By Mimi Slawoff
I knew what I expected from a babysitter when my children were little. But now that my oldest child is a babysitter herself – and only 14 years old – I see babysitting from another angle. While she’s focused on caring for the children she’s being paid to baby-sit, I’m also thinking about my daughter’s safety and well-being while she’s in charge.
Will her safety be compromised in any way by older siblings and adults in the family she’s babysitting for? What if someone knocks on the door and won’t go away? Will she know what to do in case of an emergency? Of course, it’s because she’s mature and responsible that my husband and I allow her to baby-sit in the first place.
For many preteens and young teens, baby-sitting is a rite of passage – as well as an excellent way to earn money. Handled right, it can be a rewarding experience. It’s a good opportunity for teens to learn to deal with adults other than their parents and teachers and a chance to learn business basics.
While it’s important to allow our children to learn from this experience, there are precautions that we, as parents, need to take to ensure that our children are safe.
Before you and your young teen even talk about baby-sitting jobs, determine whether your child is mature and responsible enough to care for both herself and other children.
You can best gauge how responsible your child is by how accountable she or he is at home, says Marilyn Heins, M.D., and author of ParenTips for Effective, Enjoyable Parenting.
Look for how well he or she follows directions, does things without being reminded and demonstrates safety rules, says Heins. “You have to know a child can be trusted to take care of herself.”
To get an idea of how your child handles younger children, notice how he interacts with neighborhood kids and family friends, says Heins. For children about 12 years old interested in baby sitting work, a good first step might be to work as a “mother’s helper”, playing with a toddler while a parent is preparing dinner. Children this age should not be responsible for infants.
While there isn’t a legal age for babysitting, it’s wise to check with your local American Red Cross or Child Welfare Agency to find out specific requirements that apply to your area.
The ABCs of Babysitting
The best way to learn babysitting basics is through a babysitting course, offered through various organizations for a nominal fee. The American Red Cross offers programs nationwide to boys and girls ages 11 to 15 (www.redcross.org). During the six-hour course students receive training in safe play, basic care, first aid and problem-solving. Such courses cram in a wealth of information including not only how to entertain and care for young children, but safety issues for both the sitter and the children being cared for.
Charles James, special projects manager for the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Red Cross, says that in the workshops he leads, he emphasis the importance of following house rules. Find out in advance which rooms are off limits and avoid snooping, he says. “You’re not there to explore the house. You never know what you might find,” is what James tells the students, adding that although he doesn’t elaborate with them, the point is to avoid finding anything inappropriate, including sexual materials, guns and drugs.
Upon completion, participants receive a certificate, Babysitter’s Handbook and an optional Babysitter’s Safety and First Aid Kit.
Choosing Safe Babysitting Jobs
For personal safety reasons, teens should never advertise by posting or passing out flyers that could compromise their safety, says Connie Harvey, national health and safety expert with the American Red Cross. “Teens should seek babysitting jobs through a network of family and their – or their parents’ – friends and acquaintances,” she says.
It was through her sister’s friend that Dana Valenzuela, a mother of three in California, introduced her two daughters to babysitting. “From that first job, their friends and neighbors would ask who they used as a babysitter and they would refer Anna and Erica to them,” says Valenzuela.
Harvey recommends that if the job is a referral from someone you don’t know, it’s a good idea to have your child arrange an interview with the family prior to babysitting. That will give her a chance to meet with the family and tour the home. While parents should meet the “hiring” family, once the interview begins the babysitter’s parents should excuse themselves.
“The babysitter must be able to ask relevant questions and have the interaction skills needed to be an effective babysitter and the parents must feel comfortable with how the potential babysitter carries him or herself on his or her own,” says Harvey.
It is imperative, however, that parents to know when, where and for whom their teen is babysitting. That includes having the name, phone number and address of the family your child is sitting for. You should always be notified of any changes or special arrangements.
After Anna Valenzuela received her driver’s license, she was asked to bring the children she was babysitting to the movies and to dinner. She was happy to oblige, but not until she got her parent’s permission.
Arrange in advance with your teen a code that enables him or her to call and alert you in case of an uncomfortable situation. It’s wise for the babysitter’s family to arrange safe transportation to and from all babysitting jobs.
Often the family hiring the babysitter will offer the sitter a ride home. Unless you know and trust the family well, make other arrangements to avoid potential problems, advises Harvey. That way your child won’t be in the position of turning down a ride from an intoxicated driver or sexual advances from someone.
Your child should find out in advance the hours he’ll be babysitting, how many children will be in his care and whether there will be an adult in the home. Arriving at the home of the babysitting job is too late to find out he’ll have three children in his care until midnight.
Once on the job, the sitter needs to know the location of emergency exits, smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. The sitter should have the phone number of where the parents will be or at least a cell phone number. Instruct your child to never open the door to anyone. Upon arriving to a babysitting job, Christina Mendelson, 14, was given $20 and asked to order pizza. The parents left but the young teen’s mom waited with her until the pizza arrived so her daughter wouldn’t have to open the door to a delivery person.
While a parent shouldn’t hover, there are several circumstances when the sitter should call for help rather than handling the situation on his own. They include: A stranger comes to the door and is persistent when the sitter won’t open the door; a strange noise outdoors; a frightening telephone call; and any discomfort with how to handle a situation.
Babysitters should be trained in how to handle an emergency, including how and when to call 9-1-1 or the local emergency number to get advanced medical help there as quickly as possible, says Harvey.
A sitter who is trained and feels confident in her skills will be better able to enjoy babysitting. Veteran sitter Anna Valenzuela, offers this advice to make it fun for all involved, “do what the kids want. Let the kid in you come out. You’ll have more fun.”
50 Best Babysitting Tips (American Girl Backpack Books), by Amanda Haley, Pleasant Company.
The New Complete Babysitter's Handbook, by Carol Barkin and Elizabeth James, Clarion Books.
The Ultimate Babysitter's Handbook: So You Wanna Make Tons of Money (Plugged In), by Mary Guleresian, Mass Market.