How to find great babysitters

photo by margolove @

The best babysitters are, of course, the ones who love interacting with your children and know how to take care of them in any circumstance. But now that my son is older, I have found that the best sitters – the ones who not only take care of his physical and emotional needs – are the ones who like to linger around after my child (and usually my husband) have gone to bed so we can discuss life. And books!

Hilary was our first real babysitter. A former student of mine, I plucked her from my classroom (while I was on maternity leave) and asked if she would be interested in regularly watching my newborn on Saturday nights. By the time my husband and I came home, Hil would have cleaned the entire house and be quietly studying for some upcoming, major test. She would tell me some cute thing my child did, and then she would tell me what she was reading: usually something out of a ridiculously heavy science book she was toting around. Always diligent, Hilary was incredibly detail oriented, so I was not surprised to learn that Hilary became a pharmacist — and is now a mother herself!

I met Marioli while strolling at Nazareth College, determined to find another good babysitter, you know, for when Hilary was not available. I had my l’il dude packed into his stroller and was tacking up those little tear-off sheets indicating that I was looking for a responsible babysitter, with expertise in watching young children, who was willing to make my son priority #1 while my husband and I were out for a few hours. While pinning up my ad, Marioli stopped to chat, got down on her hands and knees and cooed at my l’il person. She made him giggle, so – of course, I liked her right away. Standing up, her brown hair bouncing, she said she was interested in the position. Turns out, she had a whole crew of siblings; people she missed while in college. She knew how to take care of children because she had always taken care of brothers and sisters. She was astoundingly entertaining, extremely reliable, my son loved her — and she turned me on to The Poisonwood Bible and we talked late into the night about Shakespeare and Dante’s concept of Hell in The Inferno.

The need for swim lessons brought me to Jen, yet another Nazareth College student. (By then, it had become abundantly clear that with their strong education department, I needed only to hang around the education department for a few minutes, and I would find a solid babysitter.) Jen taught my son to swim. She brought him games to play, books to read, new things to challenge his mind. She played endless hours of LEGOs with him. (Lord, love her.) And then, at night, she would discuss the new teaching standards and show me the rubrics she had designed. She talked about her student teaching experience, the politics – the up and the down days. I screamed with joy when she landed a full-time job, even though I knew it would pull her away from our family. I was just so stinkin’ happy for her.

My beloved Billy went from former student to one of my son’s favorite babysitters. After Billy graduated from college, he worked crazy hours. He worked three or four jobs. Maybe five. Seriously. I don’t know how he did it, but he had to make money to put himself through graduate school, so he worked. A lot. Billy and I would stay up waaaay too late talking about classroom stuff. He recommended books like I Just Want My Pants Back (which sucked) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which rocked). More recently, Billy expressed frustration about how to get re-designated as “World’s Best Substitute Teacher” to Full-time Math Teacher in a classroom of his own. And, again, I screamed when I learned he just recently landed a long-term substitute position in the district he wanted. Okay, so it isn’t perfect, but it is a foot in the door. Foot. In. The. Door.

Now that my son is in middle school, we are needing fewer sitters. Luckily, Christina lives across the street. A voracious reader in 11th grade, her reading aptitude extends far beyond her years. In fact, everything about Christina is far beyond her years; she has an adult sensibility and has found an escape into the world of books. We have texted about whether or not Ordinary People possesses a “bildungsroman‘ motif. We’ve chatted about Wuthering Heights and Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and Death of a Salesman. As you can imagine, I adore Christina. She is like dessert after the dessert.

So my advice to parents looking for good babysitters? Go to your favorite, local college: one that has a reputation for its outstanding education program — and put up a sign. Ask the requisite questions: (What would you do if my child was bleeding? Choking? Knocked unconscious? Being a major pain in the butt?), and then ask:

What book have you really enjoyed?

If the person before you can’t pull a title out of his or her . . . um, brain . . . pretty darn quick, let ’em go. I don’t care how cute or nice she is, if she is the star of the field hockey team or the school musical. It’s all smoke and mirrors. But if you find a kid who says he has dozens of favorite authors, favorite books, how could he ever pick just one (and he starts tossing out a few titles), you have just stumbled onto a gold mine.

Hold on tight. You just might learn something.

What are your best tips on finding great babysitters? And what are you reading?

tweet me @rasjacobson

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