Baby health

The babysitter diaries

What your sitter wants you to know

By Diane Peters
The babysitter diaries

It was 12-year-old Robyn Caissie’s first night on the job as a solo babysitter. As she was putting the four-year-old to bed, she heard a noise. She dashed down the hall just in time to see her five-year-old charge opening the second-floor balcony door. She looked down and couldn’t believe it: He’d tossed his blankets, sheets and pillow into the swimming pool below. Seeing what his big brother had done — and not wanting to go to bed either — the little one started stripping his bed too.

Nothing in the babysitting course she’d recently taken in her hometown of Moncton, NB, had taught her how to cope with anything like this. Her older sister, who had often taken care of these kids herself, rushed over. The two got the pool skimmer and fished out the linens. They hunted through the house and found some blankets for the older boy’s bed. But no pillow. “Guess what? You’re going to bed. And you’re not having a pillow,” Robyn told him firmly.

When the boys’ parents got home, they just laughed and set to washing the linens. To them, it was a typical bedtime.

How many nights has your babysitter been through hell, and you have no idea? Do you really know if she likes your kids, understands your wishes or gets the pay she expects? We set out to find out what lurks in the minds of Canadian babysitters. We surveyed busy sitters across the country and found out what they love, and hate, about caring for your kids.

“At least leave me a note.”
Miranda Gallant of Ottawa was just 15 when she was left with a three-month-old and his three older sisters. “He screamed from the time the parents left until they came home three hours later,” she recalls. A neighbour told her the baby had been sick, but since the parents had their cellphone off, she couldn’t get approval to give him medicine. Meanwhile, she couldn’t keep the girls happy either. “They were upset because he was upset,” says Gallant, now 19.

It was a lot of unnecessary drama: The parents could have just left a note. The sitters we spoke to simply love a good page of written instructions, full of such small but important details as where the soothers are kept, who needs a night light, and if the teeth get brushed before or after PJs go on. A note works better than words since it’s easier to remember and refer to — plus parents can be assured that they have told the sitter everything she needs to know. “There’s not enough communication between the parents and the babysitter,” says Julie Broadbent, a 23-year-old sitter from Mississauga, Ont. “They think you know what you’re doing and that every kid is the same.”

Notes also help sitters stick to routines. “I find parents who have their schedules down, where the kids know right and wrong, easier to work with. They’ve got their life established and you’re coming into it rather than coming into it and fixing it,” says Ashley Thomas-Jeffrey, a 23-year-old university student from Hagersville, Ont.

“But don’t write me a novel.”
Avery Nowosad, a 14-year-old sitter from Ottawa, takes offence when one form of communication — the emergency phone list — goes overboard. “They give you a million phone numbers. It’s always good to be cautious, but it’s not like I want to do anything wrong,” she says. The city’s emergency numbers, a cellphone and perhaps the number of a neighbour should do it.

“Be home on time.”
Babysitters understand how much fun it is to be out on the town. But the parent-sitter relationship does come with a curfew. One night, Jane Leopatra, a 24-year-old from Calgary, was told the parents would roll in around 9 p.m. “At 1 a.m., I was still sitting there. I was so mad,” she recalls. The parents didn’t apologize when they finally came home — plus they underpaid her.

“Pay me fairly.”
Seems babysitting and good accounting practices don’t always go together. Broadbent recently showed up for a babysitting gig to find five additional kids hanging out with her usual two, and she was expected to care for them all at the usual rate. No way, she said, and sent the extra kids home. “It’s always awkward discussing money,” says Broadbent, who always lays down the rules about her rate right off the top. “Parents will take advantage of you if you don’t speak up because some of them actually think it is easier for you when there are other kids around for theirs to play with.” For going rates, see Sitting for Dollars.

“Snacks are nice — but don’t go crazy.”
Allison Boxshall, a 23-year-old sitter from Winnipeg, loved it when she’d arrive at noon for a daytime sitting job and was invited to sit down with mom and the kids for lunch. But most sitters we talked to say free food is, well, gravy. “I don’t expect perks,” says Leopatra. “I don’t usually eat the food at people’s houses; I feel weird going through their cupboards.” Broadbent once worked for a family who always left a newly rented DVD plus money for pizza, and they encouraged her to use the Internet and the telephone. That was fun, she admits, but for most jobs she eats before she comes, or brings her own food.

“We have fun when you’re gone.”
Perhaps there are some slackers out there, but the sitters we talked to work their butts off to keep their charges amused. Gallant shows up with her own bag of tricks for crafts and games. “I like to come prepared and keep them busy,” she says. Boxshall has her own secret: “Thirty minutes outside is the greatest thing ever.” Even if the weather’s not great, she finds kids who have been outside behave better and nap well.

“But the TV is still a godsend.”
“Sometimes it turns into a movie day — I’m not going to lie,” says Boxshall. “If it’s one of those days, I put something on and let them watch it for an hour.” To chill kids out before a nap or to turn chaos into calm, the sitters we talked to all found the boob tube did the job.

Other sitters have their own tricks when things get wild. “When I get frustrated, I usually just walk away,” says Broadbent. She cools off and keeps an eye on the kids from a distance. Gallant confesses she’ll bribe her charges with chocolate. But she times it right. “If you give them chocolate too long before their parents come home, they’ll be hyper for you.” Leopatra, however, resists slacking off, no matter how hard it gets. “Babysitting is a job; they are paying me. Even if I don’t feel like doing it, I do it,” she says.

“It’s not just about the money.”
Babysitting has kept many a teen in pocket money, and even helped pay for tuition. But for many, it’s a job they love. “The kids become part of our lives. If I never saw those kids again, I’d be devastated,” says Boxshall. Gallant feels the connection too: She recently moved away from the Ontario town of Owen Sound, and when she goes back to visit friends, she’ll babysit for her old families.

The sitters we spoke to want respect and they want parents to trust them to do their best. But mostly, they wish everyone knew just how passionately they feel about their job and the kids they care for. “Babysitting is one of the greatest things I’ve ever done,” says Boxshall. “If I didn’t get paid to do it, it wouldn’t matter.”

How to hire a sitter

Martha Scully, founder of — as well as a long-time babysitter herself — has these suggestions for finding the best and safest sitter for your kids:

• Hire in person. Even if she comes highly recommended, meet the sitter and interview her.

• Ask “scenario” questions such as “What would you do if someone knocked on the door?” If she responds as you would, that’s a good sign.

• Let her ask you questions as well. But if they’re all financial, keep looking.

• Do a quick test drive: Let her care for the kids for an hour while you go around the corner for a coffee.

• After the first night or the test drive, find out what the kids think.

Sitting for dollars

Across Canada, the going rate for younger sitters, particularly in small towns, is around $5 an hour. The price rises in larger towns with older sitters. Miranda Gallant gets $7 an hour in Ottawa. Allison Boxshall charges $8 to $10 an hour in Winnipeg for nanny-style daytime sitting, while Julie Broadbent, who does similar work in the Toronto area, gets between $12 and $20 an hour. Most sitters charge more when they’re caring for more than two or three children.

This article was originally published on May 12, 2008

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