What to expect from the babysitter

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Q: What’s with babysitters these days? I have hired at least a half-dozen teenaged girls in the past two years, and the issues that have arisen have led me to conclude that it’s not worth the trouble for my husband and me to go out for an evening.

One sitter posted pictures of my kids in a status update on her Facebook page (this was brought to my attention by a mutual friend of her mom). Another allowed my kids to watch an inappropriate TV sitcom (in my view, the show wasn’t even appropriate for the sitter). Another one raided my fridge, left the kitchen a mess, and used our home computer to access Twitter and a host of celebrity gossip sites — and she never even put the kids to bed!

The children report that most of the sitters we hire spend much of the evening texting and “Snapchatting” with their friends. They hardly interact with my kids at all, much less engage them in fun activities.

Is there something I can do to improve our interactions with babysitters? I pay really well, so I don’t have trouble getting teens to sit for me. But I don’t feel I’m getting my money’s worth, and sometimes I even worry that babysitters’ inattention puts my kids at risk.

A: Take some consolation in the fact that, eventually, your children will outgrow their need for babysitters. One of these days, you’ll be able to head out for an evening with your spouse and leave your kids in the responsible care of a supervisor you have personally trained and prepared for the job — your eldest child.

In the meantime, if you want time to nurture your marriage (or just see the occasional movie before it hits video), and you don’t have a network of family members who are able to watch your children when you go out, you’ll have to rely on babysitters to watch your kids.

As in hiring any employee, the key to success in hiring a babysitter is communication. Most parents think they’re communicating because they arm the sitter with long lists of their kids’ schedules, food preferences, favorite TV shows, bathtime rituals, and bedtime routines. Ironically, unless your children are very young, it’s probably not necessary to go to so much trouble, since your kindergartner will either tell the sitter exactly how things are done or persuade her to ignore the routine anyway. Besides, having you out for the evening is a break for the kids, as well, so if your usual routines aren’t followed to a “T,” it’s probably okay.

By all means, give the babysitter ample instruction about how to care for your kids. But more importantly, make your expectations about her behavior clear, including everything from her use of media to the condition you expect to find your kitchen. 

In my heyday as an employer of babysitters, I used to give a funny-but-not-joking speech —in front of my children — about what I expected from the babysitter. It went something like this:

“Courtney, it’s great to have you here! The kids are excited to have fun with you, and they have ideas about things you can do together. Just so we’re clear, no wild parties, no drinking, no drugs, no visitors — and that means no boyfriends — no MTV, no lengthy phone calls…” I usually wrapped up my orientation speech with a request and a joke: “I’d love to come home to a clean kitchen and a family room that’s been picked up, and I’d prefer you don’t do donuts on the front lawn in your car. But do the best you can.”

That Mrs. Hicks. She’s a hoot, right? Except that I left nothing unsaid. No one was ever going to be able to argue, “But you never told me I couldn’t have my boyfriend over after the kids went to bed.” I specifically told my sitters I didn’t want visitors — especially boyfriends. 

Of course, I generally hired teens with good reputations for responsibility and maturity. But the key word in that sentence is “teens.” Even the best of them make mistakes, but they make fewer bad decisions when adults are clear about our expectations. That’s as true in parenting as it is in employing a babysitter.

The digital age has ushered in a whole host of concerns. On one hand, you don’t want a babysitter ignoring your kids in favor of her real-time digital social life, which she need never leave behind — even at a paid babysitting job.

But do you want to be hounded while you’re out by your kids, whose access to smartphones and other devices allow them to stay in constant communication with you? My daughter explained that it’s a struggle when the children connect directly with their parents to undermine her directions. “It’s not uncommon for a child to tell me, ‘I just texted my mom, and she says I can stay up’” (or “skip the vegetables,” or “skip my bath” — you get the picture).

When it comes to the use of devices and media, then, it’s a good idea to spell out your expectations for both your kids and your sitter. Keep it clear, direct, and simple, and then enjoy a well-deserved night out!

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