Booking The Best Babysitter

For parents, New Year's Eve is one of the toughest nights of the year to find a babysitter. And deciding on a suitable sitter is equally challenging. Jenifer Marshall Lippincott, co-author of the book Seven Things Your Teenager Won't Tell You, talks with Michel Martin and regular parenting contributors Dani Tucker and Leslie Morgan Steiner about how to find the best babysitter for your family.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

And during this time of year, many people are taking off work for the holidays and the kids are out of school, and that family time is great, but many parents still need or want a break. And of course, there's New Years Eve, which for some people is the night for adult-only fun.

So we thought this would be a good time to talk about the art and politics of finding that great babysitter. To have that conversation, we've invited Jenifer Marshall Lippincott. She's the co-author of "Seven Things Your Teenager Won't Tell You And How To Talk About Them Anyway." Also with us, our regular contributors, Dani Tucker and Leslie Morgan Steiner.

Welcome ladies, moms, thanks for joining us. Happy holidays.

Unidentified female #1: Great to be here.

Unidentified female #2: Thank you, happy holidays.

Unidentified female #3: Hi everybody.

MARTIN: Now, I do want to say up front that if this is your biggest problem in life you're probably doing okay. But, nevertheless, there has been a lot of talk about how parents, whether they're single parents or, you know, partnered parents, need alone time. They need adult time. So, you know, it is important to get a break every now and again. So I did want to ask, does either of you have a failsafe strategy for getting a babysitter, particularly on short notice? The agency of mom, I don't know.

Unidentified female #1: God, for New Years Eve, I think it's the hardest night of the year to find a babysitter. I think in general, finding a babysitter - a good babysitter is always hard, but the holidays, for us, tend to be a little easier, because a lot of our babysitters are students.

I have a preference for teenaged kids as babysitters and young college students, and they're home, and they're looking to make money. But New Year's Eve, forget it. I think it's the kind of thing you have to find a babysitter a year in advance.

MARTIN: You actually have ever found a babysitter for New Years Eve? I'm just fascinated. I would like to - can I have your autograph?

Unidentified female #1: I have never found a babysitter for New Years Eve.

Unidentified female #2: Oh really?

Unidentified female #1: I have never been able to. And I gave up a long time ago, for other reasons that we'll get into later.

MARTIN: Well, yeah. Let's hear wanna hear about that. But Dani, what about you? Have you ever been able - because neighbors of ours constantly invite us out, and I say, I don't know what bank I'd have to rob. So I don't - I can't do the time, so - so anyway, Dani, what about you?

Ms. DANI TUCKER: Well, when they were smaller, I was lucky enough to have grandparents and great aunts so - who didn't mind while we went out, because we went out and they would go over there with them, until they got a little older, and then they didn't want to be bothered anymore. So now...

MARTIN: Wait, the grandparents or the kids?

Ms. TUCKER: Both. Both. That's what I mean, both, everybody was clashing. The kids wanted to stay up late, grandparents wanted them to go to bed. But actually back then I didn't have a problem, and now they do babysitting a lot. So that kind of helps to because you got kids come over, and then we all can go out and they're old enough now to watch, you know, other people's kids.

MARTIN: Well, Jenifer, I wanted to talk to you because you've done a lot of thinking and writing about the teenage brain. And the reason I was interested in this is I think many of us have this image of the babysitter, the neighborhood babysitter as a teenaged girl who, you know, could be what, you know, 14, 15.

But these days one of the things that we find, number one, a lot of parents are not interested in having their kids babysit because they don't want them to have that responsibility, or the kids don't want to babysit. I don't know where they're getting their own source of income from, but they don't want to be bothered with that $10 an hour or whatever it is.

So I wanted to ask, do you feel that that is in fact a change, and why might that be? I'd also like to get into at what age you think it's appropriate to leave kids in charge of other kids.

Ms. MARSHALL LIPPINCOTT: Right. I think that the trend toward the interest in babysitting has gone younger and younger because the older kids, whether it might be they're so connected and so busy between, you know, sort of Facebook and being online, etc., that they do sort of feel busier whether de facto they're busier or is the question.

But I think so that raises the next issue that you brought up of, you know, what is the appropriate age. Because I think even for New Years Eve, it's less likely that 12 year old would have really hot plans, you know, to go rocking, than, you know, than a 15 or 16 on up. And so, I think the sense of responsibility and feeling important among the younger kids is I think still very much there.

I think to wit you could look at the number of babysitting courses that are out there and available through the Y, through the library, through a lot of schools, and there are kids who take those, and those are the kids who want to babysit, and they tend to be younger.

So, to answer your question specifically, I think 12 is probably, you know, the sort of first reliable age for a lot for reasons.

MARTIN: Leslie, what about you? At what age have you left your children alone without another adult there? And at what age would you allow them to babysit?

Ms. STEINER: You know, the last thing you want to do is hire a babysitter and go out and then be really stressed all evening wondering about the care that your kids are getting. But I happen to agree with Jenifer, that I love young teenage babysitters because they take it very seriously, much more so than an 18-year-old might, or even somebody in their 30s who is, you know, impatiently watching a clock. And they tend to love to play with kids.

Ms. TUCKER: Right.

MARTIN: Dani, what about you? At what age would you allow a child to watch your children, what you're - you've got teenagers now, so...

Ms. TUCKER: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...that's that. But when they were little.

Ms. TUCKER: Well, it depends, like showing the maturity. For my kids, though, I didn't need to. For a lot of single moms, our kids end up watching themselves because you don't have the time to get the babysitters, especial like when I worked, you know, retail and worked evenings, teenagers couldn't babysit for me. They weren't home. So my kids learned how to watch themselves at 10 years old. They knew how to microwave. They knew what to do in case of a fire. They had to be.

MARTIN: Well, you know, I have to say, though, because - and it's always - you can't make policy based on a few horror stories in the papers. But one of the things that's always given me pause are these stories that have been in the papers where, say, a nine-year-old watching younger kids and decided that it would be a good idea to practice, you know, wrestling moves on a two-year-old and then, you know, bad things happen.

And so, Leslie, what about you? What are you looking for, and how do you - what do you look for clues to be sure that the child is going to behave the same way when you're not there, as you are when you are?

Ms. STEINER: Well, I think that kids are pretty good reporters, too. We had a babysitter who I absolutely loved, who it turned out, whenever I left, she just texted the entire time. And the kids couldn't stand her because she was making them feel invisible. And I have a preference...

MARTIN: Can I just ask you...

Ms. STEINER: Yes.

MARTIN: How did you find that out?

Ms. STEINER: The kids told me as soon, as she left. They said...

MARTIN: You thought she was great, why? Because she was nice to you.

Ms. STEINER: She was nice to me, and I just - I really - I liked her. She was responsible. She showed up on time, and she was the daughter of a friend.

MARTIN: And then what did they say when you - what did they say?

Ms. STEINER: They said can we please not have her again? Because she - you won't believe it. We were playing "Sorry," and she kept forgetting her turn because she was texting the whole time.

I also think that it's very tempting to use siblings as babysitters, but I think siblings can make really bad babysitters. You know, my 12-year-old daughter is - she's one of the most responsible kids I've ever known, but I would not leave her in charge of her eight-year-old sister because she gets too bossy. She's great with other people's kids because she's so reliable and responsible. But those very attributes work against her in our house, because she tries to act like she's 29 instead of 12.

MARTIN: And can I ask you this, Dani: Do you pay your son to watch his sister?

Ms. TUCKER: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: She just looked at me like I lost my mind.

Ms. TUCKER: No. No. Uh-uh.

MARTIN: No. Okay.

Ms. TUCKER: I let him know, that's about you being the oldest. Now, you got to watch her cousins. Yeah. Hit your cousins up for some money. I mean, you know, that's (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TUCKER: But when it comes to what's in that household, because, you know...

MARTIN: That's family responsibility.

Ms. TUCKER: That's right.

Ms. STEINER: Also, they're still paying me back. Whenever they want me to pay them for babysitting, I say soon as you pay me for every diaper I changed (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LIPPINCOTT: Yeah, I think you don't want to take advantage of it.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We are talking about finding a great babysitter during the holidays and throughout the year. Our guests are our regulars Dani Tucker and Leslie Morgan Steiner. Also with us, Jenifer Marshall Lippincott, co-author of "7 Things Your Teenager Won't Tell You."

Jenifer, are there some things that you should definitely be talking about with your teenager who is going to babysit? To kind of forestall some of the things that, you know, we as adults think is common sense, but perhaps, might not occur to them, like don't text the whole time...

Ms. LIPPINCOTT: Right. Right.

MARTIN: ...you're watching my kids.

Ms. LIPPINCOTT: So, I think it's interesting to sort of take the perspective of the babysitter for a second, because we know that the teenage brain is not fully developed and that they really are not capable of making good decisions predictably, reliably and consistently. So with that as a given, they want to do a good job. They want to do the right thing, but they don't necessarily always know what that is. And so it becomes incumbent on the adult to talk about it. So whether it's a babysitter who you're hiring, or if it's your own child who you know is going to be babysitting, you know it's that sort of talk, talk, talk, talk, talk about two basic things, and that is: What are they going to do when the unexpected occurs? And how are they going to react in the face of danger?

And so how do you find that out? Well, the way you find that out is to sort of talk about, you know, what would-you-do-if's all the time. You know, what would you do if one of the kids you were babysitting with just wouldn't listen to you? What are some of the things that you might say or do? And then you listen really carefully.

Our job as adults, I think, is to begin to learn how they reason, because that's how you know how they are going to reason.

MARTIN: Here's an awkward question. I think it will be awkward for some people. Leslie was telling us that sometimes the children of friends will offer their teenagers as babysitters. They'll say, oh, so-and-so is...

Ms. STEINER: Would love to babysit.

MARTIN: Would love to babysit.

Ms. STEINER: Yeah.

MARTIN: She's great, you know, with kids. And you have some concerns. How would you handle that?

Ms. LIPPINCOTT: Sometimes parents want them to babysit because they want them to earn some money, you know, and they're putting pressure on them for the wrong reasons. So one of the things you would want to find out is: Why do you want to babysit? And, again, I think the experience thing is really critical. So, you know, you'd want to find out what they had done before, how old the kids were, how long the parents were out, what the circumstances were.

You know, one of the things - especially with younger kids - that I think that's really important for parents to keep in mind is when they go out, they've taken care of the potentially contentious things, like meals and bath and, you know, they've sort of let their own kids know what's expected. And then it's really important for the babysitter to know what the parent expects. If you don't expect the kid to be texting, you need to be really explicit about that. If you don't expect the television to be on, you need to be really explicit like that. And then, generally, if those are transgressed, you'll find out. You know, kids love to kind of tell you about things like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And I was going to ask you that. How much weight do you give the child's testimony about the babysitter? And if the child says, you know, what, so-and-so is just not fun. She's a sourpuss, you know, she's mean. How much weight do you give that testimony?

Ms. LIPPINCOTT: Again, it depends on the child and it depends on the nature of your conversation with your own child. But if the line of communication and your communication with your kid, is it generally they're going to tell you, you know, there's trust there, which is ultimately what we're after? Tons of weight.

MARTIN: So any final thoughts here about - Leslie, you were going to tell us something, but you still haven't - you have a lot of experience with this, and you're saying you still don't go out on New Year's Eve because it's just what? What happened here? What?

Ms. STEINER: Well, you know what? The holidays, in general, throughout December, I find - you know, we get a lot of invitations to adult-only parties, and babysitters are expensive. They're hard to find. They can be stressful. And also, I don't want my kids to remember the holidays as a time that mom and dad were gone all the time. So we really try to limit the number of parties that we go to, at least until the kids are older and maybe they can go with us to some of them or they can babysit for themselves.

MARTIN: Okay. Dani, final thought from you. You...

Ms. TUCKER: My final...

MARTIN: You are not letting anybody harsh your mellow.

Ms. TUCKER: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TUCKER: My final thought is something for those of us who are single moms out there, single parents like me who may not get a babysitter and want to get out and can't get out. Do what we started to do, and that's have your parties right there at your house and bring all the kids.

Ms. LIPPINCOTT: Yeah.

Ms. TUCKER: And that was one way that our kids established relationships with other kid, and we learned who could babysit who. You know, it's not your time to sit on the couch and not do anything. You know, invite the other moms over that don't have babysitters, and you all have your nice little party right there.

We had the PlayStation going for them and the games, and we have the music. I mean, everybody likes to dance. And our biggest thing for them was the sparkling apple cider, so they popped that at midnight...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TUCKER: ...you know, while we popped something else upstairs at midnight. But the point was that they established these relationships that really worked well, and we established something that we could do without having to be stuck in the house because we didn't have babysitters, and actually made a tradition out of it.

MARTIN: Jenifer, a final thought? And you have three rules you say for keeping lines of communication open with teenagers.

Ms. LIPPINCOTT: Right.

MARTIN: I just want you to remind them of what those rules are once again.

Ms. LIPPINCOTT: I told them the rules of play, and they really are what it all boils down to in terms of being able to communicate with our kids. And that is that what do we really care about when we sort of distill all of our concerns down? And that is that they stay safe, that they show respect for themselves and for others, and that we keep in touch. And that's the key part, you know, that keeping in touch part, which is sort of knowing what's on their minds.

MARTIN: Good rules for New Year's Eve.

Ms. LIPPINCOTT: Great rules for New Year's Eve.

MARTIN: Jenifer Marshall Lippincott is the co-author of "7 Things Your Teenager Won't Tell You and How to Talk about Them Anyway." A new edition will be published in the new year. Leslie Morgan Steiner is the author most recently of "Crazy Love." She was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio, along with our regular - other regular contributor, Dani Tucker.

Happy New Year to you all, ladies, moms, and keep that sparkling cider flowing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TUCKER: Thank you. Happy New Year.

Ms. STEINER: Thanks, Michel.

Ms. LIPPINCOTT: Thank you.

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