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Looking after other people’s children is responsible work, says Sue Dale Tunnicliffe

What is babysitting?
Babysitting takes place when a parent asks someone else to look after their child or children while they are out. In England it is recommended that children under the age of 13 are not left alone in the house. Thus, if their parent(s) wish to go out without them for work or for social reasons, they need to find a reliable person to be in their place for the duration of the absence. With the break up of the extended family and the growth of one-parent families many parents find it necessary to find a surrogate parent, a babysitter or child minder. But how can parents know that the person chosen is competent? And what are babysitters’ responsibilities?

Who are babysitters?
Older people, or empty-nesters who live nearby and enjoy some contact with children are one option. Many parents belong to babysitting circles where tokens are collected for undertaking babysitting duties. These can be exchanged within the circle for another member who becomes a babysitter. But this has the drawback of needing a babysitter for the babysitter! The solution often resorted to by parents is to ask a teenager, usually a girl, to come for the period during which they are out and to give them some reimbursement for their time. Teenagers often find themselves babysitting for:

  • a friend of their family
  • a sibling
  • as part of a volunteering role.

Babysitter quality assurance
But do such babysitters have any experience or knowledge of the needs of children or the potential dangers which might ensue? Not many. Some years ago the British Red Cross offered mothercraft courses for their youth members, which were then renamed childcare classes.

Sometimes such courses were run in schools, particularly when the school leaving age was raised from 15 to 16 in the early 1970s. Many ROSLA pupils, staying on for an extra year, were taught childcare and a number of schools also ran British Red Cross first aid courses for youth and junior members.

While a few schools still offer childcare courses they are few and far between. Caring for a baby, represented by one of the programmed animatronic models available, sometimes features in PSHE/sex and relationship programmes. However, the focus is on illustrating how hard looking after a child is, rather than teaching childcare and development. The aim of the courses is to persuade the girls to not become pregnant.

Recently, the British Red Cross launched two publications to help redress the demise of childcare and first aid in schools. One is Looking After Other People’s Children: A Guide to Babysitting (2006). The other is Life. Live it. The Case for First Aid Education in UK Schools (2006) which promotes the teaching of fundamental first aid in secondary schools across relevant areas of the curriculum. In the Republic of Ireland, a research project that focused on babysitting revealed valuable insights into childcare and led to a useful source of information for parents and those who babysit.

An Irish Initiative In early 2004 the Irish Red Cross, sponsored by Domestos, launched a Handbook for Babysitters and Parents. This was written to help babysitters prepare for the responsibilities of their role and to help both babysitters and parents understand what it is they should expect from a ‘sitting session’. The handbook offers advice on different aspects of babysitting including basic childcare, coping with accidents and first aid.

In order to ensure that the handbook dealt with relevant issues two questionnaires were designed. One was distributed to transition-year students (three years before they leave school aged 15-16 years) and the other was sent to parents who used babysitters. The respective questionnaires were completed by 977 babysitters and 410 parents who were assured of confidentiality. All participants who fully completed the questionnaire were sent a copy of Handbook for Babysitters and Parents and entered into a draw for €100.

Parents’ expectations
The results of the Irish Red Cross survey provide a valuable insight into the state of babysitting and the beliefs and practices of both the parents who need them and the babysitters themselves. Apart from recognising that there should be no expectation that the babysitter would act in the role of an au pair or nanny and do tasks other than be in the house for comfort and security, common sense would suggest that parents:

  • tell the babysitter where they are going in case of emergency
  • provide instructions for any particular issues 
  • assure themselves of the competence of the babysitter including knowledge of basic first aid
  • negotiate matters such as having a companion present 
  • ensure that the babysitter has the means to arrive on time 
  • make arrangements for the babysitter returning to their home 
  • settle payment terms in advance based on the number of hours of the ‘sit’ and ensure that fees paid are fair.

But what did the survey reveal about the parents? On the whole, parental responses indicated that they were responsible and carried out their role as outlined above. Most parents left a contact number and 72% reported that they found their babysitter through a personal contact. However, there was a minority who held a different view of the babysitter’s role and what they could expect them to do. Some parents required their babysitters to undertake extra duties:

  • 69% asked babysitters to settle the child in bed
  • 61% required the child to be entertained
  • 45% expected the babysitter to change nappies
  • 44% asked the babysitter to feed the child 
  • 1% expected the babysitter to do housework!

Drunken man drives babysitter home – and she’s not alone
One 13-year-old told her teacher that she was expecting to finish babysitting at around midnight. However, at four in the morning one of the parents finally came home and was with three men. They were all drunk. One of the men was asked to take this girl home. Not knowing how else to get there, she accepted. It was only when she told her own mother the next morning that she realised she had been in the company of a drunken stranger, who shouldn’t have been at the wheel.

Nearly one in every 10 babysitters who completed the questionnaire shares this experience. Of the respondents, 9.1% stated that they had been driven home after babysitting by someone who was drunk or incapable of driving.

Babysitters’ experiences
The highest frequency of babysitting, according to those performing this service, was weekly (35%) with monthly being stated by 25% of respondents. The most common age of babysitters was 15 (32%), followed by 16 (28%) and 17 (15%). Thirty four percent of babysitters were over 20 years old. The majority of babysitters were female, only 12.4% were male. Most of the parent respondents had two children (43%) with 33% having only one child and 23% having three or more.

A contact number, in case of emergencies, was always asked of the parents by 73% of the babysitters although 17.5% said they sometimes asked and 4.3% said they never asked. Most of the babysitters said they gave their parents the contact number for where they were, 17.7% sometimes did and 8% never did. Over three quarters of babysitters told their own parents about their arrangements for getting home.

Despite the temptation of having a friend over while babysitting, only 3.5% said they did so but 42.5% said they sometimes did. The remaining respondents never did this. However, 3% actually admitted that they had gone out and left the child alone. Fortunately very few parents (1.2%) had come home to find their babysitter asleep.

How safe are children?
Since the survey showed that 34% of babysitters were over 20 years of age it might be expected that they drank alcohol while babysitting. In fact, only 5% of parents affirmed this, although 7.4% did not comment either way. Of the babysitters, 90% said they never drank alcohol while being responsible for the child but 1.1% said they always did and 4% said they did so now and then.

Only 4% of parents said that their child had been injured while in the care of the babysitter but 60% of parents left no instructions as to the action to take in case of fire. Parents reported that 24% of babysitters had a first aid qualification but 42% said they had not. Other parents did not know but, optimistically, 60% felt that their babysitter would know what to do in case of their child choking and two thirds thought the babysitter would know what to do in case of a nose bleed.

While 45% of the babysitters said they had a first aid qualification 4% said they had hit a child they were minding. In the case of fire in the house 91.3% said they would evacuate the house at once, 4.2% would dial for the fire brigade and 4.5% did not answer. Almost 68% of the babysitters said they had access to sources of information about babysitting but 27% said they had not. The Handbook for Babysitters and Parents was requested by 74% of the respondents and the Irish Red Cross distributed over 260,000 copies within a population of four million.

Looking after sick children

  • 11% of respondents said they had left a sick child in the care of a babysitter 
  • 80% of parents stated they had not left a sick child with a babysitter 
  • 51% of babysitters said they had babysat for a sick child.

The babysitters said: ‘The child started to get sick. I was frightened. I didn’t know what to do. I just washed his face and lay him down in a well-ventilated room.’ ‘The children were in bed when I heard a scream. I ran upstairs to find the little boy vomiting up everything. I cleaned him up and he started to vomit even more. I rang his parents and gave him Calpol.’

(Source: Irish Red Cross survey, 2004)

First aid and babysitters

  • When asked what they would do in the event of a child having a nosebleed, 58% correctly said they would position their head forwards, with 36% saying they would position their head backwards and 5.4% not giving an answer. 
  • When asked what they would do in the event of a child burning their hand, 82.3% correctly said they would keep their hand in cold water for 10 minutes, with 17.4% saying they would apply cream and only 0.3% not giving an answer.

Dealing with difficult situations
Some babysitters found themselves in situations for which they were unskilled. A few of these related to toilet-training, with one 15-year-old boy describing a child who soiled the bath (a normal occurrence for very young children) as ‘a brat’. Another 15-year-old said she found it difficult to deal with the results of a child having an accident in his pants.

Another teenager found dealing with the bereavement of children who had recently lost a close relative very difficult: ‘The children were sad and confused and asking questions about where she would go. I didn’t really know what to tell them.’

Babysitters also reported having to find children who were playing outdoors, cope with children who were placing themselves in dangerous situations and deal with just plainly badly behaved children. One 15-year-old recounted a series of incidents involving a child she was minding, before concluding: ‘I think she has ADS.’ (Attention deficit syndrome)!

Let’s talk
The results of the questionnaire revealed sometimes significant differences in understanding and expectations between babysitters and parents. It is hoped that the publication of the Irish Red Cross handbook can help resolve disparities where they occur and provide a basis for meaningful and effective dialogue between the two parties. After all, it is the wellbeing of the children being ‘sat’ which is of paramount importance.

References
British Red Cross (2006) Life. Live it. The Case for First Aid Education in UK Schools www.redcross.org.uk/lifeliveit
British Red Cross Society (2006) Looking After Other People’s Children: A Guide to Babysitting www.redcross.org.uk/laopc
Irish Red Cross (2004) Handbook for Babysitters and Parents

Dr Sue Dale Tunnicliffe is a researcher at the Institute of Education, University of London. She is a biology educator who has served on the education committee of the National Childbirth Trust. She was an active member of the British Red Cross, teaching childcare.

This article was first published in Learning for Life, April 2007

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