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Finding the Right Babysitter

When you need to take a break, how do you find someone to temporarily take care of your children? If your extended family is scattered across the country, you can no longer count on dropping the children off with grandma or other relatives for a few hours. Increasingly, you'll have to look outside the family for occasional childcare. This task can be daunting.

How do you go about finding a reliable babysitter? How do you know that the sitter is right for your children?

Babysitters come from varied backgrounds and in all shapes and sizes. They can range from sixth-graders to grandparents; both males and females can be wonderful babysitters. But, unless you can rely on relatives or close friends, the options can be bewildering. There are steps you can take, nonetheless, to insure that your children are well cared for when you go out.

Check Those References

The bottom line is that a babysitter needs to be responsible, patient, and levelheaded. You can assess these qualities by checking references. When talking with another parent about a potential sitter, don't rely on general comments like, "Oh, he was fine..." Ask specific questions. Did the sitter arrive on time? Has she ever failed to come? Why? Did he give you ample notice? How did the sitter handle stressful situations? Discipline? Crying? How do the children feel about the sitter? Do they look forward to her arrival? All of these questions will help you make an informed choice about how reliable and responsible your potential sitter may be. A parent who works in the human resources section of a large corporation notes, "I want specific information when I hire a new employee for my company. Why would I settle for less when it's someone who will be caring for my child?"

Children's Needs Change with Age

Be aware that the same sitter may not be right for children of all ages. Taking care of a toddler or preschooler, for instance, requires an enormous amount of energy. Taking care of a nine- or ten-year-old, who may be more independent, requires less energy, but still requires a sense of play.

Who's Right for Your Family?

It's important that you be comfortable with your babysitter's approach to childcare. A sitter who is more rigid or more lenient than you are comfortable with, or who does not follow your guidelines, can be confusing, and even damaging to your child.

One conflict that often arises with babysitters concerns discipline. Find out how your potential sitter feels about how children should behave. Make sure that their expectations are reasonable and that they dovetail with your expectations. Having reasonable expectations about behavior is important not matter how old your child is, but it is especially important for babies and toddlers.

One mother we know refused to hire a babysitter when the sitter commented that she thought a nine-month-old baby was "spoiled." The mom was understandably concerned that the sitter would not have the patience or understanding to tolerate taking care of a baby who might get fussy or cry. Toddlers, whose interest in walking and exploring the world can be wearing even for parents, are also vulnerable to being harmed by caretakers who have limited patience, or a lack of understanding about how to handle exuberance and drive.

How Old Should a Babysitter Be?

Age is not a guarantee of maturity. There are 12-year-olds who make more competent babysitters than some 17-year-olds. Activity levels aren't always tied to age, either. Some 75-year-olds have more energy than other people of 55. And many younger people find childcare too tiring.

Most parents find that sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders make ideal sitters. They have the maturity to be responsible, are delighted to be "grown up" enough to baby sit, and do not have the same social distractions as high schoolers. Girls are often slightly more mature than boys at this age, however. The American Academy of Pediatrics says in its book, Caring for Your School-Age Child, that adolescents make good babysitters, but also suggests, "Be sure to speak with the parents of any teenager you are considering hiring, to get a sense of how she handles responsibility." Check also to see if your town, a local community group, HMO, or school offers babysitting courses. Such classes are designed to help pre-teens and teens learn about taking care of children and you may prefer to hire sitters with this type of training.

Cooperate!

One final possibility is to establish or become part of a babysitting cooperative. Cooperatives provide structure for the often spontaneous shared babysitting that happens between friends. Parents in the co-op exchange babysitting in a structured, organized fashion. The advantage to co-ops is that they save money and provide you with babysitters whom you know and trust. The disadvantage in these busy times is that you will have to plan on doing a regular amount of babysitting each month.

Following these suggestions and using your own common sense about selecting a babysitter will help you cope successfully with the all-important task of making sure your children are safe and happy in your absence.

Where to Look for Babysitters

  • Your network of friends and relatives with children: Other parents are a wonderful source of information about babysitting. Talk with them about their experiences with the sitter. What are his or her strengths or weaknesses? Often several families share a particular babysitter. Reliable babysitters may have friends or siblings who babysit.

  • Neighborhood middle schools, high schools, and colleges: Often schools have newsletters or bulletin boards where jobs can be posted. Colleges usually have student placement services that match students up with potential employers. Colleges that specialize in early childhood education are a particularly good place to find students genuinely interested in children. As a special bonus they may have some background in child development.

  • Your local senior center: Sometimes retired citizens are looking for part-time work. You could post a notice.

  • Churches and synagogues: The clergy, or head of a youth group, may personally know congregants who are interested in babysitting.

  • Advertising in a community or school newspaper: The advantage of this is that you will reach a wide pool of people. The disadvantage is that you will have no control over the number and range of people applying for the job. Certainly if you advertise in a newspaper, or through a notice on a bulletin board, it is essential to meet a babysitter and carefully check all references before you hire her.

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