Babysitting 101: Finding and keeping a super-sitter

How to find (and keep!) your Saturday-night sitter.

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I started babysitting for my two younger brothers when I was nine and three-quarters, an after-school gig that lasted approximately 78 minutes for five days of the school week. After a year or so, the 78 weekday minutes became an additional 120 on Saturday nights; my parents, for some reason, wanted Alone Time. I was compensated for my labour with control over the television remote and extra time with our Sega Genesis console, rewards supplemented by the belief that I was very grown-up and responsible—neither of which was exactly true. I was too young, but my parents were desperate. Eventually, I became an appropriate age and, so, babysitting was something I continued. Throughout high school, university and the post-undergrad muddle of unpaid internships and barely paid part-time work, I kept at it. Now a late-twentysomething career woman, I do it still—you know what they say about old habits. I have now been a sitter for 20 years.

The occasional babysitter is a parental necessity. Without one, forget having a social life or “me” time, never mind a romance. But for most, the era of grabbing the nearest 12-year-old from down the block (or not-quite-ten-year-old from beneath the same roof) is long over. Now, more than ever, parents are being picky about who is minding their brood. But it seems to be something of a sellers market these days. So how do you find a great babysitter? And how do you ensure that your dream sitter sticks around? Finding the right child-care fit can sometimes feel like searching for a romantic partner; in both situations, the stakes are high and protocol can be painfully unclear. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be. Here’s my simple game plan for making the process go smoothly.

A good match
A great babysitter isn’t necessarily one-size-fits-all. Sure, some characteristics are universal—he or she ought to like kids, and should be respectful, responsible, warm and open to communication. But when it comes to personality traits and ideal attributes, different families require different things. Some kids need a high-energy 17-year-old who can keep up with their insatiable quest for adventure; others demand a child-care provider with a mellow, mature presence. One person’s Mary Poppins could be another’s panic attack. Consider what might be the best fit for your kids and their interests.

The search
While finding the right match can be daunting, knowing where to look can be even harder. “The first thing people tend to do is get recommendations from neighbours or their friends,” says Martha Scully, the owner of CanadianNanny.ca, an online outpost that connects caregivers with people seeking both full-time nannies and casual babysitters. But, she says, just because a friend or neighbour has access to a great sitter doesn’t mean that they want to share the wealth. Unless you want to become the neighbourhood pariah, Scully says you should always get the all-clear from the other parents before you poach—or even approach—someone else’s babysitter.

Cindy Blažević recently discovered the potentially ruthless nature of child-care retention the hard way, when her infant son’s much-beloved part-time babysitter—hired on a colleague’s recommendation—suddenly left the gig for a full-time nanny job. Blažević later realized the person who had snatched her sitter was the same woman who had connected them in the first place. There are no hard feelings between the two; Blažević knew the sitter had been on the hunt for a full-time position. But the experience illustrated the delicate balancing act of child-care management.

“I get why people take other peoples’ nannies and babysitters if you find someone who really works for your kids and your circumstances,” says Blažević. “It’s such a desperate situation.”

Referrals can be great, but babysitter gold is often found outside of immediate networks. Sites like CanadianNanny.ca and NannyServices.ca are helpful resources. You can also try advertising in university newspaper classified sections, retirement centre newsletters and even on local web forums like Craigslist (but be sure to ask for references). Old-fashioned community boards at neighbourhood gathering spaces like the library or laundromat can be good starting points, too, as can be reaching out to high school principals, teachers or guidance counsellors for recommendations.

How to keep them
The recipe for babysitter loyalty tends to be simple: Pay well and establish a relationship based on mutual appreciation and respect.

While what constitutes fair compensation can vary, Scully recommends that sitters be paid above minimum wage, ideally somewhere between $11 and $15 an hour depending on their age and experience. The number of kids being cared for and whether or not any have special needs should also be factored into the wage. Parents should be prepared to provide either a ride home or reimbursement for transportation costs. Demonstrating genuine appreciation for a babysitter’s value can also go a long way toward nurturing a mutual sense of trust, which helps breed loyalty and, in the best situations, fosters an ongoing relationship.

Cassandra Chambers, a recent university grad who has worked for the same family for almost a decade, can attest to this.

“They’re really warm and welcoming, and always make sure I have dinner and snacks,” she says. “They check in with me if they’re going to be late, and either give me a ride home or pay for my cab.” Because of this atmosphere, Chambers feels close to the family and subsequently more personally invested in her caretaking role. When her babysitting bosses got married, she was at their wedding, and she plans to keep in touch with them even after she’s no longer able to fill in as a sitter.

Because of the intimate nature of a sitter-family relationship, careless treatment from parents can leave an especially bad taste behind. I had one client who demanded I leave a hospital waiting room with a freshly broken arm so they could keep their evening plans. I’m fuzzy on whether or not they thanked me for my flexibility, but I do remember the $20 cab fare I wasn’t reimbursed for.

“Even just being thanked and spoken to in a friendly way makes you feel more appreciated,” says longtime babysitter Margaret Kagunza. Understanding that sitters are human beings who occasionally get unexpectedly sick or need time off, she adds, is also key.

According to Scully, it’s impossible to overemphasize the importance of courteousness on the part of bosses.

“Babysitters are taking over a very important, mature role, so parents should definitely talk to them with respect and ensure that the lines of communication are open,” she says. She recommends always checking in with the babysitter about how things went at the end of each session so there’s a regular opportunity to address concerns.

The same rules of openness apply if a babysitter does something that parents don’t like. Scully recommends that parents address the concern right away in person, but away from the kids. However, she also advises parents taking kids’ reports about babysitter behaviour with a grain of salt.

“Children will often say, ‘She was on her phone the entire time you were away!’ when, in fact, the sitter just answered a few calls,” she points out. It’s important to hear the sitter out and give him or her a second chance.

The equation is simple: If a babysitter doesn’t feel welcome in a family’s home or is made uneasy by his or her bosses, that relationship is never going to last.

As for me, a weekly babysitting gig I started just after university that continues to this day might let my friends jokingly ask how the kid’s enjoying high school already (he’s five!), but the extra pocket money comes in handy—and I love having that little guy in my life. It’s a nice arrangement, and the family and I get along well. And while I don’t actually expect to be around by the time he’s in high school, worse things could happen. I suspect we’re all doing things right.

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The babysitter’s bill of rights

What instructions should you leave?
In addition to obvious pieces of information like child allergies and emergency contact numbers, parents should let the sitter know where they will be and what time they expect to be home. Before a sitter’s first shift, a tour of the house that covers potential kid-free zones and instructions on how to use anything the babysitter might need (like the TV remote or WiFi codes) is a must. Also leave clear instructions on house rules for things like screen time, snacks and bedtime.

Should babysitters do housework?
“The babysitter should definitely be more about the fun and less about the work,” says Scully. It’s a distinction that separates the casual fill-in sitter from the serious full-time nanny. She advises that parents do as much of the kids’ meal preparation as possible before the babysitter shows up, and not to expect anything beyond courteous cleanup. Babysitters aren’t maids.

How old should a babysitter be?
There’s no legal minimum babysitting age in Canada. That leaves the decision up to parental discretion, though Red Cross offers babysitter certification programs beginning at age 11. While many adolescents are mature enough to look after a small child, Scully advises caution when hiring a teenager to care for an infant. “A 13-year-old, in my opinion, should not be looking after a baby.” That said, older sitters should be compensated for the added value of their age and experience; a 30-year-old babysitter is worth more per hour than a sitter still in high school.

How long should a shift be?
There’s no hard-and-fast rule for how long a shift should last, but it’s imperative that parents communicate how long they expect to be out. And if they think they’ll be late getting back, it’s only common courtesy that they get in touch with the sitter to let him or her know.

Don’t be THAT parent
While it’s important to set clear boundaries and expectations for the person who will be caring for your kid, keep in mind that a babysitter isn’t going to undo years of meticulous parenting in one night by, say, missing a step in your carefully mapped bedtime routine or giving your kid an extra bite of dessert.

A version of this story appeared in our October 2014 issue.

Read more:
How to approach grandparent nannies
How to choose a nanny
Is your teen ready to babysit?

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