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FEATURE ARTICLE: adventures in baby sitting

How to find a great sitter - and peace of mind, too

In the mid-eighties, Hollywood came out with a movie called "Adventures in Baby-sitting," in which a teen sitter takes her charges into inner-city Chicago. While there, they have a tire blow out and their windshield shot out. They get waylaid by a ring of car thieves, they sing the blues in an R&B club and attend a boozy frat party, they scale the outside top of a skyscraper and drive at breakneck speeds on crowded freeways?at night. Of course, the unsuspecting parents never find out.

If you've never seen this movie, don't even think about renting the video! If you're like most parents, you're feeling enough anxiety every time you leave your kids with a sitter?if you can even find one.

But don't panic and give up going out until your youngest starts college. Take a deep breath, ask the Lord to give you wisdom (James 1:5), good judgment (Ps. 119:66) and peaceful confidence (Isa. 32:17), then begin your search for a baby sitter your kids will love and you will trust. Here are practical ways to get started.

network your neighborhood

Networking is key to developing your short list of trustworthy sitters. The secret? Start talking. Your church is your number-one networking zone, a community-within-a-community, and should be more likely to produce a sitter who shares your values. Here are ideas for folks to talk to.

Other parents of young children: Who's sitting for you, and what do you like about that sitter?

Parents of teens: Tell me about your daughter (or son). Do you feel she's ready to baby-sit? (I've found parents will give a realistic appraisal of their child's maturity.)

The youth pastor (and spouse): Who are the teens at the core of our youth group? Which young people show leadership skills and compassion?

The public library's youth program coordinator: Who are some mature young people who volunteer at the library? (These kids tend to be community-minded and good students, though not always Christians.)

Dorm parents from a local Christian college: Which students regularly baby-sit?

A sitter you've liked: Whom would you recommend? (When our favorite baby-sitter was preparing to go to college, I asked her this, and we've used two of her friends on occasion.)

Then talk with the potential sitters. You don't have to promise them a gig on that first conversation. Talk with them at church or call them to ask:

  1. How long have you been baby-sitting?
  2. How do you feel about sitting for children the ages of [your kids]?
  3. If your kids have special needs: Have you had experience working with children with these needs? (Gauge the confidence of their answers.)
  4. Whom else have you baby-sat for? (Get phone numbers. It's appropriate for teens who want to work as sitters to provide references.)

grow your own

Baby-sitters have a way of growing older, getting steady boyfriends, finding other jobs or going off to college. So if you see a young person who would make a great sitter but who lacks experience or skills, go ahead and cultivate him or her as a future first-string baby sitter.

My next-door neighbor, Christina, age 12, is our baby-sitter-in-training. At 12, she is probably not old enough for some types of baby-sitting?especially newborn care or late nights. But, according to childbirth educator Debra Evans, "Maturity isn't necessarily an age issue." She recommends judging a sitter's maturity based on "responsibility, staying calm under stress, and the ability to focus on meeting the needs of others." According to the Department of Child and Family Services, there is no legal age requirement for this very reason: some 12-year-olds are more responsible than 17-year-olds. But, says dcfs, "12 seems to be the magic number"; they don't recommend choosing a sitter younger than that.

Our neighbor is a mature, kind, Christian 12-year-old?and she's ideally located (no transportation involved!). I have Christina help me with Julia and Robbie while I'm home, but busy on the computer or getting the house ready for company. This way, I can monitor how she's doing.

I've praised Christina's down-on-the-rug interaction with my kids and her creativity in coming up with "let's pretend" games. I've also noticed that she's too accommodating to my bossy 4-year-old. I've encouraged her to establish her authority, and I remind my kids, in front of Christina, that she's the boss and to obey her. With a bit of peripheral vision, I can keep an eye on how she's shaping up as a sitter and help her develop.

A while back I tried this with another young person who'd been recommended to me. I was disappointed with her stay-in-the-chair and keep-the-tv-on methods of "watching" Julia and Rob; I didn't ask her back.

After a year of watching my kids while I'm home, Christina knows my kids, and they love her. Recently we've had her baby-sit for short periods of time, during daylight hours, when her mom is home next door.

Another plus is that Christina's mom is planning to sign her up for a "SuperSitters" course offered by our local hospital. The American Red Cross offers the program at hospitals and ymcas (call Red Cross for the course closest to you). Monique Vodicka, who teaches the SuperSitters course at Central DuPage Hospital in the Chicago area, tells me the eight-hour course teaches young people, starting at age 11, "how to interact with parents; what toys, games, and calming or distracting techniques work best with children at various developmental stages from infancy to age 7; problem-solving; and extensive first aid.

"Students leave the program with two resource books?one on first aid and one offering ideas and guidelines for caring for kids at different developmental stages," says Vodicka. "We encourage the students to take their books with them when they baby-sit?just in case."

If you're grooming a junior higher to be your number-one sitter, you might offer to pay for a course like this yourself (or let the teen work off the cost of the course by sitting for you).

make the most of what you've got

While you're networking and training, you'll be meeting and trying out several young people as sitters. Some may not feel like a perfect fit the first time they're in your home, but perhaps you see potential. Go ahead and work with these teens; they're learning as they go (like a lot of us parents!). Here are some tips for getting the best out of a sitter.

1. Leave explicit instructions. I'm talking about more than a posted chart with your kids' doctor's name and insurance info, emergency numbers and nearby neighbors' names and numbers?which you should have posted somewhere near a phone. Perhaps your sitter doesn't have the maturity or experience to judge for herself when a diaper needs changing, when a toddler needs cuddle time, when a potty-training youngster needs a visit to the bathroom.

Be specific: "Have Julia try to go potty around 7:30. Ask them if they want a snack about half an hour before pajamas and story time. Spend five minutes rocking Robbie before you lay him in bed. Pray with Julia when you tuck her in. At bedtime, leave Julia's door open a few inches, but close Robbie's."

These details help your sitter fit into your children's routines more comfortably.

2. Ask for information. I tell sitters that I'm a nervous mom who likes lots of information. I warn them that I'll probably ask about what my kids ate and when, about who went potty, about phone calls, about who cried and why. This way they take mental notes and will be prepared to talk to me. I feel better having a sitter tell me, "We spilled red juice on the playroom carpet," than finding the hidden stain two weeks later. If a sitter won't talk with me, I'll look for another one.

3. Lay down the ground rules. "No tv except for specified programs or videos until after the kids are in bed. No phone calls or visits from friends." These guidelines are recommended by the Youth for Christ staff in their handbook Parents & Children. Balance these no-nos with the privileges: "Feel free to watch something from our video collection" or "Help yourself to the Breyer's Rocky Road in the freezer."

Most sitters aim to please, but some don't have the maturity to live by your rules. My friends Kevin and Karen instructed a sitter not to watch violent cop shows while their kids were awake to see them. When their kids reported that the sitter watched such programs, they asked the sitter to stop. When he did it a second time, they stopped calling him.

4. Express your appreciation. If your kids tell you they had a great time or they love the sitter, pass that info along. Again, be specific if you can. When your sitter reports on the evening with the kind of detail you like, thank her for it. If she's left the kitchen and playroom in good shape, praise her efforts. If you can afford it, put a tip on top of the regular pay rate and say, "That's for your patience when Robbie was crying for an hour" or "That's for being so responsible when ? " keep up hope

My kids' all-time favorite baby-sitter is Kim, who started sitting for them when she was 15 and when I was brave enough to leave my baby with a sitter. She was gentle, responsible, creative and?best of all?loving. If you think that sounds too good to be true, get this: she's also fanatically neat and would clean everything before we got home. (I am not making this up.) Kim is off at college now, but we feel she's part of our family.

So "preserve sound judgment and discernment" and "the Lord will be your confidence" (see Prov. 3:21-26). You can find a great sitter?with prayer, some networking and a bit of on-the-job training.

Annette LaPlaca, associate editor of Marriage Partnership magazine, is a mother of two and lives in the Chicago area.

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