Please teach me about childcare.
August 24, 2010 9:14 PM   Subscribe

Please bring me up to speed on childcare. Quickly.

A close friend is a newly-single mother, and she and her children (5-year-old boy and 2-year-old girl) are moving in with me for an indefinite period, beginning yesterday. I have no experience with solo child care, although I've met and get along well with these two children. While there are no expectations that I'll be stepping in to a "daddy" role, I want to be as helpful as I can, and certainly will be expected to babysit, probably as soon as this weekend.

So I need to get knowledgeable about this stuff, fast. What books do I read? What websites do I visit? What are some things you wish you'd known the first time you were babysitting?
posted by bac to Human Relations (37 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
If they're hungry feed them.
If they mess their diapers change them.
If they cry hug them.

And always always keep one eye on them. They are quick.
posted by Bonzai at 9:41 PM on August 24, 2010 [4 favorites]

Get ready to listen like you've never listened before.
posted by milarepa at 9:44 PM on August 24, 2010

You will want to try to reason with the two year old.
They don't work like that. Use another approach.
posted by the Real Dan at 9:53 PM on August 24, 2010 [6 favorites]

They like routine and need consistent expectations. But that does not mean you can expect the same.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:00 PM on August 24, 2010

"And so like they have this cat and but it's white and the cat was on the chair and she said get off the chair and the cat it's white was making a noise and it was scratching the pillow but he threw a ball cause it was looking!"

Long non sequiturs are the order of the day. Roll with it.
posted by arse_hat at 10:02 PM on August 24, 2010 [11 favorites]

This is something that I learned working with really young children.

They may not want to cooperate (eg go to bed at appropriate time for child, get ready for bed, eat something besides a cookie for dinner). You can coax young kids to do a lot of things with games, though.

Something along the lines of "I'll bet I can run from here to there before you put on your pajamas", "Lets have a contest to see who can be the quietest for the longest time", etc.

If you want to have the kids respond to you quickly (to be quiet or not run across the house away from you), teach them a few games. "Who can be quiet the longest" (any peep = did not win and game starts over) or "abra you are a snake" (and child should act like a snake). Pick quiet/nonactive animals if you dont want them to go far.

Or maybe I have the mindset of a 5-year-old and find that playing games is a better way to communicate.
posted by Wolfster at 10:07 PM on August 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Sometimes if things are getting difficult, offer a(n actually very limited) choice, like (if you are trying to get the kid dressed and they're resisting): "do you want to wear the purple shirt or the red shirt?"

If a kid is touching something they shouldn't, after you take it away, put it someplace where they can't see it at all, not just out of reach.
posted by needs more cowbell at 10:17 PM on August 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

If they're making noise in the other room they're probably okay. It's when things get really quiet that they're up to no good.
posted by lilac girl at 10:20 PM on August 24, 2010 [4 favorites]

Offer them age-appropriate choices (i.e. "would you like to read two stories or three stories before bed?" "would you like to brush your teeth first, and then read a story, or read the story first?" "carrot sticks or celery sticks with dinner?"). If they want something that is not an option (i.e. "I want to read 10 stories! I won't go to bed!") calmly tell them, "that is not a choice", and repeat what the choices are. You may need to say this a few times (don't worry about being a broken record), but once you've established that you won't back down (while at the same time giving them some control over the situation), behaviour will be much easier to manage.

Get down to eye level when you are talking to them.

Games (as noted by Wolfster) are excellent! Some kids also really enjoy songs.
posted by purlgurly at 10:33 PM on August 24, 2010 [4 favorites]

When the activity is about to change, give them a few minutes' warning. "In five minutes we are leaving for the park" or "In five minutes it will be time for bed" or whatever, rather than just *boom* announcing "let's go!"- two year olds, in particular, are not terribly rational, so getting their buy in can be tricky, and giving them time to change gears can make a big difference.
posted by ambrosia at 10:40 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

If they can grab it, they will.
If they can trip on it, they will.
If they can tear it, they will.
If they can stick their fingers in it, they will.
If they can chew on it, they will.
If they can make noise with it, they will.
If they can open and close it, they will.
If it will fit in their mouth, they will put it there.
If it is dangerous, they will find it.
If they can split in separate directions, they will
If you aren't paying enough attention, they will get it.

Adapt & Survive should be your motto. Find Patience. Establish boundaries. Relax. Don't Sweat the Small Stuff. Get the number to Poison Control for your own peace of mind. Buy some Band-Aids and Neosporin. Have some kid friendly food, snacks and drinks. Engage and treat them like the people they are with their own likes/dislikes, interests and fears. Enter their mental space and don't be afraid to be silly.
posted by MasonDixon at 10:44 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

The two year old should never be out of your sight if awake. This may mean the kid has to come in the bathroom with you - talk to the mom about how to handle this, whether she puts 2 year old in a kid jail/pack-n-play and for how long (eg can you take a 10 min shower). If you can set up a room that is contained and toddler-safe, life will be easier. The two year old will probably be very easy to get interested in something like: playing with water, playing with pots and pans, etc. But also, the two year old is probably fast and doesn't know what's dangerous - so you will really have to be watching with one eye at all times.

Songs and games they already know - you will want to re-up on the lyrics etc to kids' songs like patty cake, twinkle twinkle, itsy bitsy spider, etc. Many kids can be distracted from mischief or sadness by something as simple as a song or little activity.

Get a stack of kids' books from the library - Dr Seuss, Curious George, et al. Be ready to read them over and over. Use funny voices. Ask the kids questions about the pictures - who's that? where's curious george? what's he doing? Why's he in that tree?

Consistent rules and routines, yes!
These will be specific to these kids. Here are some examples of things you will want to find out from mom:

Do they have anything that works to calm them down if they are scared/hurt? (a certain song, sitting quietly,..)

Do they have anything that freaks them out, that you should know to avoid? (dogs, ...)

Food and drink - what's allowed, what's off-limits, what do they like? Do they always have grilled cheese for lunch, are they only allowed to have juice before 6:00? When do they eat, how much should they eat and drink throughout the day, etc.

TV - ditto; know how to find their favorite shows (what channel etc) or have approved dvds for them to watch, like Mary Poppins.

Bathroom/diaper protocols - probably different for the two kids, probably younger is in diapers and older is potty trained already. Conceivable that the older one is still at a stage where a grown-up needs to be present for wiping or supervision. You will want the full course from mom.

Wakeup/Getting dressed - do they get to pick their own clothes? the two year old will need help getting dressed but the five year old probably won't.

Naps - do they take naps? when? for how long? do they need the room to be dark, do they need a book or song to go to sleep, how critical is it for them to get their naps (how hard should you fight for it if the kid is resisting).

Bathtime/Bedtime - what time do things happen (bath, getting pjs on, ? what happens in a bath - do you always wash hair? watch mom do it so you get a sense of how it goes. what happens at bedtime - certain books, turn off the lights in a certain way, does the adult stay in the room until the kid is asleep, etc.

Car seats - how do you fasten the kid into the car seat, be sure it's tight enough, release the kid?

What kinds of mischief are these kids prone to get into? Do they stay on sidewalks if outside or do you have to keep hold of them to ensure that? Does the two year old like to put things in her mouth? etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:48 PM on August 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

First, everyone should be clear that the mom is the boss. When she is there, she is the boss. When she is not there, you get your authority from her but you are in charge. If they challenge you on something, do what you think is best and then talk to their mother about how she wants you to deal with it next time.

I also strongly recommend a book called How to Talk so Kids Will Listen. It is a fantastic approach to providing discipline and structure while respecting the child as their own person including lots of good idea for getting the kids to do what you want without having to be a bad guy.

and for a simple approach to discipline you and their mother should read 1-2-3 Magic although she should decide if she wants you to go that route.
posted by metahawk at 10:48 PM on August 24, 2010 [4 favorites]

What are the two year old's basic vocabulary words? She probably has words for a bunch of everyday things that may be hard to decipher - so it can help to ask mom. Milk, juice, cheese, chicken (whatever her usual foods are), nap, sleep, boo-boo/injury, playground, maybe things for 'I want that' or 'I'm scared of that', etc. The five year old can probably help you interpret.

Most two year olds can answer questions of the form "what does a lion say?" "raawr!" (and similar questions about various animals) - find out if she has some standard questions she knows the answer to, since this can also help to calm her down and distract her if she's upset.

Also good for the 2 year olds I know: (gentle, non-scary) chasing or "I'm gonna get you" fake pinching.

Games to play with kids (search for more threads like this, too)

Songs to sing to young kids
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:35 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you want them to do something, don't ask, just tell them to do it. It is very possible to give orders in a happy voice.

No: Do you want to hold my hand while we cross the street?
Yes: Hold my hand while we cross the street, sweetie.

No: Do you want to put your pajamas on now?
Yes: Jammie time! Go! (make it a race, or a contest to beat their best time, or whatever)
posted by SamanthaK at 11:37 PM on August 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think stepping into Daddy role would actually make sense.

These kids need a lifelong commitment from an adult. If they are moving into your home, you should be prepared to commit to them, in some form, for life. If you don't, it won't help them develop strong attachments to other people in later life. So even after they leave your house, I think you should try to be a part of their life in some way.

Anyway, while they are with you, give them some structure, and some routine. Make sure they eat properly. Make sure they are clean. Give them some space to call their own. Make sure they have a ball.

Pick them up. Hug them. Tell them they are special.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:57 PM on August 24, 2010

You are not their father, so you're going to have it easy: take your lead and cues from their mother. Defer to her, ask her if you're unsure, ask her questions about how you can help. The responsibility isn't yours initially, and won't be yours in any capacity until their mother decides to grant you that responsibility.

So don't worry about ramping up quickly; she'll teach you to help her the way she needs your help. As for your relationship with the kids, don't try to control them, don't try to be their dad. If they want to do something they're not allowed to do, don't say "you can't do that", say "your mother told me you're not allowed to do that." Don't become an authority figure until/unless their mother asks you to.

Most of all: as you'll presumably be in a proto-uncle role, enjoy it! Kids at five are hilarious and fun (when they're not really difficult and frustrating), and at two there's more frustration than fun but if you're not the parent it's a lot more fun than frustrating.
posted by davejay at 11:59 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, a quick clarification: when I say don't become an authority figure, I mean don't become the person making rules for them. You *are* an adult, so you are an authority figure and should behave as such, but as a proxy for their parent based on rules set by that parent.
posted by davejay at 12:01 AM on August 25, 2010

I agree with all about about consistency and limited, appropriate choices. If you are consistent from the beginning you'll have such a better time.

My suggestions are: Don't be afraid to be goofy/make a fool of yourself playing with them! They will love it. (as long as it's not an act, but real enthusiasm!) Do things you like to do with them, adapt your favorite things to do so they can hang out with you.

Don't be afraid of them not liking you, if you do have to discipline. They might not like the rules or consequences (and they WILL test you) but if you are consistent they will know what to expect from you and will be happy. Make sure you are fair and positive. And that as soon as the "discipline" is over, you are back to happy. Talk with the 5 year old about how to help each other keep behavior where everyone is happy. Do this after the consequences have been completed.

Listen and answer questions with easy, but real answers. Get info from mom about how to answer questions about the new single mom status.

Ask her any and all questions, and have her write things down. It's incredibly hard to remember everything for 2 children, if she just talks to you.

The first day will be scary-ish because it's new and you'll all be a little unsure, but it will be fun. You'll learn very quickly and by next week have all sorts of new "tools" for taking care of children!

Have fun!
posted by Swisstine at 12:14 AM on August 25, 2010

KokuRyu: I think stepping into Daddy role would actually make sense. These kids need a lifelong commitment from an adult. If they are moving into your home, you should be prepared to commit to them, in some form, for life.

Wow, drama much? First of all, the kids have two lifelong parents, and while they are apparently not committed to one another any more, there is no reason to assume they are not committed to parenting their children. These are not orphans.

Second of all, while you can make presumptions about the relationship between the mother and the OP, there is no data provided about that. Let's assume for the sake of not rubbernecking that they are friends, the mother is in a jam, and the OP can provide safe harbour for this family in a time of transition. That is a nice thing to do, but in no way does it commit the OP to a lifetime of parenting or to anything at all other than a childproofed home and competent babysitting.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:35 AM on August 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Seconding How to Talk So Kids Will Listen. Great advice in there, and it's a fast read with cartoons (couple of hours max -- if kids are not present!).
posted by rouftop at 1:16 AM on August 25, 2010

Laundry. Vast quantities of laundry. Food all over the kitchen floor and stickiness all over the table. Someone's going to have to sweep that floor probably twice a day, and then do some laundry. If you have a particularly nice table, the kind that people use polish on, you may want to get some sort of wipe-clean tablecloth instead. Bedwetting is pretty likely with the five year old (and nappies aren't necessarily perfect for the little one either, especially if she is good with clothes and learns to take her own nappy off) adding to the laundry situation. If they're bringing their own furniture the state of the mattress isn't going to be your problem, if they're using yours you want to buy some kind of totally waterproof plastic mattress cover, then something nicer to go over it so the kid isn't sleeping on a sheet set straight on plastic.

Kids can learn about not touching things, but for at first and for potentially dangerous things (fires, woodburners etc) you're going to need to childproof a bit. No antique vases on the floor or anywhere else within reach! Some kind of child lock on cupboards with cleaning products in. Talk to their mother about this!
posted by Lebannen at 2:35 AM on August 25, 2010

Just so I have the picture clear, you're not romantically involved with your friend who is recently divorced/separated from the kids' dad and she and her kids are moving in with you temporarily, right? (What I mean is, if there's even an inkling that you 2 are canoodling, the older kid is going to be all over that, which may not be a good thing right now.)

I'd keep in mind this has got to be tremendously traumatic for those kids (and your friend) and this transitional period could possibly be something they remember forever (the time when we left Dad...).

To that end, it helps to know that kids can act kinda sassy and/or weird during these times. They're probably pretty confused.

Be gentle with them; be kind; be firm, friendly, etc. I wouldn't in any way try to step in and be a major disciplinarian...I'd be thinking fun uncle right now. The guy who gives piggybacks but can tell them it's time to pick up their socks.

Best hint I can summon up: no matter how upset they are, most kids are motivated by food so you can spend some time with them cooking. Teaching them to make brownies, snacks like peanut-butter and raisin-filled celery sticks, they can cut soft fruit with a butter knife, throw everything in a blender and push the button to make smoothies, stuff like that. Customizing mac and cheese, making a salad bar.

Food is fun and cooking skills can help them feel knowledgeable when they may be feeling a little lost.

This is a very nice thing you're doing; I wish you all well.
posted by dzaz at 5:01 AM on August 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

You will make plans to do things, either with or without the kids.

Some of the time, these plans will fall through due to an unexpectedly long nap, a grumpy day that is better spent at home, something got broken, can't find any of your shoes any where, and so forth.

Accept it and role with it, depending on how involved you'll be with the kids.

Also, this is very, very important. Do not make promises unless you can keep them. Even a two year old will latch on to promises. So, if you say, "We'll go to the movies tomorrow," you really better be planning on going to the movies. If you say, "Let's have a picnic this evening!" you better have a picnic.

If there's something the kids want to do that they're normally able to do but can't (go to the park because it's raining), let them know. "Hey, kids. We can't go to the park today because it's raining. But if it's not raining tomorrow we can probably go then. So, let's think of something else to do today."
posted by zizzle at 6:34 AM on August 25, 2010

*roll, even
posted by zizzle at 6:35 AM on August 25, 2010

Your first step should be sitting down with the mom and finding out what her child-rearing philosophy is. All of the above suggestions are great, but only if you check with mom first on issues like food options, routines, bedtime rituals, clothing choice, consequences for bad behavior, etc. Who knows- she may care more about their clothing or food options than you would. Since it sounds like she's in a rough spot, I'm sure it would relieve some of her stress to know you were not giving the kids conflicting signals. Don't try to just learn how she likes things done by observing- sit down with her and make sure you are both on the same page!
posted by Mouse Army at 6:38 AM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Lots of good advice. I'm going to add on:

Most two year olds can answer questions of the form "what does a lion say?" "raawr!" (and similar questions about various animals
Tip: barnyard animals (cow,pig,chicken,rooster,sheep,goat,cat,dog,etc) make more interesting noises than wild animals (lion: raawr, tiger: raawr, bobcat: raawr, cheetah: raawr). I guess if you're really good with differentiating raawrs that might work. Elephants and monkeys are also good.

make sure any chemicals and other hazards are stored safely out of reach
I've seen advice that says get on your hands and knees and crawl around your house. Touch/push/pull/hit everything that you can see: cabinet doors, TV stand, rare books/records on low shelves, coffee table with glass vase, power cords for computer/TV, etc.

If you have a spare room where the kids are likely to stay, take out everything but the necessities (bed/dresser), put some toys and pillows in there and get a gate for the doorway. It will be a safe place for them to move around.
posted by CathyG at 7:33 AM on August 25, 2010

davejay and Mouse Army have it -- defer to mom. Find out what her child-rearing philosophy is, how involved she wants you to be in their care. Watch that you don't overstep your boundaries. You aren't a parent here, and the mom might not appreciate if you start acting like one. But since they are living in your house, you also need to discuss what is OK/not OK (ie. if she doesn't mind the kids jumping on the furniture but you do, you need to establish that a house rule while they stay with you is no jumping on the furniture, then both you and the mom can enforce that rule).

All the other stuff -- the kid-proofing stuff -- is good, but this is one to ask the mom about.
posted by Felicity Rilke at 7:47 AM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Structure, routine and consistency, from both adults. Have a plan and be on the same page with the mother. Never be put in the position of the child thinking "I don't like that answer, so I'll go to the other adult and they'll do what I want".
posted by kjs3 at 8:00 AM on August 25, 2010

As SamanthaK said, don't ask the kids whether they want to do something, especially if it is scary/boring. Chances are, they will just say "no" and then where will you be? I learned this the hard way, but you don't need to. :)

If you tell them a consequence for doing X and they do X... deliver the consequence calmly and immediately every single time. There will be no more X if you are fair and consistent.

Make sure that the 5-year old gets special praise and attention from his mother (or you) and isn't just used as a helper for taking care of the 2-year old. He will be more likely to set a good example for his little sister and less likely to act out to get noticed.

Also, babysitting is exhausting for long periods of time and you may want to reserve some quiet time for yourself, even if you're just a room away (and the 2-year old is in a playpen and the stairs are blocked off). The ideal combination is to have an activity that wears them out in the morning (playing in the park, swimming) followed by some quiet time (nap, reading, toys, watch a cartoon, colour quietly) in the afternoon. You shouldn't leave them alone, but it will give you a breather.
posted by cranberrymonger at 8:11 AM on August 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

The only piece of advice I'm going to second is that you need to ask the mom what she wants you to do and how she handles things. Most of the advice in this thread would either a) not work with my kids, or b) not be in line with my parenting style. Now, I think it's OK for people to do things differently with my kids than I do; they've adapted well to this and I think it's actually good for them in terms of understanding that different rules apply in different places, that one adult is comfortable with a certain kind of mess and another isn't, etc. But there are also things that cross a line for me that I would not want a caretaker to do. So, talk to the mom. She's the one who knows.
posted by not that girl at 8:38 AM on August 25, 2010

I wanted to chime back in to suggest that, for your own piece of mind and the kids' safety, you might consider taking a basic CPR/First Aid course (here in Canada, you can take courses that specifically teach you infant/child procedures) - assuming that you aren't already familiar with the skills. Books and websites are okay, but having supervised practice is a much better way to learn and retain this material.

Make sure that you have the contact info for the kids' doctor, and any relevant insurance information; when I babysit here in Ontario, I have the parents leave me their kids' OHIP (government health insurance) cards, just in case I need to call 911.
posted by purlgurly at 9:36 AM on August 25, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks very much to all. If it didn't make the page look like crap I'd mark every answer as best. Any further advice is most welcome.

Yes, certainly I'll defer to the mom and proceed according to her wishes and boundaries. She's made it clear she wants as much help as I can provide, and circumstances are such that I'm likely to be on my own with the kids before I have a full understanding of all that, so I'll simply have to do the best I can.
posted by bac at 9:54 AM on August 25, 2010

As the parent of a three-year-old, I can tell you for certain that kids are flexible and resilient, and that if you screw up a couple-three times, it'll be OK. You're not going to scar them for life. So yes, try your best to be consistent and upbeat and follow Mom's lead and all that good stuff, but if you drop the occasional ball, it's OK. (Or, as my pediatrician is fond of saying, "C+ is a passing grade.")
posted by KathrynT at 10:19 AM on August 25, 2010

The occasional TV treat is fine, IMHO, if you really need a break.

Occasional (no more than 18-19 hours daily, tops!).

The fact that you're even asking? The kids are all right.
posted by dzaz at 10:50 AM on August 25, 2010

Food stays in the kitchen/on the table, and shoes come off at the door. It's just easier NOT to clean up the mud/PB&J/juice from everywhere else in the house (and car). And, if you're generally neat, kids can be too - even a two year old can put away toys into a toy box or plastic tub. It's your house, and you can set ground rules around your stuff (and, in my opinion, bedtimes and other routines if that's important to you - if you want the household quiet by 8 so you can relax and watch tv, that's reasonable).

A lot of the suggestions are geared toward the younger child. A five-year old can be really interested in certain objects and subjects, so you may want to find something - puzzles, legos, The Magic Tree House books, going for walks and talking about trees - that you share and learn about together. Setting up a play house with couch pillows and sheets is fun. Simple outings to a playground or for an ice cream cone can break up a dull day. Many places have kid activities that are free/low cost - story hour at the library, open farm day, etc. Some communities have online parent networks to find out about this stuff. Also, kids often do best at going out in the mornings, when they are not tired or hungry.

They also need to eat often - usually 3 meals + 2 snacks per day. Crankiness is usually a sign of something else, and they can't always tell you that it's because they are hungry or tired or getting sick.

The 5 year old can have quiet time in a room alone when the 2 year old is napping. This will give you a break.

Talk to mom about helping the 5 year old with toileting/bathing and what's appropriate. Most kids are told not to show their private parts to any adults other than mom/dad. But what if he asks for help wiping? You'll want to know what she wants you to do in advance.

Set your own boundries with Mom, too, so that you're not overwhelmed with these new responsibilities. And have fun!
posted by Sukey Says at 11:12 AM on August 25, 2010

I'm better with 2-year-olds but some of this applies to 5-year-olds too, I'm sure.

MOST IMPORTANT THING: Don't take it personally. They will get mad. They will reject you for no apparent reason. They will act like you are torturing them when you give them the green cup instead of the red one. Don't take it personally.

If you can, grab a book about basic toddler development and try to get into their head and empathize with them that way.

Sometimes they're wrong. A lot of times they're wrong. They're probably trying their hardest. It's often better to just say "oh, hmm" or "That's a lion? I thought that was a bear!" Don't worry, you'll get plenty of time to answer a million and one questions and show them your book learnin'.

Don't ask them to do things they need to do. Tell them. If it's not an option, don't act like it is. If it is an option, suck it up and be fine if they tell you "no". Toddlers especially get a kick out of telling you "no". They don't control a whole lot about their lives, if you think about it.

Ask if you want tickles or a hug. Don't force or nag them. In general, ask them before you touch them and respect their answer, unless you absolutely need to touch them (diaper changing, something dangerous, etc.). You don't always want to be touched, either, and it's upsetting to be touched forcefully by someone bigger than you.

Tell them what you're going to do before you do it, while you're doing it, and after you did it. This really reduces their anxiety level around a new person and helps keep things predictable.

They love to imitate and participate. Sometimes the best way to engage them in a game or activity is just to do it and act like you're having fun. Same thing with food--eat it, act like it's the BEST EVER, and they might come around.

Come up with ways to let them do things--take the lid halfway off so they can take it off all the way. Get their shoes all loosened up so that they can stick their feet into them.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:43 PM on August 27, 2010

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