How to be a good uncle to a 4-year-old?
September 28, 2023 10:17 AM   Subscribe

How do kids' brains develop? I moved to a new town and am now babysitting a 4-year-old and 1-year-old. They are fascinating! I want to learn how to be a good babysitter and uncle. Please recommend resources and ideas that might be useful.

There are a few areas that I think I need more information in order to perform well.

And I'm also fascinated by human development and want to make the most of this opportunity to learn, myself. I understand that kids grow up very fast.

- kiddo might have adhd (his dad does, and I do too (but I've got no blood relation)). I understand a great deal of my own anxiety is a result of adhd making my brain develop slower, and as such I heard criticism much more frequently, creating a rejection-sensitivity disphoria in me. How can I help him be a good, not difficult kid, without burdening him with expectations and criticisms his brain isn't developed enough to comprehend or implement?

- the 4 year old is incredibly energetic and active and demands not only attention and engagement, but also acts like a "little tyrant", with very specific commands and expectations, and always has to win and always makes the rules. This was cute at first but I don't have the energy to keep up and I worry I'll start to resent the emotional labor burden. Do I just have to wait until he gets interested in cooperative play, or is there a learning/training / behavior modification component i should be doing?

- He whines and cries and says "don't go don't go" when it's time for me to leave. By this time I'm emotionally drained and don't have the energy for a long convo about "we promise promise promise to be back sometime soon". Also, I feel like doing this reinforces the behavior of getting all worked up. (I've noticed this from nieces, other family. They will ignore me the entire time we are together, and then have a mini tantrum when I leave.)

- the kid loooooves attention, but also is fine to play quietly by himself. I would like for our time together to be maybe 25 % playing or reading or talking together, and 75 % him playing quietly while I work, do chores, etc. Or some balance. With a balance like that, I think I could watch him multiple times a week. But, if it's 100 % him draining my energy, I'm afraid I'll get burnt out and resentful.

- this is a general issue for me: I have this thing where I get really distressed if people in a group are ignored or spoken over or spoken about like they are not there. At family dinners, the kids are treated wonderfully but the adults have their own conversations and often ignore or talk over or talk about the kids. I'm sure this is fine and normal but because I find it distressing, I find myself giving attention to the kids when they want it, often moving from the table to the play area and missing out on adult time. I feel like I'm being rude to my adult family, but I feel they are being rude to the kids, but the kids are being rude for demanding so much...

Thank you for any thoughts you might have. Any advice for books, blogs, or podcasts would be appreciated as well.
posted by rebent to Human Relations (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I don’t know if you need resources on child development. Many people learn how to handle children through repeated exposure and mentoring through friends and family.

Step one is talk to the parents. They might be interested in things like curbing tantrums, they can collaborate with you on solutions. They might welcome your help on ADHD or they might reject it. And they might have strategies on keeping kids busy.

The next step is to take advice from others. Here are my tips.

The top way to manage a high energy kid is to take them outside. An indoor pool also works. Invest your 25% time together in dispelling that physical energy. You’ll still be exhausted, but hopefully you’ll feel like you got some exercise.

One thing that helps kids transition from one thing to another (ie, you there to you gone) is routine. Give them a count down timer before you go. Sometimes using an actual timer helps, because you can blame it for your departure. Maybe have a good bye ritual. Maybe have a calendar and mark the day when you will return. Do not prolong the goodbye, leave while they are tantruming and do not reward the behaviour.

In terms of talking over kids at dinner - those same kids have no problem talking over you. They are 4 and 1. It’s actually cool if you find the kids more interesting, in fact you could just have some really boring adults. In time you’ll be back at the adult table.

You’re a good uncle - just showing up the way you are with the knowledge you have is enough.
posted by shock muppet at 10:44 AM on September 28 [6 favorites]

I think your concerns are ever so slightly off because you seem to be approaching being an uncle as being similar to being a parent but actually being an uncle is much more similar to being a friend or even just a classmate.

You might want to think of these kids as basically... puppies? Or dogs? belonging to other people. You just hang out with them when you see them.. you don't do anything but hang out and have a fun time.

- You don't really teach them how to be a good dog (all dogs are good doggies even if they're naughty, and all children are good children, even the naughty ones). At most you might teach them a trick or two, for entertainment purposes only. Absolutely nothing meaningful or serious allowed.

- You don't teach them not to be a tyrant. Not your business, not your job.

- You do not give long emotional explanations to puppies. I cannot emphasize this enough.

- You do not try to convince puppies of the logic and soundness of your positions. Instead, you just take action. If there's a puppy that really really really wants your chocolate, you just... don't give the puppy your chocolate. Because you, as a human, understand that chocolate is bad for the puppy. If the puppy really really really wants to play with your expensive shoes, you hide the shoes out of reach. If the puppy really really really wants to tug at your pants and make you throw the ball so the pup can fetch it for you, and you don't want to do it, you turn to the owner of the puppy and say "Hey, can you distract your pups, I'm in the middle of something and they want to play." If the puppy whines when you leave, you say "Awww I love you too. Bye bye now!" and *leave*.

- In general you try to have fun with the puppy for as long as you wish to and no more. You can ignore the puppy for up to 90% of your total visit IF YOU MAKE IT CLEAR TO THE PARENT THAT THE PUPPY NEEDS TO GO AWAY FROM YOU NOW. It's cruel to the puppy to keep letting them hang around you while you're ignoring them.

- You never ever speak sternly to the puppy or punish the puppy or give consequences to the puppy for being naughty. Stay in your lane. You are not the parent.

- If you're unhappy over the way other humans are interacting with the puppy (or not interacting with the puppy) that is your own concern. You are welcome to hang out with the puppy if that makes you happy. You are welcome to go back to the humans if you feel you are missing out. This is between you and you. Make your decision and own it. Unless the puppy NEEDS attention, this does not involve anyone else. Do not impose your expectations of puppy interaction levels on other people, especially the puppy's owners.

- It's not rude for a puppy to be demanding. That's just what puppies are like. Radical acceptance is necessary here.
posted by MiraK at 10:56 AM on September 28 [12 favorites]

Your local Red Cross may have a babysitter certification, emphasizing 1st Aid. Safety is the 1st priority. The library has books on child development and reference librarians who can help you choose. They have kids’ books, too. Get ideas for projects, and have 1 planned activity every time. Reading a book, listening to music and dancing/ singing, going for a walk. The child may decline to participate, do the activity anyway, obv. not leaving a child out of a walk. Kids benefit from exposure to new stuff.

Learn to say No Thank You to too many games and demands; adults and children both deserve respect. 4 year old should be able to play with toys on their own for 20 minutes or so. Go to their room, start looking at what’s available, start playing with that fisher price airport set or whatever. Actions communicate, too.

4 year olds can play in a sink full of water and bath toys,well-supervised, make Halloween decorations, help bake muffins, help wash dishes, sweep. Little kids love tape to put stuff on walls or make things. What are you good at and interested in? Share that in some way.
posted by theora55 at 11:06 AM on September 28 [2 favorites]

- oh, and don't sign up to babysit puppies unless you're fine with providing 100% of your attention to the puppies for the entire time. There are no puppies in this universe that can be watched with just 25% of your time. Nope. Just say you can't watch them until they are much older and more sedate.
posted by MiraK at 11:06 AM on September 28 [7 favorites]

There are a lot of great parenting resources on Instagram (I know, I know, but bear with me). I recommend @biglittlefeelings as it seems like it lines up with your general approach.

I also love the book “how to talk so little kids will listen” - again, I think this will work out great for you as you describe your challenges and initial emotional responses.

Finally, I think you should ask the parents what THEY want out of the babysitting arrangement. Sometimes I want the babysitter to be “on” 100% because I am personally too drained to offer that to my kid. Sometimes I just need another caretaker for a while so that when I’m back on duty, I can give them my 100%. It’s fair to tell them that the amount you babysit will vary based on how they’d like you to engage with the kids.

You sounds like a great uncle!
posted by samthemander at 11:15 AM on September 28 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: I've talked to the parents a few times about this. They say, basically, "Rebent you clearly love the kiddo and he loves you so whatever you want to do is fine. Being available to help is so useful that we don't worry too much about what happens".
posted by rebent at 11:18 AM on September 28 [3 favorites]

4 year olds are intense, for sure, but there are more and less intense modes of playing and they're also old enough to communicate with and model setting boundaries and expressing needs. Pay attention to your own feelings, and it's totally fine to say things like, "Playing pretend isn't my favorite, but you can play pretend by yourself," "please don't do that to my body," and "I'm not mad at you but I'm feeling grumpy and I need a moment, do you want a hug before we take a break from playing for a bit?"

Also it's totally fine to do activities that you like with kids and not do activities you don't like. I have a hard "I don't play pretend" boundary (because I HATE the script micro-managing that kids that age tend to do) but I actively enjoy making art or cooking with kids that age.

Some ways of wearing them out while giving you more of a breather:
-hide an object and have them look around the room for it, playing "warmer and cooler" until they find it
-watch a tv show or movie together, discussing what's going on
-any game of pretend where you're sitting/laying down and they're moving. Hair salon (with pretend scissors obviously), restaurant (where they're the waiter), "don't wake the sleeping bear"
-bringing them to a playground and sitting on a bench looking at your phone while they play is a classic for a reason
posted by LeeLanded at 11:31 AM on September 28 [2 favorites]

(I don't think a 1 yr old can be set in front of the TV and left to their own devices? That's where my "you must be 100% on" comment comes from.)
posted by MiraK at 11:37 AM on September 28 [3 favorites]

OK, so as you are figuring out, 1 year olds and 4 year olds are very very different beasts with different needs. If you are watching them both simultaneously you, uh, have your hands full. And no, you cannot even remotely expect to spent 75% of your time, or even, honestly, 7%, doing other things while they entertain themselves.

Now, if you are just with the four year old, the way you get to a 50% you time, 50% them time, which is the absolute most you are actually likely to get, is to involve them in your tasks. You want to be in the kitchen? Then they are in the kitchen too, doing something that is probably not helpful but can be related, like mixing up ingredients or washing tupperware or eating. You are working on the computer? Then they get some screen time. You also need to set this up ahead of time - the suggestions above on setting boundaries and communicating them are great. The timer for transitions - changing activities, leaving, etc - is also incredibly helpful. You will need to do reminders - OK in four minutes we are going to put the toys away - OK in two minutes we are going to put the toys away - OK now it's time for Uncle to work on the computer and you to watch Bluey - but although it's annoying it will really help. Bluey is also a really good model of how to interact with children, by the way.

This leapt out at me from your last paragraph: but the kids are being rude for demanding so much... Drop that idea right now. They demand a lot because they are children and they need a lot; they are not being rude. Four year olds are capable of being rude - but it will be extremely direct, as in "You are a poopy head." One year olds are not capable of rudeness, full stop. They are doing their own one year old thing and expressing their immediate needs. You, or any adult, are not really on their radar as an independent entity with needs of your own.

I would heartily recommend going to the library and getting a book on child development. It will be super helpful to realize what they are learning and doing at each stage. I don't have any specific recommendations - as a young parent I relied heavily on The Mother's Almanac but i think it's woefully outdated - but I also took a full year of child and adolescent psychology in college along with teacher training. I'd find a college textbook if you can.
posted by mygothlaundry at 12:42 PM on September 28 [6 favorites]

I really liked T. Berry Brazelton's Touchpoint books on child development when my kids were little. They are very child-focused and gentle.
posted by cooker girl at 1:25 PM on September 28

Ok, based on your update, it sounds like the parents don’t mind if you’re not on 100%.

My advice is to start carving out timeblocks. “I’d love to play with you! In 10 minutes, let’s start our Super Doctor Office playtime. Right now, you can have free time. You can do whatever you’d like during free time and then we’ll play Super Doctor Office after that.” And then set a timer. When it’s your Together time, you can also set a timer and say “ok, now it’s our together time, what should we play? But when the timer goes off, you’ll have more free time and then I’m going to read books/do my bills/etc.”

You can gradually increase the duration of free time visit after visit, after the kids get used to more independent play in your presence. Learning to play independently is a skill that kids must learn.
posted by samthemander at 3:13 PM on September 28 [1 favorite]

If you're watching both a 1-year-old and 4-year-old by yourself for a long stretch of time, once a week sounds about right. If it's just the 4-year-old, once a week still sounds about right. As mygothlaundry says, you'll be lucky to get to 50/50 you/them time with the 4-year-old, and a lot of that time will still be alongside the child.

"If I don't go, I can't come back, and I'm looking forward to coming back" helps with goodbye fussing, if you're up to be a little jokey about it. But "It's time for me to go, I love you" is just fine. Definitely don't get into long explanations, do take a chance to let them know you like spending time with them.
posted by EvaDestruction at 5:40 PM on September 28 [1 favorite]

I have a four year old, who is potentially neurodivergent. But a lot of what you describe is typical four year old stuff that any of her pre-k classmates do.

The first order of business is to take a giant step back. Like, I'm the mother, and the vast majority of the things my kid says or does or the way society moves around her has *nothing* to do with me.

So your role as uncle is several orders of magnitude below that. And your expectations could stand to be brought in check.

My kid will play independently if I'm caring for her, but if there's another adult around she'll be glued because it's a novelty. That's the nature of kids.

And kids learn a great deal by taking in what adults around them chat about and how we interact. They also learn that they're not always going to be the center of attention or involved in every conversation, and that's ok.

It's also important to keep expectations in check. With two young children, you aren't going to have 75 percent of your time free to do other things. (The average American stay at home mother works 98 hours a week, FYI. We're swamped because it's so difficult to do other things while caring for children.)

You can involve them in your activities. Young children don't distinguish between work and play, so you may as well put them to work!

My kid likes to detail cars - the "blue goo" we use to pull dust and crumbs from crevices is a lot like Play-Doh, and the Dustbuster is a hit too.

Sorting beans is sensory play. Baking is messy fun.

If the one year old is ambulatory, both kids might like to "paint the house" on a decently warm day. Grab a bucket and different paintbrushes/rollers from a dollar store, fill the bucket with water, and let them play on the side of the house. Neurodivergent kids tend to find water very soothing. (Bonus: I usually find I can sit down and doink around on my phone for a bit.)

I'll also note that empathy is good, and I'm glad when people try to understand kids. But it's important to not *over-identify* with them. Kids are on a different developmental level and have different emotional needs than adults do. They aren't small adults. And they're individuals, each on their own timeline.

So try to understand where these children are, and what they need, instead of "well this bothers me so it should bother them and I ought to intervene."
posted by champers at 3:28 AM on September 29 [3 favorites]

A 4 year old can play while you keep a side eye on them, change the 1 year old, etc. otherwise, families could not exist. If both kids are sleeping, you can do work of your own. Otherwise, 2 kids will keep you busy, though chores get done. Babies can sit in a seat while you fold laundry or whatever and describe what you're doing. But kids just hoover up all the time available.
posted by theora55 at 8:52 AM on September 29

How can I help him be a good, not difficult kid, without burdening him with expectations and criticisms his brain isn't developed enough to comprehend or implement?

By modelling this for him in your own activities, loving him, appreciating him for the person he is, spending time with him doing things he loves, plus introducing him to things you love. Kids learn a lot by just being with us. If you show him that an uncle can be a kind, thoughtful, caring person, you’ve done a lot.

Do I just have to wait until he gets interested in cooperative play, or is there a learning/training / behavior modification component i should be doing?

Bog standard 4 yo. Remember, this kid doesn’t get to choose 80% of his life right now - any frustration that he needs comes from (as one of my kids put it at four) “why did people invent wearing underwear anyway.” It’s okay for you to be the villain to his superhero in play.

Young kids sucking at transitions is why “see you later alligator/in a while crocodile” was invented. His power is in choosing to “while crocodile” at you. Yours is in leaving during the 8 words. :)

I recommend fewer shorter visits, because kids do require that much attention, at this age. If you’re covering shifts or something where you are getting burnt out, start a thread and we can all help. My tip is a blanket fort or a box makes everything better.

The adults are talking over the kids in self defence because of the “25% attention is not generally possible” thing. It’s ok at this age - for the kids everyone is physically present, which is enough, and for the adults they are getting their need for adult conversation met without ye olde “children should be seen and not heard” rule. You can pick your table.
posted by warriorqueen at 1:15 PM on September 29 [2 favorites]

I second the book rec for How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen & Listen So Your Kids Will Talk. Also: Siblings Without Rivalry.

Most adults typically way overestimate when it comes to how mature they think any given age level is - or should be. Expectations aren't in line with basic science. Motivations or judgments ("little tyrant") are assigned that really don't reflect reality.

You mentioned a strong interest in brain development. A series that might be right up your alley is the "Your #-Year Old" by Louise Bates Ames. They're short but really give a useful snapshot into what's going on at each age in these amazing little people's lives.
posted by Text TK at 1:30 PM on September 29

If you want to be a force of good in kids' lives, I think you might like listening to some podcast episodes with Carla Naumburg. If you like her style, pick up her book "Ready, Set, Breathe". It's about mindfulness for children and comes with lots of practical tips, as well as the neurobiology explaining why certain situations are difficult for developing brains. Mindfulness helps kids be happy and teaches them to deal with big emotions, so an uncle bringing a bit of that to the table can really make a lasting difference. I've read her book "How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t With Your Kids" as well, and even though you sound very patient with the kiddos, you might want to read that one, too. There's some strategies for avoiding burnout and overwhelm in there - plus more brain development facts.

I hear you about kids being talked over/ignored. That's hard for me, too. My solution is often to bring something that will engage the kids safely and quietly, because the adults really do need some peace. Plus, quiet play is important for children and helps them stay level. Stickers! So many stickers. And foam stickers! Playdough, if there are no carpets around. Activity books (with stickers!). Interesting ways to draw, such as glitter glue (check. with. host.), those water-based "invisible picture" kits, or "invisible ink" pens for older children. Magna tiles or a marble run set. Little craft kits. Stick-on googly eyes. Kinetic sand, if the gathering is outside...
posted by toucan at 3:17 PM on September 29 [1 favorite]

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