Family

How to get the best babysitter for your child

Author: Canadian Living

Family

How to get the best babysitter for your child

When it comes to finding a babysitter, Patricia Bulley admits she's a bit of a stalker mom. "I'm always scouting girls out, watching to see how mature they are," she says, laughing. Patricia, who has two daughters, Abby, 6, and Ella, 3, works shift work, so having a roster of reliable sitters on hand is essential. But as so many parents quickly discover, they aren't always easy to find – or keep.

Especially the good ones. Hayley, 14, is the babysitting mogul of her west Toronto neighbourhood. Hayley's mother, police Det. Sgt. Pauline Gray, began preparing her daughter for the responsibility of caring for other people's children long before Hayley hung out her shingle. "We started off by paying her to occupy our friends' younger children when we had dinner parties," says Pauline. "Now she's generating her own flyers and business cards."

Whether you're in Patricia's position of trying to line up a babysitter you trust or you're helping prep your own tween for the job, you'll find the smartest strategies come from seasoned pros. We asked babysitting experts – including satisfied parents and teens in the trenches – for their tried-and-true advice on what works and what doesn't.

Picking the perfect sitter
As desperate as you may be for an adult night out, don't let down your guard. ''Parents take too many risks with their sitters,'' says Samantha Wilson, president of Kidproof Child Safety and author of The Babysitter's Handbook (Kidproof Safety, 2007). ''They don't take the time they would in any other situation involving their children.'' Here’s how to make hiring a babysitter a relatively worry-free experience.

Know who you're hiring
Don’t wait until you’re in a jam to start looking for a sitter, then turn to Craigslist or Kijiji, warns Wilson. The best place to recruit is among relatives, friends and neighbours. Knowing the sitter's family brings peace of mind, says Marc Scott*, father of Pamela, 5, and Jimmy, 2. ''If the parents are trustworthy, then you expect they're raising their kids a certain way, too.''

When Patricia takes her daughters to drop-ins and their co-op nursery school, she uses the opportunity to chat up the nannies and babysitters, and she makes inquiries at her church. She also makes a point of scouting out potential candidates at her local park. ''There's one girl who is only in Grade 7, but she's always nice to Abby and she seems more mature. I'll keep my eye on her.'' Finding a sitter with a younger sibling is a bonus, adds Patricia, who is always looking one step ahead. ''Once they reach 16, you have about six months to a year before they leave you. My hope is that when the older girl is ready to move on, the younger sibling will be ready to take her place.''

Do your homework
Get multiple references – and follow up. They can be from neighbours, teachers, other babysitting clients or the soccer coach. Ask open-ended questions such as, 'Tell me about Sally,' or 'What's she like with other children?' ''You're trying to get a sense of the patience and maturity level of the sitter,'' says Wilson. If you like what you hear, set up an interview and watch how the sitter interacts with your children. While maturity and good judgment are key, you also want someone who genuinely likes children and will do fun things with them.

Page 1 of 5Don't hesitate to ask a few scenario-style questions: 'What would you do if my child had a fever or if someone came to the door'? Check, too, whether the potential sitter has taken a babysitting course. ''At least then he has some basic knowledge about child behaviour, so he knows it’s not appropriate to give a toddler food to take to bed or he doesn't think, 'Wouldn't it be great to bring over my Lego set to share with the baby?' '' says Ann Douglas, a mother of four in Peterborough, Ont., and the author of numerous parenting books.

If the prescreening is successful, pay the sitter to watch your children for a few hours while you’re there, too.

Check in on occasion during the trial run to see how everyone's getting along. ''If the sitter is on the couch reading a book and ignoring the children, you can pretty much gauge how things will go in your absence,'' says Douglas.

Be clear about your expectations
Review the house rules with your sitter (no reality-based TV shows, for example), preferably with the kids present. ''Children are always going to be testing; 'Let's see what we can get away with,' '' says Calgary babysitter Erin Nikota, 22. ''That way, you can make sure everyone is on the same page.''

Marryn Mahar, 20, recalls babysitting a six-year-old whose parents were ''health nuts.'' When 
the parents found out she'd shared a Popsicle with their daughter and painted her fingernails princess pink, they flipped out. ''I was just trying to be nice to the little girl,'' says Marryn. ''They really laid out the rules after that!''

Take time to spell out to a fledgling sitter what he can or can't do after the children are tucked into bed: watch TV, use the computer or phone, have a friend over, etc. When Marryn's younger brother, Graeme, pinch-hit for her on a job, he spent most of the night sitting on the stairs. ''I was listening to make sure everything was OK,'' he says, laughing. ''I didn't know I could go in the living room and watch TV or do my homework.''

Follow up with the kids
Children are good judges of character, so don't forget to quiz little Susie and Johnny when the babysitter has left, advises Martha Scully, a mother of two in Nanaimo, B.C., and founder 
of Canadiansitter.ca, an online babysitting service. What TV shows did they watch (always a good indication of how much TV they watched), what games did they play, what books did they read? Did the sitter raise her voice? Did they like and trust her? Did anything happen that made them feel uncomfortable or afraid?

Show respect
Once you’ve found your own Mary Poppins, you'll want to keep her at all costs. That may mean digging a little deeper in your pocket at the end of the night. ''People think nothing of paying their cleaning ladies and dogsitters more than their babysitter,'' says Michelle Facette, 24, of Canmore, Alta.

Page 2 of 5Tardiness is another major babysitting gripe. Try to make it home when you say you’re going to (especially on a school night). If you are late, pay generously for the extra time. ''I babysat for one parent who ended up staying out until five in the morning,'' says Michelle. ''He finally called at 3:30 and told me to go to bed!''

Make it a point to let your sitter know how much you and your children appreciate her. ''I love getting little presents and cards from the kids on birthdays and special occasions,'' says Michelle. It’s a good idea to offer the occasional incentive, too, says Douglas. ''It could be a $100 Blockbuster gift certificate to pick up movies to watch when the kids are in bed. You want your sitter to feel valued because there are times when your kids aren’t going to make her feel that way.''

Prepping the perfect sitter

Your tween has her eye on an Xbox 360 and making the cash to get it. But before your child is ready to babysit someone else's child, you want to be sure she has the necessary skills. Here's how to help make it a safe and rewarding experience for everyone.

Be prepared

While there's no legal age for babysitting, 12 is a good jumping-off point, although some kids are clearly not ready until they’re in their teens, says Wilson. ''It depends on their maturity and the number and ages of the children they'll be babysitting.'' Experts recommend taking one of the many babysitting courses available. ''Not only does it help your kids prepare for their actual role as a babysitter, but it also gets them to really think about what it means and the responsibilities that go with it,'' says Wilson.

A sense of security is key when starting out. Marryn took jobs only in her immediate neighbourhood so her mother could help her out if need be. You also want to be sure that your junior sitter doesn’t take on more than she can realistically handle. Babysitting a six-month-old is different than babysitting a six-year-old. Your tween may feel a lot more comfortable playing Candy Land than changing dirty diapers.

Take the job seriously
Impress on your tween the importance of acting professionally. She should always arrive on time and clean up after herself and her young charges. ''I've told my daughter to put the dishes away if she’s making the kids lunch or a snack, and to make sure their toys are tidied up when the parents get home,'' says Connie Johnson, a mother of two in Dartmouth, N.S. ''I didn't appreciate it when my kids were younger and I'd come home and the house was topsy-turvy.'' Remind her to get specific information from the parents about the children's routines (bedtime, food, activities, toileting) and the house rules for computer and TV use, visitors and telephone calls.

Part of becoming a professional and safe babysitter is being mature enough to recognize your limitations and to be true to your instincts, says Wilson. ''Just because someone offers you the job doesn't mean you have to take it.'' When Connie’s 16-year-old daughter, Nicole, was asked to babysit until three o’clock in the morning, she decided to turn the job down. Neither she nor her mother was comfortable with her being out that late. ''The parent understood, and I thought it was very respectful of her to call and forewarn Nicole,'' says Connie.

Page 3 of 5Set your own boundaries
''Teens tend to be pleasers, although not always with their own parents,'' says Scully. ''They can easily be taken advantage of.'' While the majority of parents who hire your child to babysit will be fair, there are always exceptions. ''We get a lot of complaints about housecleaning,'' says Scully. ''A sitter shouldn’t be asked to mop floors or clean the bathroom.'' And younger teens shouldn’t prepare an entire meal or bathe young charges either.

Talk to your tween about how to handle uncomfortable situations, and empower her with the right to say no. Marryn once accepted a drive home from a parent who she knew had been drinking. ''I was a little bit scared, but I didn’t want to say anything,'' she says.

Start spreading the word

Help your tween market herself through friends, relatives and the parents of children at her school. ''Never let her place an ad or post a notice in a public place such as a recreation centre,'' warns Wilson. While it's fun to use a computer to print up professional-looking business cards with her name, phone number and any special qualifications (Red Cross–certified in first aid, babysitting experience), make sure she hands them out selectively.

Wannabe sitters should look out for opportunities to promote their babysitting potential. Connie's 13-year-old daughter, Danielle, wants to break into babysitting but her older sister, Nicole, gets all the jobs. ''She has started playing with some little kids up the street, entertaining them while their mom is busy,'' says Connie. ''She takes them to the park and plays games with them, trying to work her way in. I think her time is coming pretty soon.''

Never underestimate the fun factor
The best babysitters understand and enjoy children, says Douglas. ''Your kids look forward to them coming because they always bring something fun to do. It could be as simple as a batch of homemade Play-Doh, but it's exciting for the kids because the sitter made it.'' When Nicole babysits three-year-old Brooke, she takes along a little tutu so they can dance together. ''Brooke just adores her,'' says her mother.

Bottom line: ''Make sure it's a memorable experience for the kids and that they have fun,'' says an older and wiser Graeme Mahar. ''Then they'll tell their parents and you'll be invited back.''

Page 4 of 5Two for one?
Supervising a particularly rowdy group of kids or being in charge from dawn till dusk may be more than one sitter can handle. ''Consider the event or situation and ask yourself if you would feel prepared caring for 'x' number of children in that situation,'' says Samantha Wilson, president of Kidproof Child Safety. If you’d need more help to ensure all the kids are safe and properly supervised, then hire a second sitter.

Great resources
Babysitting courses range in price from about $30 to $100. Here's where to get more information on some of the courses available:

• Kidproof Child Safety: 1-866-467-2338; kidproofcanada.com
• Canada Safety Council: safety-council.org
• St. John Ambulance: sja.ca to find your local St. John Ambulance office
• Canadian Red Cross: redcross.ca to locate the zone office near you

Help for babysitters
The Babysitter’s Handbook (Kidproof Safety, 2007) by Samantha Wilson.

• The What to Expect Baby-Sitter’s Handbook (Workman Publishing, 2003) by Heidi Murkoff, with 61 questions babysitters ask most often.

What to pay a good sitter
How much you pay your babysitter will vary from about $5 to $20 an hour, depending on where you live, how much experience she has (including specialized training such as early childhood education or CPR certification), how many children she'll be watching and what her duties will be. ''One autistic child can be the same amount of work as three children without special needs,'' says Martha Scully, a mother of two in Nanaimo, B.C., and founder of Canadiansitter.ca, an online babysitting service.

Ask around and find out what your neighbours, friends and your babysitter’s references pay. ''At the very least, be prepared to pay minimum wage,'' advises parenting author Ann Douglas. ''That way they'll think, I could be trying to serve a customer every 20 seconds at a drive-through window, or I could be playing with cute babies and toddlers.'' If you find a sitter who volunteers to do chores and is great with the kids, you’ve struck gold. Reward her accordingly.

Page 5 of 5

This story was originally titled "The Canadian Living Babysitting Guide" in the November 2008 issue.

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How to get the best babysitter for your child

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