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Babysitter Blues: How to Fix Bad Sitter Behavior

What to do: Let it go or bring it up gently

Sure, it's nice to come home to a sparkling house, but a little extra cleanup is a small price to pay for an otherwise stellar sitter. "I don't like coming home to a messy kitchen," says Elisabeth Grant, a mom of two in Minneapolis. "But my sitter's job is to keep my kids safe and entertained, not be a housekeeper."

Putting toys away is a different story: This is something your children can -- and should -- do before they go to bed (with your sitter's help). Explain that cleanup time is an important part of their daily routine. Wendy Gummere, a mother of two in Pensacola, Florida, says, "I'll say something like, 'We're teaching the children to be responsible for their belongings. They're expected to pick up their toys and place their clothes in the hamper, so it would be great if you could help them with that.'"

What to do: Bring it up gently

If your sitter tends to be tardy, be very clear about your schedule when you call to book her: "We're seeing an 8 o'clock movie, so we have to leave the house no later than 7:30." You can also build in some extra time by asking her to arrive 15 minutes earlier than you need her. Let her know that you won't tolerate last-minute cancellations: If she has to bag the job, she'll need to arrange for a backup sitter (a friend or sibling you've previously met and approved) on her own.

Child Care: Should You Hire a Family Member?
Child Care: Should You Hire a Family Member?

What to do: Discuss the problem right away

When you walk in the door at 10 p.m. and find your preschooler is wide awake and playing with his toys, you know what's in store for tomorrow: a super-cranky kid. While your spouse puts him to sleep, explain to your sitter that ignoring your child's sleep schedule can throw him off for several days. Review his bedtime rituals, including the number of books to read and where to find his favorite pj's, stuffed animals, and lullaby CDs. Also prepare your sitter so she's ready to deal with your child's typical delay tactics. "Now that my daughter is 5, I make sure she's sitting with me when we go over the rules," says Alicia Rockmore, a mom in Los Angeles. "That way she can't try to convince the sitter that I said she could stay up later."

What to do: Discuss the problem right away

Your evening out is no excuse for a junk-food fest at home. If your little ones are covered in crumbs when you get home, take your sitter aside for a chat. "Let her know which snacks your kids are allowed to eat and which are forbidden," says Genevieve Thiers, the founder and CEO of Sittercity.com. You might even hide foods that you don't want your kids to eat (or, better yet, keep them out of the house altogether) and leave out healthy, appealing alternatives, such as yogurt tubes, whole wheat crackers, and, for kids 4 and older, fruit kabobs and trail mix.

What to do: Discuss the problem right away and give her a warning

Your sitter's eyes and ears should be on your child, not her text messages. Don't feel bad about asking her to hold all calls until after your kids are asleep. Since excessive phone use is something you're most likely to hear about from your child, be diplomatic when you correct your sitter's phone habits: "Janie loves doing art projects with you, and she told me you stopped in the middle of one last week to take a phone call. Next time, can you please tell your friends you'll call back after you're done?"

What to do: Give her a warning

Spell out viewing time -- and which programs are okay -- before you leave for the evening, suggests Ann Douglas, author of Choosing Childcare for Dummies. You might say, "Molly may watch one 30-minute Dora video after dinner, but that's it. Then she'd love to play dress-up before it's time to take a bath, read stories, and go to bed." Be specific about forbidden shows: "He's dying to watch The Simpsons, but we've told him he's too young." Some moms find it helpful to explain why too much screen time is a bad thing. "We had one sitter who plopped Edward down in front of the set for the whole evening," recalls Jennie Dunham, a mother of two in North Salem, New York. "So I told her Edward acts aggressively when he watches too much TV. She understood and found other activities for them to do together."

What to do: Give her a warning, or let her go

Let your sitter know that if she plans to have a guest, she needs to ask your permission and introduce the friend to you first, says Douglas. Breaking the rule -- even once -- shows she's not mature enough to take care of your kids. It's generally a bad idea to allow a boyfriend to visit: Even if the teenager can be trusted to keep things G-rated in front of your kids, he'll inevitably distract your sitter. On the other hand, if the co-sitter is a responsible friend, it can be like getting two caregivers for the price of one.

Annoyance rating: Let her go

Some sitters take the expression "Make yourself at home" literally. Let yours know what areas are off-limits, and be specific about the rules regarding your PC. You might say it's okay to play a video game with your kids but not to check her e-mail. If you're worried about your sitter's surfing habits, install a parental-control filter. And if you catch her violating the rules (check your browser's recent history) or snooping around your files, show her the door. "If someone doesn't respect your boundaries, she might not know what an appropriate boundary is with your child," says Jennifer Hartstein, a supervising psychologist at the Child and Family Institute at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital, in New York City.

  • Let your sitter know it's okay to take something to eat. At first, I was afraid the family didn't want me to touch their food, and then I'd be hungry all night! -- Julie R.; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Don't make exceptions to the regular rules for your kids. You don't want them to think "anything goes" when the babysitter comes. -- Christine C.; New York, New York
  • Make sure you're fully stocked with diapers, wipes, and cream before you leave the house. -- Adyson S.; Danville, California
  • If your child has behavioral issues, discuss them before you leave -- and explain the best way to handle them. -- Lindsey F.; Brookline, Massachusetts
  • Call if you're staying out later than you planned. One couple came home two and a half hours late and didn't answer my calls. I was worried that something had happened to them, and I was exhausted the next day. -- Christina D.C.; San Francisco, California
  • I like when parents give me lots of information -- what time their child eats, what foods he likes. The more I know about his routine, the easier it is to make sure he doesn't get stressed out about being with a sitter. -- Rachel S.; Portland, Oregon
  • Be honest. If your child has been sick, tell your sitter so she can decide whether she still wants to watch him. And if she agrees, let her know what medicine he needs, when he needs it, and how to give it to him. -- Tina S.; Aurora, Colorado

Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the June 2008 issue of Parents magazine.