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A thorough class for wanna-be babysitters

They learn behavior management, how to prevent injuries, rescue breathing for children and infants, what to do in case of fire or earthquakes, how to handle obscene phone calls and how to deal with the mess and embarrassment of bed wetting. I easily could be describing a parenting class, but it's the Safe Sitter class offered at several area hospitals for new babysitters.

After auditing part of a Safe Sitter class at All Children's Hospital recently, I felt like I needed to go over the manual myself to make sure I was as prepared as these 11- to 14-year-olds.

The course lasts two days and is usually taught to about 15 children at a time. If you have children old enough to babysit, I recommend it. Or you should suggest your sitter take the class and pick up some or all of the $30 fee.

For those of you who have set down the paper to say to your spouse, "Well, even if they've had a class, I would never hire an 11-year-old to sit for our kids," calm down. The Safe Sitter program is not endorsing any certain age to start babysitting, but it does know children around age 11 often watch siblings and it's not too early to start learning about quality child care.

"We do not want to be in a position to say "This is the age you should start babysitting,' but the class is designed so that an 11-year-old can learn from it," said Roy Adams, All Children's director of community relations. In fact, the handbook and teachers stress that sitters have at least two years experience babysitting older infants and children before they care for a baby six months old or younger. Sitters also can ease into the job by taking care of small children while a parent is at home in another room or out in the yard.

The program urges sitters to think about the duties related to each potential job, be it changing dirty diapers or calming a frightened child at bedtime. One page of the manual is dedicated to turning down a job if the sitter does not feel comfortable taking it on.

Even though they had been drilled with all the potential injuries and natural disasters they could face on the job, the students at the class I visited with my two daughters were brimming with enthusiasm and adoration of children. There were a couple young sitters who were a bit nervous or shy, but all seemed to feel comfortable around the children.

"Look, I made her smile," one sitter-in-training exclaimed when her peek-a-boo made my 1-year-old Charlotte grin. One of the two boys in the class, was fitting a block between a circle he made with his thumb and forefinger to see if it was big enough so that Charlotte couldn't swallow it. He didn't trust her or the block so he handed her a baby doll instead.

"Olivia is such a pretty name," another student cooed to my 3-year-old. Olivia, thrilled with all this grown-up attention, showed off her new sandals and announced proudly: "And guess what? I got them at Target."

"I love this girl," 12-year-old Audrey Bowles beamed as she pulled Olivia into her lap.

But clearly, we know love and enthusiasm aren't enough to keep our children safe and cared for in our absence. So I asked the students what they had learned that would make them good sitters.

"I know when to call the parent first and when to call the police first," Erica Gerhart, 12, told me.

"I learned "when, then,' " Bowles said. "Like you would say: "When you clean up your room, then we can play a game.' "

"I know how to treat a bloody nose," Judith Tankel told me.

"You should give choices," said Katie King said. "If somebody doesn't want to go to bed, you can say, "Well, do you want to brush your teeth first or put on your pajamas first?' They like to make their own choices."

Choices and "when, then" are two of the five "magic tricks" the sitters are armed with for handling behavior problems. I begged to learn the other three. One is distracting the child from crying or misbehaving with another toy, game or song. Another is turning a task into a game, such as racing the child to see who can pick up the toys the fastest.

The last resort is having the child take a break to think about his or her behavior. The Safe Sitter handbook says the break should last a minute for each year of the child's age and that this trick shouldn't be used on children under two. The manual repeatedly instructs sitters to stay in control; and if they feel they are losing control, to call their own parent, the child's parent or a neighbor. Sitters are instructed to never use physical punishment of any kind.

The manual, divided into brightly colored sections, has first aid instructions for everything ranging from asthma attacks to bee stings. It has diagrams and directions for infant and child rescue breathing and what to do when someone is choking.

"We don't want them to memorize what's in the packet. We want them to know when something happens, they can open the packet and find what they need," said Mary O'Geary, a Safe Sitter teacher.

The class teaches new sitters to avoid situations that could cause complications or injury. They should ask parents if they can serve fruit or a cold sandwich instead of cooking a meal, even in the microwave. They also are advised to skip the bath, which has potential for hot water burns or falls, and clean children's faces, hands and feet with a washcloth instead.

"We also encourage them to make up a sitter traveling pack with a little car for guys or a doll for the girls, maybe a coloring book or other book," O'Geary said. "Then they have something a little bit different than what the child already has."

The class even teaches marketing skills. It discourages sitters from posting their name and phone number in public places because you never know who's going to call them. Instead, they can spread the word at their parents' work, church or area schools.

As for pay, that should be discussed up front. O'Geary said hourly pay varies greatly based on location, duration of the job and number of children. The students, however, said just starting out they make from $2.50 to $3.50 an hour for one child.

This Safe Sitter program was designed by a pediatrician and is taught around the country. Classes will be offered throughout the summer at All Children's and Bayfront-St. Anthony's Health Care. The American Red Cross also teaches a babysitting class. For more information call: All Children's Hospital, 892-4188; Bayfront-St. Anthony's, 825-1111; American Red Cross, 898-3111.

_ You can reach me by e-mail at Oliviacharaol.com; or write Rookie Mom, St. Petersburg Times, PO Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731; or call (727) 822-7225.

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