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Babysitting the Babysitter

By Amalah

Babysitting the BabysitterOh, Amy, I need your help.

I am a new Mom for the second time and have been using the hell out of my used-to-be-adequate sitter. I want to tell you that she’s great and I love her but only the latter is true. I love her, she’s a great kid and lives right next door. The operative word there is “kid”- she’s 12.5 and we are her first gig. As the youngest kid in her family with no prior experience I’m realizing she hasn’t a clue what she is doing. She often forgets to take my oldest to the bathroom, doesn’t feed him and just “can’t” get him to nap. If this wasn’t enough I recently took her along on a shopping trip for an extra set of hands while I tried on clothes and she lost my 3 year old. She treated the trip as if she were on a field trip, not along to help out.

I am going to take her to a infant/kid CPR class since I could use a refresher myself but what do I do about the rest? I don’t really know how to train her. I want to keep her because my son adores her and as I mentioned I do too, I just need her to do a better job. How do I teach her what she needs to know without hurting her feelings? I leave a list for her every time, when to feed, how often to take the boy to pee, what time to nap, and she just doesn’t do it. Do I need to phase her out or can this be saved?


Advice Smackdown ArchivesThe hard truth: Some 12.5 year old girls are mature and responsible enough to care for younger children. Some –and probably bordering on most — are not, and the consequences can be very bad, beyond a missed nap or potty accident. You got a glimpse of the possibilities on your shopping trip: SHE LOST YOUR THREE-YEAR-OLD CHILD. I’m not even going to tell you what news story and child’s name to Google, even though I imagine most of us know exactly which one I am thinking of. Would this girl have the presence of mind to…I don’t know…call 911 and follow instructions if your child was choking? (Says the mother who gave her toddler son the Heimlich.) Does she know not to throw water on a grease fire? (Says the former teenaged babysitter who accidentally started on while making grilled cheese sandwiches, but who at least knew to cover the pan to put it out.) (SHUDDER.)

I don’t want to sound alarmist, I really don’t, but oh my God, little children can get into SO MUCH TROUBLE, even with a responsible, involved adult sitting RIGHT THERE, in the same room. We all get distracted, we all turn our backs, but if this girl is unable to demonstrate even the basics of competent child-care (food, drinks, potty, bed), I do shudder to think what might happen if something outside that scope happened.

We all put our trust in sitters that they would rise to the occasion instead of panicking or dismissing the problem or hiding the evidence of injury or whatever. So you have to ask yourself if this girl has actually done anything to EARN that level of trust, beyond being essentially, a paid playmate for your son. My first early babysitting gigs generally involved just playing with the kids for an hour or two while Mom ran a single errand or worked outside in the yard — it was a couple years before I was genuinely capable enough to handle meals and bedtimes and the occasional grilled cheese disaster. (I was the baby of the family too, which I do believe makes a BIG difference between me and another 12-year-old with younger siblings.) You might simply be asking too much of her right now, and will need to decide whether you think she has potential to be a great sitter for your children later, or if your current sitter needs demand that you look elsewhere for someone more experienced.

If you DO decide to stick with her and help guide her, here are my suggestions:

1) The CPR training you mentioned is a great idea, provided you think she’d take it seriously. It’s not going to necessarily change the problems you mentioned, unless you ALSO take her to a childcare class, at which point you’re investing an awful lot of time and money in someone else’s child’s babysitting career. But it might prompt her to realize that babysitting IS serious business and open her eyes to what being in charge of someone else’s child can entail.

2) Demote her to Mother’s Helper only, or even pet-sitting. Don’t leave the house the next couple times she comes over and see how well she sticks to the schedule you leave, and stick your nose in whenever needed. Yes, it is like babysitting your sitter — you can pay less during the hours you’re around, depending on how independently she gets the job done.

3) Talk. To. Her. Mother. I would imagine, if you’re having this girl over to your house on a regular basis, that you must be on pretty good terms with her mother, right? Tell her mom some of your concerns, that you LOVE her daughter and your son LOVES her but you think she could really use some guidance on the A, B and Cs of childcare, and with the new baby you simply can’t be the one to help her figure it out. Maybe her mom would be willing to accompany her daughter once or twice to kind of…show her how it’s done so YOU aren’t — again — essentially babysitting your babysitter? I would hope her mom is proud of her daughter’s efforts to earn money and be responsible, and I know when/if my children start caring for neighbor’s children I’d be happy to help them along and make sure they’re not putting diapers on backwards or leaving choking hazards out all over the place.

It’s possible that this girl will be a wonderful babysitter in a year or two. Or three. She might just not be ready yet for anything more involved than coming over to build forts and train tracks with your son. She might still be more “capable playmate” than “authority figure.” And that’s FINE. Sometimes that’s just what you need to get a few basic tasks done around the house. But sometimes you’re going to need someone who can do forts and trains AND get lunch made AND potty AND make naps happen AND clean up the lunch dishes AND toss in a load of laundry. And that’s FINE TOO. You owe it to yourself to have the kind of help you really need, rather than feeling obligated to let this little girl use your kids and household as her training grounds.

Published August 16, 2010. Last updated July 22, 2017.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Erin

    August 16, 2010 at 1:17 pm

    I wouldn’t train her. You can still have her as a friend for your son, and even pay her as a mother’s helper (handy!) but not leave her alone with your kids. If it were me I’d turn to sittercity or ask around for a recommendation for someone I could TRUST a bit more. The LAST thing you need is one more child to worry about caring for. If you want to bring her with you the CPR class, that’s very generous of you, and hopefully she takes it seriously.

  • Therese

    August 16, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    I would also suggest sending her to a Safe Sitter course. I took it when I was about 11 and the info remained with me. I also started babysitting almost immediately after finishing the course and it was very beneficial and made the parents more comfortable. I think the “safe sitter” course is a national thing and is still available through hospitals, health depts, community ed programs… If she continues to have problems, she may just not be mature enough yet. I started babysitting younger than that but as a parent now, can’t fathom letting someone that young keep my son…

  • Jenny

    August 16, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    As usual, Amalah, you’ve provided the perfect advice! I began babysitting around age 10 for a neighbor child who at the time was about 6 months old. At first I was basically a mother’s helper — I’d watch the child while the mother or father were home working in the office or handling laundry, or ran a quick errand, and we would always play in the house or back yard. As we got a little older, we’d be alone for longer periods of time during the day, but my mom was always home and would often walk down the street to “see the baby.” Once I was about 14-15, and the couple had added another child to their family, I would sit for them during the evenings, and a few times kept the kids overnight at my house (the latter only when my parents were home). I did take CPR and a Safe Sitter course from the local hospital, and never ever lost the child in the store or forgot to feed them dinner! I think it is right that kids mature at different ages and certainly I was able to handle these responsibilities at a younger age, but not all children are. (I would leave my kids with my 13 year old niece before I’d leave them with her 15 year old brother!) I say talk to the girl’s mother and let her know your concerns as well as willingness to find a way for her to help you out and learn some babysitting responsibilities. And definitely check out sitter city for someone better qualified to watch your child when you are not there to supervise.

  • Alison

    August 16, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    Seriously, what? I read this letter with my jaw dropped. This girl is 12, has a track record of not doing what you’re asking her to do, and clearly doesn’t have the maturity needed for the job you’re shouldering her with, which happens to be a crucial one. Why, why, why would you continue to try?

    You sound surprised and even a little annoyed that she’s not a great sitter. She’s 12. Seriously, give up and move on to someone older who has the maturity to do what you need done.

  • Lisa M

    August 16, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    I think 12.5 is too young to care for a newborn. I started babysitting young, too, but I started with kids aged 5-8 who were capable, but needed someone there to a) keep them out of trouble, and b) know what to do if trouble found them. Even at 15 I was unsure what to do with a screaming newborn, much less juggle a newborn and toddler at the same time.
    But…BUT, she’s a12.5 and interested in learning. That’s great and workable. so I would just limit her sitting to times when the kids are already asleep and likely to stay that way; or at least the baby is down, and the pre-schooler might need a story, but will go to bed willingly. Or afternoons when she’ll only have to worry about a snack.
    I think she can be a great asset and will learn a lot, but don’t give her more responsibility than she’s ready for. And then when she grows more mature and is in high demand…you’ll be her preffered client, and you’ll (hopefully) have a bargain rate because you trained her.

  • Heather

    August 16, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    I too babysat at what seems now to be a very young age, 11. However, this did not involve an infant, and my parents were just across the street. I think keeping her on as a mother’s helper, and talking to her Mum and perhaps suggesting that SHE register her in a babysitting course – perhaps she could attend with you, but I think her family should bear the expense, as it should provide her with opportunity beyond your own family. If you feel your children are not safe and well cared for, that’s a deal breaker! If you can deal with it without hurting the girl’s feelings, great! If not? Your babies are just more important. Safety wins over feelings any day. Good luck with it all!!

  • Wallydraigle

    August 16, 2010 at 5:38 pm

    Yes, I think she just sounds a little immature to be babysitting. I babysat kids when I was this age, but it was always slightly older kids, between 5 and 7 mostly. They’re old enough to take themselves to the restroom by then, and the babysitter is pretty much only necessary to dial the phone if there’s an emergency or to get the kids out of the house. I would not have known what to do with anything preschool or younger.

    So, while training her would probably be a good investment eventually, I think a lot of the problem is that she’s just not grown up enough. Getting trained and having some responsibility will HELP her mature, but I think time is mostly what she needs.

  • Kari Weber

    August 16, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    I have a hard time sometimes remembering to feed MYSELF, and I have two kids to take care of… and I am 33! I wouldn’t be comfortable leaving my two kids in the hands of a 12.5 year old, maybe for an hour or two while I went to the grocery store, or as mentioned previously, while at home doing chores… Holy cow! Not for extended times that require naps and meals, and multiple potty breaks…!  WANTING to be a good babysitter, and just LIKING the money are two TOTALLY different things.  Your sitter likes the money, likes to play, and doesn’t seem real interested in the actual responsibility of it all.  Find someone more responsible, for the safety of your children.

  • Christina

    August 16, 2010 at 9:48 pm

    Thanks, Amy! I needed to hear this My first step will be to stop leaving her alone and the second to talk to her Mom, which,yes, we know eachother well enough.—I didnt mention that she doesnt care for the baby- just the older boy while I run errands for an hour or two. I love the idea of mothers helper which I’ve actually done with her a few times- I think this is where she got the “friend” impression.
    Thanks again- I needed to hear all of this.

  • christina

    August 16, 2010 at 9:53 pm

    Thanks, everyone and espically Amy!

    I needed to hear this, I think it’s why I wrote in the first place. I want to start by saying I’ve not left her with the baby, she only watches my older boy and for one to three hours at a time. Never longer and her Mom is always home while I am away.

    It scares the crap out of me visualizing her throwing water on a grease fire, except I doubt she knows how to turn on the stove…… I love the idea of Mothers Helper and at this moment consider her officially demoted. I will also have a chat with her Mom becuase as you suspected, we know eachother well enough and she will take this serisouly. I think my head is clouded with the convience of having her next door, thanks again for all of the advice.

  • Tracy

    August 17, 2010 at 8:46 am

    I know I’m super paranoid and hypervigilant… but I can’t imagine letting my daughter babysit at 12. In fact, she’ll turn 12 next summer and I am not planning to let her stay home alone. So a 12 yr old mother’s helper is great (though this one? losing your child at the store? not much of a helper, is she?), but I just don’t think a child that young is babysitting material.

  • Laura

    August 17, 2010 at 9:39 am

    I don’t have kids, so my advice might not be the BEST. But, she just doesn’t sound mature. It’s a night and day difference at that age. Personally, I babysat for my newborn sister (all alone) at ten. TEN. Even at 12, my sister just wasn’t quite there- she needed the classes. But a year later, she is just amazing. When she was ready, she was capital-R Ready. Honestly, though (and this might be my non-mom speaking)… if her mom is the one that is okay with her babysitting, or is even encouraging the idea she should really be the one paying for these classes. I can’t imagine why she would send such a young girl to watch other children without the necessary tools.

  • Leigh

    August 17, 2010 at 11:19 am

    The YMCA offers courses in babysitting, which would be a great thing to suggest to her, but I agree that 12 is awfully young to have so much responsibility. I started sitting at that age (a toddler and newborn twins, if you can believe it) but never for long periods and usually just during their naptime. There’s so much than can go wrong quickly–when I was an older teen, one of my little charges choked on a toy and I had to dislodge it; just last week my 40-year-old self set the wok on fire because I stepped out of the room for two minutes–and I’m not sure a 12-year-old has the presence of mind to deal with those kinds of emergencies.

  • @tiffany

    August 17, 2010 at 5:38 pm

    For what it’s worth, I babysat when I was 12. For a family that lived across the street from us, and my parents were always home when I did it. Two kids- 3 and 8. When I fed them, it was generally food the mom had fixed ahead of time, so the maximum application of heat I had to deal with was the microwave. (Seriously? We’re worrying about grease fires? That’s so avoidable with a little planning.) Potty was not an issue though I did have to wipe the younger kid’s butt occasionally. 

    I didn’t have to do laundry, but I did dishes. And it mostly went pretty well. I was a pretty mature 12 year old but the idea of letting someone that age watch a 3 year old in theory doesn’t sound that shocking to me.

  • Cathryn

    August 17, 2010 at 8:33 pm

    Frankly, I wouldn’t let a 12.5 year old babysit. It’s too young, in my opinion. Of course there are mature 12 year olds out there, but I’m not sure why this person is so surprised and upset that this CHILD is too childish to care for another child. 

  • Lisa

    August 18, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    Like several other posters, I also started babysitting at age 12 or so, but also only watched older kids (ages 4+). In a typical situation, I would arrive just before dinner, the parents would order pizza for us or give me money to order pizza, I would be in charge of dinner, cleanup, entertaining the kids for a few hours before bedtime, and then getting them to bed and waiting up for the parents to get home. I think that I fell asleep on the couch a few times around midnight when the parents didn’t get home until 1am or later- but the kids were asleep and I was there in case there was an emergency, and it was okay with the parents if I fell asleep that late. My mom also required that I check in with her after the kids were in bed to confirm that everything was going okay. I

  • T

    August 18, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    I would definitely drop her as a sitter and go with someone older. She can still be a mother’s helper or your son’s neighbor pal. You can always revisit her potential as a babysitter when she’s older.

  • Della

    August 18, 2010 at 4:16 pm

    A very, VERY responsible child, I began “babysitting” at about age 12 – defined as “playing with a 10 and 7 year old who weren’t QUITE ready to stay home on their own, while their mom ran an errand for an hour.” After taking babysitting courses offered by the local college/community center, I graduated to “staying in the house with a sleeping toddler who had already been put to bed, while the parents went out for a 3-hour date night.”

    Finally, at 13, 13.5, I started doing 2-3 hours actually playing with a easy, well-behaved 2-3 year old (I don’t think she was potty trained) and putting her down for a nap or bedtime (depending on the day). I don’t remember ever having to feed her until we were quite a bit older (and eventually I was babysitting her, her little sister, and I got the baby brother when he was just a month old!)

    Now I have 12 and 13 year old stepdaughters and we’ve left them at home with the napping toddler, or let them play for 15 minutes in the toddler+baby’s room while I ran to pick up a prescription at the pharmacy. They are simply not responsible enough to be left in charge of a baby, or even the toddler.

    The one time I did give it a trial run, letting them watch the toddler at the end of his nap time, I specifically told them that they could play in his room, or watch TV, “and that is it, nothing else”. I came home to find they’d had him in my room, jumping on the (oversized, 3.5-foot-off-the-ground) bed (a habit I’m still trying to break him of). Their response? “You didn’t say we couldn’t!” WHAT?!!

    So, I suppose it depends on the kid. If you have ANY doubts, I would recommend doing the more structured, serve the pre-made food, maybe put to bed, have-her-there-for-an-emergency-if-the-kid-wakes-up kind of thing.

  • […] 11, I was babysitting three kids all day, all summer long.  But not all pre-teens are ready for the responsibility of childcare.  If you’re considering hiring a younger […]

  • The gold digger

    August 19, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    I, too, started babysitting at 11, but my mom was home and down the street and there were no infants involved. I got to infants pretty quickly, though – but again – my mom was just down the street and all the neighbors knew each other because we were on a military base.

    I undercharged – 50 cents an hour, which was way less than minimum wage – which is so dumb, because mothers appear to be so desperate for babysitters now that they will pay $10 an hour. Still, I made enough money to buy a 35-mm camera and a bicycle.

    PS I also sewed all my own clothes, which either makes me really responsible or really unfashionable.

  • ctags

    August 19, 2010 at 5:35 pm

    Yeah… it’s hard. I babysat when I was 12. But I had been watching my younger sisters for a couple years before that (usually short trips, or there was a neighbor at home next door, but experience none the less). And I started with older kids (4, 6, and 8). And it was still hard. That was probably one of the most stressful jobs of my life. I had trouble getting them to behave and do the things they were supposed to do (like homework, eating healthy snacks and not chips, cleaning up their toys). I’m not sure that 12 is really old enough for regular babysitting. It’s one thing to have someone to call so you can run to the grocery store for an hour, but another thing to be in charge of multiple children for many hours. I would be really worried about someone not taking it seriously though – I mean, she lost the toddler! She clearly does not seem responsible enough to babysit, yet.

  • Megan

    August 22, 2010 at 5:35 am

    You’ve got to follow your gut. If you don’t think she’s ready, don’t give her the full responsibility.

    I was 13 when i started babysitting…for a 3 month old. I was a pretty serious kid though. I also had my mother nearby if things went wrong (serious fever, drunk neighbor). I grew into the job and took care of that little girl until i left for college.

    She’s alive and well by the way, but in retrospect, a cpr class would have been good to have just in case.

  • Parker_B

    August 27, 2010 at 12:39 am

    I know I’m really late commenting, but for the love of God, 12 yrs old is too young to be left alone caring for little kids. Their tween brains aren’t fully developed yet, and they don’t think of all the bad things that could happen in any given scenario.

    This is really embarrassing to admit, but it is only by the grace of God (I mean it!) that a child wasn’t seriously injured because of my negligence as a 13 year-old babysitter. I once put a very young toddler up on a kitchen counter while I made lunch right next to her. She (duh!) fell off and I barely caught her in time. Another time I carried a child IN his stroller up to the front porch of the house, and as I unlocked the door the stroller began rolling backward. I caught it before it rolled down the stairs. Can you imagine what might have happened? It still makes me want to puke thinking of how stupid I was.

    PLEASE learn from my mistakes- your child’s safety is not worth the risk of giving a young girl on-the-job training.