Courtesy SW ProductionsFor most parents, the days when teens would baby-sit for $5 an hour and a freshly delivered pizza are gone. The new going rate for big-city sitters, says one Los Angeles nanny, can easily hit $25 an hour. If that sounds steep, remember that "taking care of kids is invaluable," she says. "You don't want to be cheap or stingy. Parents sometimes start out paying my regular rate and then try to pay less and less as time goes on."
Aside from trying to bargain down to $15 an hour or a flat fee, parents can commit a number of other no-noes.
- Canceling at the last minute is poor form (obviously), but some common mistakes make a bad situation worse. "There should be a minimum pay if you cancel within 12 hours," says one sitter. "I'm a busy 20-something and could be doing lots of things, and I purposefully didn't make plans on a Saturday night. I set aside time." To stay on a sitter's good side, pay a portion of the full time reserved, such as 2.5 hours after canceling for a night that was meant to run 5 hours.
- Failing to stock the refrigerator is another pet peeve. "If you are baby-sitting at night and it is around dinnertime, there should be food for an adult in the house," says a sitter, who notes that Goldfish crackers and fish sticks don't cut it. "I've had times when there has been no food in the house," she adds.
- Sitters also say one of the most common mistakes parents make is "the long goodbye." Instead of dragging out the farewells (or handing kids candy to keep them calm and creating ongoing bribery expectations), it is better to quickly walk out the door. "The longer you say goodbye, the harder it gets."
Wise parents can keep a few things in mind.
- Give sitters permission to parent. Trusting sitters to set the rules and treating them like an adult will encourage kids to see them as an authority, too.
- Act like a grown-up. "Parents need to stick to their word. If they say they are going to do something and they don't follow through, the kids will continue to walk all over them," says a sitter, who sees many parents making the same mistake when it comes to discipline.
- Bilingual child care has great benefits, says one nanny, but she adds that "parents should know that it is hard for nannies to coordinate play dates with other kids when they only speak Spanish."
- TV can be a sitter's secret weapon. "Kids take naps in cars and wake up as a terror, so putting them in front of a TV for 30 minutes after a nap helps them relax," says a sitter. "I hate to say it, but it zones them out a little and it works."
There are a number of red flags to look for when it comes to choosing a sitter, too.
- Go beyond making sure the sitter has general experience with kids. "Kids under 5 years old are very different from kids between 10 and 12," says a sitter. Make sure the sitter knows how to handle kids in the appropriate age group.
- Don't ignore the warning signs of flakiness. If a potential baby sitter blows off more than one scheduled appointment, that's significant. "Patience and the ability to show up is one of the most important things," warns a nanny. "If someone can't show up a few times, you don't want to worry that your kid isn't going to be picked up from their classroom on time."
- There are also a few things sitters don't tell parents that might make them wince. One nanny says that in addition to food, she'll also have a glass of wine or help herself to a beer from the family refrigerator (with their blessing). Make it clear if there are rules about drinking alcohol while baby-sitting.
Above all, if there are sitters who fit in with the family, try to show them that they are valued. "Don't nickel-and-dime," says one nanny who had parents break out a calculator and pay down to the minute. "They give me $45.50. If it is down to that, just give me $45 and round down. And I've had people say, 'Oh, you are making a LOT of money tonight.' It is insulting. I'm a grown woman. Don't make a fuss about it."
Kwala Mandel is an editor for Yahoo! who works on special projects including the remembrance of 9/11 and the live-streamed Decade of Difference concert. She's contributed to omg!, TV, Movies, Shine, and News.