Help me take care of these kids when I feel ambivalent and lack resources and experience!
September 1, 2011 2:21 PM   Subscribe

How can I amuse these variously-aged children who like to test boundaries? How should I handle things when I basically can't discipline them? How can I get in the right headspace to do this?

I do some volunteer work which has turned into de facto childcare, about three or four hours a week, for three bright but very disruptive children. They're approximately four, six and eight; they're related to each other and live across the street from the project. They are very responsible in some ways - do a lot of chores at home that I didn't do at that age, for example - and very rambunctious in others, not hesitating to yell, use bad language and rummage through everything in the space. They're also little, and tend to drop crumbs on the floor, spill paint, etc. Their parents are friendly, but not around much - as far as I can tell they're working a lot of hours at low-paying jobs just to get by.

I need to keep the kids occupied. Some of the time, I can work directly with them to manage what they're doing; other times, I need to do the actual volunteer work for which I'm in the space.

I don't have any real authority here - I can't kick them out, speaking sternly does no good, etc. My only hope is to build a rapport with them so that they'll tone things down a little. I like them and am happy when we have moments of rapport, but I am also frustrated and stressed by the need to manage them.

This is important - I'm white, middle class, introverted, nerdy. These kids are African-American, working class, extroverted, and have what read to me to as very permissive relationships with adults. I grew up in a very traditional, authoritarian setting, which had plenty of drawbacks - there are things about the kids' relationships with adults that I admire quite a lot. I don't know how to be the kind of adult these kids are accustomed to (I've actually seen them interacting with neighbors and family quite a lot, so I'm not just making this up). We've had a bunch of interactions where we misunderstand each other - ie, I can't tell when they're teasing, they can't tell when I'm teasing.

I plan to bring in stuff to do - things to color, puzzles, etc. What are some recommended internet resources for these that kids would actually like? I don't want to bring stuff that reeks of "educational". I could probably spend a little money on this, but I already spend a bunch of money on other volunteer stuff.

What how-to childcare resources would you recommend? I'd be especially interested in anything that addresses race and class in a practical way, or any suggestions from your experience.

How do I get into the right headspace? I tend to have this default fear when dealing with kids that's basically "Frowner is such a dorky, laughable, pathetic figure that not only can she never get kids to do anything, but she actually deserves to have kids laugh at her". I tend to play little movies in my head - the kind of movie where the teacher is a ridiculous, bumbling oppressor and the kids are awesome. Add white guilt - let's not kid ourselves here - and the whole thing is just a mess. Sometimes I dread going in to the project because it produces a lot of really strong flashbacky feelings about school and being bullied. I feel like I react to these kids like I did to my bullies, even though intellectually I recognize that they're just little girls - and bright little girls who clearly want adult attention.

tl;dr: fun stuff to do with age-disparate kids; suggestions for negotiating race and class
posted by Frowner to Human Relations (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Ehhh, they're kids. The race and class negotiation thing is, I'm pretty sure, just something that you need to come to terms with, and not something you need to actively "handle".

That said, kids in this age range absolutely rule. They're old enough to not whine all the time, and they're young enough that there's no cliquey or hormonal drama. Not that that sort of thing would happen with three kids who are related to each other, but still. Great ages.

I was a really kick-ass babysitter, back when I did my babysitting thing. I was pretty strict, but I was also incredibly goofy. Kids love-love-love to see an adult act like a nutcase from time to time, as long as they know that you're able to dial it back down on a moment's notice so that they feel safe and protected. I get that you're introverted, and I'm kind of introverted, too, but these are young kids. The same anxiety-producing rules don't apply.

Things that are gold:

-Funny, extremely exaggerated faces. For instance, let's say you sit them down with some coloring books. One of the kids says "coloring is boring!" You contort your face into the closest approximation of a tortured zombie face and say "sometimes...BUT NOT IF YOU DRAW MONSTERS!!!" Or maybe you're all spinning around in circles just for kicks; make a super-excited face like you're on a rollercoaster and like spinning around in circles is the best goddamned thing you've done all week.

-Physical comedy. If you're lifting a box, do some exaggerated body builder flexes first. If you're playing a game, whenever something good happens, instead of saying "hey, good play, Joe!" you should throw your arms up in the air and shout "YESSSS! WOOP! WOOP! WOOP!" Even the occasional pratfall is good for a laugh.

-Stupid jokes. Every once in a while, just out of the blue, tell some silly corny joke. "Why do seagulls fly over the sea? If they flew over the bay, you'd call them BAGELS. HAR HAR HAR!" Kids like stupid jokes.

-Last but not least: LET YOUR NERD SHINE! Kids have a million questions about everything. Never dismiss it. Always try to have an answer (or say, "let's go find the answer!" or "let me show you how to look up the answer online!") when they one-up you with the inevitable "why?" Tell them fun facts about things, too. Stuff they can share with their friends, in the "did you know that blah-blah-blah" line of things.

Just relax and have fun. Kids are very forgiving. Just don't be afraid to act silly.

On the more serious side of things: don't be afraid to discipline. They may not be your kids, but when they're under your care, they're under your rules. I find two warnings then a time out to be very effective. Time outs should be one minute per age of kids. They will survive it. Give them some structure, and they'll love you even more. I promise. :)
posted by phunniemee at 2:40 PM on September 1, 2011 [7 favorites]

How do I get into the right headspace?

You're the adult, period, end of story. Either they're going to play by your rules or they're not going to be able to do that fun thing. What fun thing you ask? That's up to you. I'd bring in my old iPod Touch, with several games on it and have it out as play thing. Either they behave and get to play it or they not.

More than likely, they can sense your weakness and will cheerfully push all sorts of buttons. But it doesn't matter if you're white or black. You're the adult in the room, you're helping out and really don't need to be abused or harassed.

And to a certain extent, there's only so much you can do with the kids. You'll have to learn to ignore them to a certain extent and let them be who they're going to be.

Idle thought: Are there black adults there that you can talk to about this? They can help you translate and understand, since there in the same situation.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:45 PM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

If they're used to doing chores, is there stuff they can help you with at the project? Can they help tidy up (which might make them less inclined to make messes)? Four is not too young to be helpful in putting stuff away, if it's clear where things are meant to go. If they're bright and hungry for adult attention, a "Hey, girls, can you give me a hand with this?" might go a long way toward helping you and them feel like you're a team.

phunniemee's suggestions are excellent, and as the adult you are able to set and enforce boundaries, as Brandon says. One of the boundaries you can set is: "now is the time while you play quietly while I do my work, and then we can hang out together." Have them draw pictures and then tell you stories about them, or teach them a game and then let them play it themselves while you work.

Treating kids with respect is a good way to get them to respect you. This doesn't mean treating them exactly like adults, of course, but treat them like people. Interesting little people who provide you an opportunity to engage in play and goofy interactions that most adults don't have patience for.
posted by EvaDestruction at 2:57 PM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm white, middle class, introverted, nerdy. These kids are African-American, working class, extroverted, and have what read to me to as very permissive relationships with adults.

I tend to have this default fear when dealing with kids that's basically "Frowner is such a dorky, laughable, pathetic figure that not only can she never get kids to do anything, but she actually deserves to have kids laugh at her". I tend to play little movies in my head - the kind of movie where the teacher is a ridiculous, bumbling oppressor and the kids are awesome.

It sounds like one of your biggest problems here is just feeling like an uptight dork around these kids. Don't worry about that, really! I am also middle class, introverted, nerdy, mostly white/look white, and I also sometimes feel like an uptight dork around people whose way of relating seems much more relaxed, informal, extroverted, jokey, whatever, regardless of their race or class.

It doesn't matter if you are a huge geek! There are plenty of reasons to like another person. So nobody is going to like you for how trendy you are or whatever - big deal. People can like you for being honest, reliable, for respecting them, for being friendly, for being there for them, for being genuine.

If these kids are growing up in a less formal and more extroverted atmosphere, then they have plenty of people around them who are like that, why do they need it from you? You can give them what they're not getting in their atmosphere, whatever that may be for them. Example: when I was growing up, my mom was very strict so I didn't lack for authority figures. But I didn't have any adults in my home who talked to me in a respectful way, eye-to-eye, and respected me and the things that I said and my opinions. That's what I was lacking for, that's what I needed and got from other people. Even now today I think about those friends of my parents all the time and am very grateful to them, so it's something to keep in mind when you feel like you useless and have nothing to offer these kids just because you're not "cool."
posted by Ashley801 at 2:57 PM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

1. Music. Kids can dance to music for ages and ages and sing along. If you aren't sure of the kind of music they like or don't know if it would be appropriate, just put on your local radio top 40 station. Plus its basically free if you have a computer or radio in the office.

2. Respect. If you don't treat kids with respect, they won't listen to one word you say. Even 8 year olds think they are adults and want to be treated like such. Don't treat them like adults, but don't baby an 8 year old like they're 2. Give them little jobs, but be excited and fun about it. You need help sweeping the floor, give them two brooms--who ever can sweep the fastest but get all the crumbs wins! They don't actually win anything, but the satisfaction of getting first is enough. Its really hard for a kid to stay quiet, they might have ADD or another condition which makes sitting and being quiet difficult. Do you mind the noise? Can you listen to headphones? Something I do with kids is give them an idea of how loud they are. IE: You girls are speaking AT A LEVEL 9 RIGHT NOW, could we please bring it down to about a 5? And making your voice the level it needs to be helps them realize their own volume level. Sometimes kids need things explained more than once and in a *different* way in order to understand. Don't get visibly frustrated with them, it shows they have authority over you rather than vice versa. Also, if they are getting in to things or spaces they should not, you need to point out the boundaries and maintain them. Let them know that they aren't supposed to walk in area x and give them consequences. Ie. every time they go in the wrong area, their play space "shrinks" for 15 minutes or something.

3. I know you said you need to do work in the office, but are you on the first floor? Can you see them on a sidewalk outside? If so, chalk is a fantastic idea!! Also it washes off with water, so even if they get it on their face, hands, clothes, etc. its easy clean up!

4. Not sure on the budget, but simple craft supplies and a craft idea (like masks or crazy creatures). After making them, they can be used for imaginative play. Give them easy to clean up things- paper, scissors, white glue, fuzzy puff balls, pipe cleaners.

5. Finally, get them outside if you can. A park or play ground or just a grassy area. Kids have a TON of energy, and keeping them inside all day makes it harder to work with kids. Letting them literally RUN around outside for 20 or so minutes helps. If its rainy, consider getting two garbage cans and some old paper and they can shoot baskets or something. Deck of cards or a notebook are simple solutions kids can do a lot with.

6. OH!!! THE LIBRARY. its free if you have a membership and sometimes kids just really don't have reading material at home. I've met a ton of kids who you would think hate reading, but given an actual book, they will sit down for 40 minutes and finish it. Especially since their ages vary, it could be a great opportunity for the elder one to feel smart by helping the others. Also be wary, 8 years can have the reading level of a 13 year old or a 5 year old. Try to get a variety of books, picture, short novels, etc. on topics they might like. The librarian could suggest things if you have no idea (I know first graders love Junie B. Jones, trucks/cars, princesses and barbie)

I love kids and worked for 3 summers as a camp counselor, as well as a first grade teaching assistant during the school year. I could on and on and on about kids. Feel free to memail me!
posted by fuzzysoft at 3:44 PM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

btw, I am a white, midwesterner from upper middle class and the camp I worked at was for girls from inner-city NYC who were mostly different races than I and from low income families. That said, in my experience, they never really cared about my race or class. What they found absolutely hilarious was my inability to cat daddy and the fact that I had no idea Beyonce released a new album recently. Its more a cultural thing and its a point where they can feel proud by teaching YOU something new or that they know more than you do. Kids are kids, no matter what their background.
posted by fuzzysoft at 3:50 PM on September 1, 2011

Can I get a bit of clarification before answering? When you say you don't have authority, do you mean that in the sense of "this isn't my project or my space so I don't make the rules, and they're officially allowed to be here and I have to deal with that" or do you mean in the sense of "these children aren't officially "here," they're just here because no one has said they can't?"

Because there are some really important self-protection, boundary-establishing, "personal legal liability" things you need to think about, depending. I would, for instance, under no circumstances ask kids who aren't officially "there" to do anything even vaguely dangerous. Or ever be in a situation where it's just me and them and there's a closed door between us and the rest of the world (that's still a real issue no matter what, but if their parents don't officially know they're with you, and you're not a local, and you have no official backup...)

In any case, kids are kids. The less worried about race and class stuff you are, the less they'll be. And it's a valuable social skill for them to be interacting with someone from a very different background who demonstrates that said differences don't matter.
posted by SMPA at 4:04 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Put them to work-- can they help you with what you're doing? Make them feel important and then reward them. It's so much easier to encourage good behavior than punish for bad, and so much more productive. Come up with a project they can do. Snacks are always good, too. Put a dollar's worth of nickels in a clear plastic jar, and every time you have to tell them to quiet down or that they get into something they're not supposed to, they lose a nickel. They get all the money left in their jar when you leave.
posted by lemniskate at 4:34 PM on September 1, 2011

Response by poster: When you say you don't have authority, do you mean that in the sense of "this isn't my project or my space so I don't make the rules, and they're officially allowed to be here and I have to deal with that"

Pretty much this. (To answer late.) The space is such that I can't really be behind closed doors with them unless we're all crowded into the teeny-tiny bathroom, so I'm not concerned about that. We've got insurance for if they fall, for example, but there's not too much dangerous stuff to do anyway - I keep them out of the icky damp basement and don't let them use the stove.

Part of the problem is that we're not really geared to be a childcare space, but we need to be welcoming to the neighborhood, and that's turned into this casual babysitting. It's actually a plus - everyone knows or is related to the girls, so having them around is always a relatability thing. And they're kind of cute and charming in a rambunctious way....I mean, I want to relate to them better because I like them.
posted by Frowner at 7:33 PM on September 1, 2011

"Give them some structure, and they'll love you even more. I promise. :)" Brilliant!

They are right, kids actually crave some form of discipline, it lets them know you can take care of things, and it will give them a secure feeling. Not saying you can go all Hitler on them mind you, but definite, consistent boundaries are necessary. Calm, deliberate phrases such as "that's enough, you can not (fill in the blank) because (fill in the blank)" Keep the blanks short and clear. Then place the child in a time out zone, the one minute per year of age rule is good, then at the end of the allotted time "would you like to come back and join us?" Just to clarify, "place the child in time out" does not mean physically pick up and place, just guide them toward the area which should be slightly removed from the group area and be void of fun objects.

Once you become comfortable with this, occasional more "punishment fit the crime" forms may come into play, as an art teacher I once had a student repeatedly leave his paint mess in the classroom for me to clean up, as punishment I called his mom, asked permission for him to stay after school for detention, with a paint clean up, she agreed. He was there after school, in work clothes, and he was told to wash an old table that I had painted with tempra paint and allowed to dry with the words "this mess is for you". His detention only lasted as long as it took him to clean it, which he did VERY quickly because his mother told him for every minute that it took him, he would have to wash the dishes after dinner, one night per minute.

When I had students who insulted one another in my class, they were given the task of escorting that classmate to every class for the following day, carrying books and being polite, they were given a card for each teacher in the other classes to punch (with unique punch shapes so that the student couldn't forge it) upon successful completion. Negative comments or failure to deliver resulted in further forms of punishment that were more school mandated (detention) but I generally never had to do this more than once per year to prove that it would happen.

Two simple rules, that's all you need:
Respect, for each other, yourself, and the space and items provided
Responsibility for their own actions and messes

Teaching both of those rules are going to not only make your time with these children better, these are brilliant life lessons that will influence them for a lifetime.

As far as additional things you can do with minimal budget, please let me know if you'd like TONS of cheap art options, not sure how creative you are feeling =D
posted by Jayed at 8:11 PM on September 1, 2011

I'm a quiet, introverted nerd and I volunteer in a school library serving kids of various ages, races, and backgrounds, all of whom have some form of learning disabilities and/or behavioral issues and/or autism spectrum disorders. I'm also a former nanny, a big sister, and a mother. So trust me when I say I've been around the kid handling block a few times.

Kids can sense when the adults in a room feel out of control of a situation. They are very attuned to adult anxiety and insecurity (that's a survival mechanism), and it can cause them to become nervous or uncomfortable themselves. In most kids those feelings are generally manifested as hyper or distraction-seeking behavior.

Kids are also hard wired to constantly test adult boundaries -- they need to figure out where the rules are -- what they can get away with and what they can't. They will push you until you push back.

If you are sitting there feeling like you're not quite sure what to do with these kids, let me tell you right now, the kids know it. In order to take charge of kids -- which you must do if you are going to care for them effectively in their parents absence -- you need to believe you are in charge. If you don't believe it, they won't either. I'm not saying you need to put on a show that you are in charge with any antiquated disciplinarian shouty stuff. I'm just saying you need to change your own feelings about your relationship to these children, and your role in helping to raise them (Because -- guess what? Official childcare provider or no, if they're with you that often, that's what you're doing) before you can change their behavior.

Talk to the parents. This conversation only needs to take ten minutes. Tell them you like the kids, you're happy to have their kids around, and you want to be sure you are providing the same sort of guidance they would get at home. Ask if it's okay to tell the kids not to curse or behave in distracting ways around you. Ask if it's okay to give the kids activities or simple jobs to do. Unless the parents totally suck at parenting, or have some weird reason to distrust you, they will almost certainly give you permission to do those things, which I think will make you feel a lot better about doing them.

Keep in mind: in working class communities where parents aren't home very often, the default situation is for kids to get regular parenting-type interaction with -- and get bad behavior corrected by -- other adults in the community. I do not think the parents or the kids will be angry with you if you turn Auntie and start laying down some basic laws of civility while the kids are in your care.

Once you have talked to the parents and hopefully made yourself more comfortable with the idea of telling these kids what you do and do not consider to be appropriate behavior, just start telling them. From a position of calm and rational authority. Tell them: I would prefer that you not use that kind of language in my presence. Tell them: I need you to settle down so I can get my work done. Tell them these things calmly, in a tone that brooks no argument.

And most importantly, tell them: I know you are capable of acting like responsible young ladies. I know you do not really want to interrupt my work. I know you do not really want to ruin my day. I know you are bored here. I know you miss your parents. I want to work with you to figure out fun things for you to do while you are here with me, but in order to do that, I need your cooperation.

First you believe in your own authority as an experienced elder, and act accordingly. Then you believe in the kids' potential to be excellent people, and treat them with the respect potentially excellent people deserve. That's pretty much the grand secret to dealing with 90% of kids.
posted by BlueJae at 9:43 PM on September 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

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