How to Have Difficult Conversations with your Babysitter

What do you do if your babysitter repeatedly ignores your instructions or worse, contradicts your disciplinary style? Which rules is it okay for her to bend a little, and which ones should you dig your heels in about? Tackling tough topics with your children’s caregiver doesn’t need to leave you feeling uneasy or apprehensive.

You are the parent, and you know what’s best for your child and your household. If she’s a babysitter worth her salt, she’ll be more than happy to work out any issues with you in a mature, respectful manner — but it takes two to tango! We’ve collected some tips and tricks for resolving disparities between families and their caregivers that might get you out of (or help you stay out of) any sticky situations.

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Clear communication
The best way to avoid conflict is to keep conflict from ever happening. Before she ever babysits for your family, clearly communicate preferences, routines, and house rules to your babysitter. While it would be a dream come true, your babysitter won’t intuitively know how you like things done. Remember, she may babysit for a number of families who all do things differently, and it’s a lot to keep track of! Consider which practices you consider most important and lead with those. If you absolutely won’t budge on an 8 p.m. bedtime or the one-hour limit on TV, tell her. She’s human after all, and probably won’t remember more than a few verbal instructions.

If you quickly speak your instructions with one foot out of the door, stick to the most important essentials, and only hold her to those standards. If you feel more confident writing things down, she’ll likely be thankful for the black-and-white instructions that can’t be forgotten or misinterpreted, and you’ll feel better knowing she has a list to refer to.

Expectation management
Your babysitter isn’t you — she can’t be you — so keep your expectations realistic. If you want her to pack lunches, give baths, fold the laundry, and come up with an afternoon’s worth of stimulating crafts (oh, and would you mind walking Fido down the block and dropping him off at the neighbor’s for his doggy play date?), you may be setting yourself up for disappointment, and your sitter up for failure. Your babysitter’s primary role is to supervise your children and maintain a safe environment for them in your absence, in as friendly, fun, energetic, and loving a manner as possible. Sure, you could handle all of this with one hand tied behind your back and simultaneously bake a birthday cake while scheduling a well-check with the pediatrician…but you have many more years of experience being you than she does! Give your sitter enough freedom to play and improvise on the job, and you’ll ensure everyone has a good time while you’re gone!

On the other hand, some expectations shouldn’t be compromised — you can expect your babysitter to be punctual, to respect general guidelines for safety, and to be present (both physically and mentally) with your children at all times. You are within your rights to let go of a caregiver who does not uphold these most basic of job responsibilities.

Specific situations
As with any relationship, disagreements and miscommunications happen, and just-plain-awkward topics surface. Sometimes tensions will mount when a caregiver isn’t respecting your wishes. But most of these incidents can be overcome with a little sensitivity and open lines of communication. Here are a few examples of difficult spots you may find yourself in, and how to approach the situation with your child’s caregiver:

She broke (or let your child break) a house rule. Perhaps your sitter thought that bringing the kids giant cupcakes would be a nice treat, even though you’ve repeatedly stressed to her that your family shuns refined sugar. Maybe she lets the dog lie on the sofa when you’re gone, when you’ve made it clear that Scruffy is to remain on the floor at all times. Whatever the cause of strife, it’s clearly bothering you, and you’ve decided it’s time to say something.

  • First, make sure you approach your babysitter after the job is complete. If you bring up the topic right before you walk out the door, you may be leaving your child with someone who is hurt or distracted, and not in the best emotional condition to be at the top of their childcare game.
  • Always discuss the matter when your children are not around. You don’t want to undermine their respect for the babysitter, or embarrass the babysitter needlessly.
  • Be willing to share the responsibility, even if you feel blameless. Mention during the conversation that it may have been a miscommunication on your part. “I’m sorry, I probably didn’t stress just how important it is to us as parents that Sophie not eat any sweets. We really feel like there is enough sugar in her normal diet, and don’t want to add any more unnecessarily.”
  • Put a positive spin on the conversation, and offer an alternative. “I think it’s so kind of you to want to spoil Sophie, and I want her to love it when you come over. Maybe instead of food treats, we could keep something special here at the house — like bubbles or sidewalk chalk — that she only gets to play with when you’re here! Or maybe you could bring over your hamster sometime? She would love that.”

                  You don’t want or need her to babysit for you anymore. Either Grandma relocated closer to you, or you’ve decided you and your babysitter simply aren’t a good match. It’s time to let her go, but how do you tell her? Technically, you’re under no obligation to tell her at all. You can simply stop booking her for jobs and chances are, she’ll get the hint. But perhaps you want to go the less ambiguous, arguably kinder route:

  • If your decision to let your babysitter go has nothing to do with her performance, find a good time to have a quiet conversation and simply explain the circumstances. Let her know that, for example, money is tight lately and you simply won’t be going out for a while, and therefore won’t be needing a babysitter. Or explain that the eldest has now reached an age/maturity level where you feel he’s capable of watching his younger sibling. If it’s a situation that obviously has nothing to do with her skills or work history with you, she’s sure to understand. Consider giving her a tip or small token of appreciation for all she’s done for your family, and offer to write her a letter of recommendation to give to future families/employers.
  • If your decision is based on the babysitter’s poor performance, you can keep the conversation short and simple. Again, wait until after a job is complete and the children are out of earshot. Tell the sitter that you appreciate the kindness she’s shown to your family, but you feel there are some  incompatibilities between you that you don’t feel can be overcome. If you feel the sitter will benefit from knowing what she could have done differently, it may help her to know, so she can work to change that behavior for future babysitting jobs with other families. That said, you are under no obligation to explain why you’ve made your decision.

                  Your disciplinary guidelines aren’t being respected. One of the most common causes of tension between caregivers and parents is a difference of opinion in disciplinary style. If your babysitter has given your child an unwarranted time-out, or conversely, let bad behavior slide with too lenient a consequence (or no consequence at all), it can really raise your hackles. Make sure you’re extremely clear when explaining your discipline plan to your babysitter, so there’s no room for confusion. (And know that if a caregiver ever strikes your child, it’s grounds for immediate termination of employment.)

  • It may help to explain to your babysitter why you do things the way you do. “We’ve found that taking away a dollar of Aiden’s allowance each time he says an inappropriate word is the only way to get through to him” or, “Time-outs don’t work for Anna, since she’s happy to just sit there and daydream. We think sending her to bed a half hour early when she hits her little brother is more effective.”
  • If a caregiver is, in your opinion, too harsh with your child, make sure you have the real story first. Your child’s version may differ wildly from the babysitter’s version, and the truth may lie somewhere in the middle. Use this as an opportunity to go over your preferences for discipline again with the sitter. She may just not know or remember your way of doing things, and acted on her intuition because she had nothing else to go on.
  • Find a time for you, the sitter, and your child(ren) to all sit down together and set behavior/consequence expectations, and consider writing them down and hanging them up somewhere everyone can see. (Don’t forget rewards for good behavior too!) If all three parties are following the same matrix, everyone is accountable and there will be no surprises.
  • If all else fails, ask your babysitter to only discipline in extreme or dangerous situations, and to report everything else to you when you get home, with the mutual understanding that you will take care of the consequences. Sometimes a simple “I will be telling Mom about this when she gets home” will be enough to set misbehavers on the straight and narrow.

                  She’s ignoring the kids or letting the TV babysit. It’s probably the most common complaint from parents about their babysitters: She doesn’t actually engage my kids or play with them at all. They just sit around watching TV, and I know she’s texting her friends the whole time. You want your sitter to carry a cell phone in case you need to get in touch with her, but how do you tell your sitter to unplug from her social life when she’s on the job and get involved with the kids?

Chances are, your kids see you on the phone plenty, so they may not consider it unusual when the sitter is on her phone, nor think of it as something worthy of reporting to you. Enquire after the sitter goes home, “How much time did Stephanie spend looking at her phone while I was gone?” While your child won’t be able to say specifically, they can probably let you know if it was “almost the whole time” or “not very much.” If you find yourself needing to have a conversation with her:

  • Ask her to put her phone in the common area (where you usually kick of your shoes or hang your car keys) and to leave it there while she’s on the job. If it’s out of sight, she may become so engaged with playing Chutes and Ladders that she forgets about it. (If you think there’s a chance you’ll call her, have her leave her volume on.)
  • Saying “the kids can watch one hour of TV” or “please make sure the TV goes off when this movie is over” may seem cut-and-dry, but once the TV is on, the temptation to leave it on can be pretty strong, and it’s probably not foreign to you. After all, those kids are being so angelic, just sitting there, not pinching each other or begging for more glitter glue or wailing about the injustice of bedtime. You may find that the only way to have a truly involved sitter is to ban the TV (or video games) when you’re gone. Explain to the sitter that you want her visits to be extra special — something the kids look really forward to — and that screens hinder the opportunity for bonding.
  • Tell your babysitter that you really don’t want to be the sort of family that ignores each other and just stares at the TV all day. Explain to her that you know how tempting it can be to hop on Facebook while the kids watch Spongebob, but that you want better for them, and want to foster healthy social skills in them — does she have any suggestions for activities while you’re gone? Ask her if there’s anything she particularly likes doing with kids, and how you can help. If she likes baking with them, maybe you could leave all the ingredients for brownies in the pantry. If she likes playing board games, maybe you’ll make sure there’s something new the kids have never played waiting in the game closet the next time she babysits.

She’s having sensitive conversations with your children. It’s important for your child to feel comfortable asking adults questions, and hopefully your babysitter shares a lot of your values and can handle these questions with maturity and sensitivity. However, if you find that your sitter has broached touchy topics with your child that you would rather be left to you, it’s important to nip it in the bud swiftly and without mincing words. Odds are she was trying to be helpful and sweet, but parents often have strong opinions on how the topics of politics, religion, sex, and death (among others) are presented to their kids.

If you’re one of these parents, tell your caregiver which conversation themes are absolutely off the table when she’s on the job, and give her the words to say if one of those themes comes up when you’re gone, for example, “I think Mom or Dad would really have the best answers. I’ll leave a note to remind them to bring it up with you.” Don’t worry — most sitters will be relieved that they can side-step “Where do babies come from?” and “Why can’t I live forever?”

 

Communication and a clear understanding of each other’s expectations are the key to any relationship, and the one between you and your children’s caregiver is no different. If minor issues surface, address them immediately rather than waiting for them to become major problems. Make sure your preferences are clear from the beginning and revisit them as needed, and assure your babysitter you’re there to give her the tools she needs to be successful.