
In November, 2003, I was home by myself for the evening and Texan Papa couldn’t be reached. I was home alone with my 3-year-old, my 19-month-old, and my 3-week-old newborn when the oldest 2 started throwing up and showing flu-like symptoms quite suddenly. I needed to help my sick kids but also tend to my infant and keep him from getting sick too. I ended up calling a friend, Joanna, in desperation. She came right over with Mary, her teenage daughter. Joanna happily held the baby as I doctored my two toddlers with the flu, while Mary ran to Walgreens for Pedialyte and Children’s Tylenol.
There will come a time when you want to or need to have some help, and it’s a good idea to have an idea about what you’ll expect from a babysitter. I’ve had dozens of teenage girls come through my door to babysit my kids, some more competent than others. I’m going to give you my advice about the care and handling of babysitters, from years of experience – as a parent and as a babysitter myself.
Who Should Watch Your Children?
I’m going to say that your safest bet is to have a girl watch your kids. Boys may be fine but statistics about sexual abuse make it clear that a girl, in general, is much less likely to molest a child. So, there’s that to consider. Most girls start babysitting some time around the age of 12 or 13, but more important than age is the maturity of a teen. Common sense and a love for children are qualities that are innate to some people, and they will make the best babysitters for your children. The best way to find a babysitter is definitely word of mouth. Ask your friends who they use and if they feel she’s safe. Do the kids like her? Is she usually available for babysitting or is she pretty busy with sports, school, and friends? Other people you could ask for referrals: local high school teachers will know who’s responsible and trustworthy, Girl Scout leaders will have scouts who show leadership and are motivated to make money, and your religious leader will know members of the congregation who are good with children. NEVER NEVER NEVER just ask a teenager that you happen to know, out of sheer desperation. Also, NEVER take a parent’s word about their own child. While they may think their daughter is mature and responsible, you will be better off finding an objective person to be the judge of that before leaving your kids with her.
When you find a babysitter, you might want to have her over for an hour while you stay at home and get something done around the house, so you can have some free time at home but you can also observe her with your kids. You can get a feel for how much experience she has and if her personality meshes with your own. You can also answer any questions that she has about your family’s own unique needs.
Giving the Babysitter Some Instructions
Don’t be afraid to tell the babysitter how you want things done while you’re gone – but also remember that she’s a temporary helper. If something doesn’t go according to plan, it can go back to the routine the next day. Make sure you have told the babysitter where you’re going, how you can be reached, and about how long you’ll be gone. It’s also important that she understand how discipline is to be handled: time outs, grounding, being sent to their room, etc. If your child needs to take medicine, make absolutely sure that she understands frequency and dosage. Tell her how you want her to handle phone calls & knocks on the door, where the kids are allowed to play, what she’s allowed to eat while you’re gone, and if she needs to take care of the family pet. These little things that seem common sense to you, may NOT BE to her. Make sure she knows how to change a baby’s diaper, how to use the stove or oven (if she has to make dinner, like soup or a pizza), how to use the cordless phone, etc. And, don’t be embarrassed about laying down some ground rules too, like no talking or texting on a cell phone while the kids are awake, or keep all shoes off the furniture.
What is the Babysitter Expected to Do?
The no. 1 job of a babysitter is keeping the children safe. It’s important that the babysitter understand how to recognize dangerous situations like choking, high fever, and seizure. Also, she needs to have a watchful eye for possible danger, like falls, burns, and cuts. She needs to have a cool head when stressful situations arise so that she can deal with them (like if your child should climb a huge tree and not know how to get down. Not saying that EVER happens to me. Ahem.) A secondary expectation would be keeping the kids happy. She should show interest in the children and help them get along with each other. She should actively engage them instead of just standing on the periphery and watching them play. She also needs to have fun with them, not expect them to be obedient little robots. She may occasionally need to break up an argument, so that’s another time when having a cool head will be important.
The babysitter isn’t a maid. She shouldn’t be expected to fold laundry or clean up the kitchen. It is perfectly fine, however, to ask (not expect) that anything taken out while she’s watching the kids be put away. If she & the kids play a board game, she can put it away. If she serves them dinner, she can clean up the plates (or she can supervise the kids doing it). But, try to keep the work to a minimum if you want her to come back. Otherwise, you’ll need to compensate her accordingly.
How Much Should You Pay the Babysitter?
Speaking of compensation, the bottom line is that you should pay your babysitter enough so that if you want this babysitter to come back again, and give you the same service as in the past, the next time you call her she will not hesitate to say “yes”. I have paid babysitters various amounts depending on how many children were home, what kind of duties the babysitter had to perform, how old the babysitter was, and if she did a good job. I have asked this question on Mamapedia as well as on my own blog, and gotten a price range from close to what *I* made 20 years ago, to more than I’d even charge myself! Typically I will pay the sitter around $5 per hour for the first child, plus an additional $1 per hour for each additional child. So, for my 5 kids that would be $9 per hour. If the sitter doesn’t have to do anything except watch my children sleep, I’ll usually pay her less. If I come home and notice that she’s done something extra, like wash the dishes or put away toys that were already out when she arrived, I will pay her a little more. Also, keep in mind the difference between babysitting infants, toddlers, and older children: a baby who is colicky, needs to be changed, fed by hand, and rocked to sleep is a LOT more work than a 7-year-old who uses the bathroom and can brush his own teeth.
How many babysitters should you have on your list?
I think a safe number of babysitters to have on your call list depends on how often you need a babysitter and how available they are. Really, I have only 2 or 3, but my main babysitter always says yes. I usually don’t give her more than a day notice (because I suck at planning ahead) and she is always available. But, I just lost one babysitter from my list because she is getting more and more involved in her school activities (or so she told me. I hope it’s not because my kids were hellions for her.) A better number would be around 5 names. You need to find sitters from different places, too. If they are all from the same local high school, then you will never find a sitter on the night of the Homecoming Dance or the week of finals. If they are all from church, you’ll be out of luck if you plan a date night with your spouse on the weekend of Church Camp.
Babysitters can be a really valuable part of your family. Time away from home and the kids can be a much-needed mental break, when you’re about to have a breakdown! Someone who is trustworthy is worth every penny you spend. I hope some of these tips will help you find a good match for your kids and your family.
Gretchen, a.k.a. Texan Mama, spends her days finding rogue singleton socks and tending to the dozen feet that wear those socks. She resides in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex with her husband, 5 children, and one dog (who doesn't wear socks). In her spare time, she blogs at Who Put Me In Charge Of These People???