What should I tell my child’s baby-sitters?

       Early elementary-aged children are usually happy to spend an evening with a “nice” baby-sitter. Kids this age no longer worry about being separated from their parents and can enjoy time with a teenager or adult who’s interested in having fun. Parents, too, have an easier time with a baby-sitter once their child is older. They’re less worried about his physical safety and needs, and are more confident about his ability to follow rules and report problems.

       Parents of children this age still need to carefully prepare their sitter. They should leave emergency phone numbers and written instructions about medications. They should remind their child and the sitter of family rules, writing down important ones if the sitter is new. If there are special circumstances – a child’s friend sleeping over, a special TV show, and outdoor play – parents should leave specific instructions. In addition, they can let the sitter know if she can use the phone or invite a friend over.

       Some sitters get involved in play and easily keep children occupied. Others are more distant, watching the children but not interacting. If parents know their children will have to amuse themselves, they should leave activities to occupy the entire evening, including video and computer games, board games, crafts, and videos.

       Many six- to nine-year-olds tests their sitters, behaving in ways they know their parents wouldn’t accept. Even the most involved sitter won’t know all the family’s rules and may inadvertently find herself letting kids “get away with” inappropriate behavior. If parents anticipate problems or if they worry that siblings will fight with each other, they should give the sitter ideas for distracting the children and defusing arguments. They can leave special snacks, small surprises, or a good book for the sitter to use if the children get out of control.

       Parents who don’t mind some of the rules being broken should let the sitter know. They may not care if the child leaves his meal unfinished, skips his bath, sleeps with his clothes on, or sleeps in his parents’ bed until they come home.

       Sometimes a child is invited to spend time at a friend’s house, supervised by a sitter. Parents should use their judgment in such situations. One mother wouldn’t allow her child to go because she considered the sitter unreliable.

       Occasionally, parents leave their child with a sitter for extended periods. Children will be most comfortable with a familiar sitter, but they can warm up to a friendly new one. Recommendations from trusted sources are essential when choosing a sitter to spend several days with a child.

       Parents should leave daily plans, including notes about sleep-overs, outside play, homework, after-school activities, and special events. They can fill the refrigerator with treats and leave a “thinking of you” present to be given to the child half-way through their absence. They should call home and ask their child about the sitter: “Is she nice?” They also should ask an adult relative or friend to check in to be sure things are going well.

       As kids grow, the “sitter” is often an older sibling. Twelve-years-olds can baby-sit successfully for their six- to nine-year-old brothers and sisters, especially if parents provide lengthy, distracting activities. Video games and rented movies are especially effective. Some young children are comfortable being alone with an older brother or sister as long as the older sibling pays attention to them. But if there is much rivalry, a young child may fear or resent his older sibling. Parents should be flexible when an older child is in charge. Rather than have the older sibling enforce many rules, they can let both children stay up, share the same snacks, do the same activities.

       Parents should stress to both children the importance of getting along. You can talk about ways to work out differences and let both children know how to reach you if they need help. Call home as frequently as you like to see how the evening is going. If there are problems, you should intervene, and if there aren’t, you can feel reassured. Always be careful not to take advantage of the older child; he should not be forced to baby-sit if he has conflicting activities of his own.

       If your child complains about a sitter, even one you’ve used for years, listen carefully. Teenagers change their behavior as they get older. One child said, “Jennifer used to play with us, but now she just watches TV and talks on the phone.” Tell an uninvolved sitter specific activities she can try, then see if she follows through. If things don’t work out, stop using an unsatisfactory sitter and search for one you feel more comfortable with.

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