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Choosing a babysitter

By Debbie Verbeck

As parents, we know it’s normal and healthy to enjoy a short break from our children now and then. The break is usually good for the kids, too. But finding the right person to look after the little ones can be a daunting task.

Where to look
Family and Friends – The smartest option for most parents is to start with relatives and friends. If your extended family lives nearby, you may be able to drop the kids off with grandma or another relative for a few hours. You may even have a close friend you can rely on, or better yet, a circle of friends who are willing to start a babysitting co-op.

Social Network – If your family and friends are not an option, you’ll need to look elsewhere. Start by asking other trusted adults who they would recommend. Neighbors, coworkers, church acquaintances, pediatricians, and day care center staff may know of a sitter that is available. You can even contact local colleges for recommendations – the staff may know of an early education major who is actually looking for a babysitting job.

Babysitting Services/Agencies – There are several good babysitting referral programs available online, including sittercity.com, sitters.com, and babysitters4hire.com. Most of these programs charge a fee, but the extra cost is worth it for many parents because the programs provide a large pool of adult candidates to choose from, along with background checks and references. You can also find licensed agencies, which also charge fees, through the local yellow pages.

Teens – Many parents reach a point when they feel comfortable relying on a teenager for their occasional babysitting needs. If you are considering this option, start by looking within your social network. Do you have a niece or nephew who is old enough to babysit? Do you have any friends or coworkers who have teenagers that may be willing to sit? Do you know a neighbor who can recommend a great teen? Don’t be afraid to think outside the box: teachers, scout leaders, and coaches may know of several responsible teens that may be interested in babysitting.

When deciding whether or not a teen would be appropriate for your family’s babysitting needs, consider the age of your children. If you have preschoolers or school-aged children, a teen may be the perfect fit. If you have a newborn, you’ll probably want to stick with an adult sitter who has plenty of experience taking care of infants.

What to look for in a teen sitter
When you hire a babysitter, you’re looking for someone who will be responsible for your children. Therefore, you want a teen that is mature, reliable, patient, level-headed, and able to make decisions on his or her own.

For Sarah Scaring, a mother of five who lives in Warrenton, finding the right teen is simply a matter of doing her homework.

“When I look for a babysitter, I look for certification from the Red Cross,” she says. “At least this ensures me that the teenager I’m interested in hiring is also interested in making sure my kids are taken care of properly. But first and foremost, I look for someone with a good personality that will mesh with my kids’ personalities – fun, happy, full of excitement and energy.”

When considering a teen sitter, Sarah also looks for someone that is willing to play with her kids, read stories to them, and change diapers. She also wants to make sure the teen feels comfortable taking care of multiple children. In order to do this, Sarah meets face-to-face to ask some questions. She may also talk to the teen’s parents to get a sense of how the teen handles responsibility. Next, Sarah explains her expectations (such as snack rules for the children and phone rules while babysitting), and then conducts a trial run.

“For a first-time sitter, I have the teen come 30 minutes in advance of my departure to see how she interacts with my children. If my kids are not comfortable, I’ll pay the sitter for the 30 minutes of her time and reschedule my outing. This has never happened to me before, but I’m sure it could.”

For parents who are nervous about leaving their kids, Sarah recommends short babysitting arrangements of 30 to 60 minutes each, or a supervised trial. For example, you could hire a sitter to watch your kids while you are cleaning the house, and then observe the interaction. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t leave your children with the sitter, she advises.

“Or if you feel that your children are not ready for a sitter, or will be too upset, wait a month and try again,” Sarah says. “But what I have found with my own kids is that when they are upset, it’s only for a short period of time. The sitter is usually able to distract them and calm them down.”

Taking the plunge
Deciding whether or not to hire a sitter is a personal decision that each family must make on its own. But if the fear that something may go wrong actually prevents you from hiring a sitter, keep in mind these wise words of advice.

“Time spent away, no matter how short, is beneficial not only to me, but to my children,” Sarah says. “The kids get to know someone else’s nurturing style, they get to enjoy the company of someone other than a relative, they get to learn communication skills with someone else, and they have fun.”

And for herself, Sarah adds, “I get a well-deserved break to spend time with a friend for coffee or lunch, or I get to enjoy a relaxing dinner with my husband.”

That time away, she says, gives her perspective and allows her to be a better and more relaxed parent.

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