I babysat on and off from age 12 to 25, and those experiences helped me to figure out what kind of parent I might want to become someday.
When I was in grad school in the Boston area, I babysat for two lovely children, ages 2 and 4, whom I lovingly call The Brats.
They were impulsive, they didn’t listen to me (or their parents), they threw tantrums, they fought, etc., etc. Part of that was because they’re kids. Kids are impulsive because their brains lack the capacity for impulse control and planning ahead, and they’re just learning how to be people and being a person is hard. But a huge part of that, I quickly learned, was the way they were being parented.
I remember the first time I sat for these kids in the evening when part of my job was to put them to bed. I got instructions from the parents on what the kids usually do for their bedtime routine, and then they said goodnight to The Brats and were off. The Brats got to watch TV before doing things like jammies, brushing teeth, stories, and bed. I turned on a half hour show (about a half hour before bedtime) and told the kids that right after the show, it was time to get ready for bed. They had no response to this. None. I wonder if I should have been clued in at that point, but the TV was already on and their eyes were glued to it, so I let the moment pass.
As soon as the show was over, I got up and turned the TV off and announced it was time for jammies. They erupted in wailing sobs and started thrashing in their dark places on the floor.
Holy crap, I thought. At first, I was shocked. And then I realized…Oh. They didn’t believe me. Their parents must set flimsy boundaries with them and break them all the time (this suspicion was later confirmed). I tried to tell them that I mean what I say, but I seriously doubt they could hear me over their very loud display of despair.
As I got to know the family more, I found that the parents let the kids run the show (and then the parents would complain to me, a therapy student, about not having control over their kids). As the babysitter (and NOT their therapist), it was very hard for me to walk the line that was being scribbled out in front of me. Since the parents had no authority, they didn’t have any to give to me while they were gone. And what was worse, the majority of the sitting I did for them was during the day while the mom was home, which meant that anytime I said no to the kids, they’d go running to mom and instead of backing up my supposed authority as their caregiver, she’d say yes. I started to wonder why they hired me at all, but I kept that thought to myself.
The point to all of this is that getting to see how other kids are parented really helped me to see what worked and what didn’t, and also what I liked and what I didn’t.
I realized that I wanted to have authority over my kids – not to feel all-powerful, but to give my kids structure and predictability and security. I wanted my kids to get used to dealing with their feelings after hearing ‘no,’ and I hoped to have the courage to tell them ‘no’ when it really matters. I also wanted to continue telling kids- well, everyone really- exactly what I meant. I feel that setting a well-meaning boundary that never gets enforced is doing kids a disservice, and I wanted to make sure my kids could take me at my word.
Hopefully, I’m doing an okay job of meeting these goals. I’m glad I got to spend time with The Brats and their family; they taught me a lot about myself.