For most parents, there's no escaping it: One day your precious little bundle is going to be thrust into someone else's arms, whether it's a professional caregiver, a friend, or a relative. And no matter how much you trust this person to care for your child, there are bound to be differences between you, both in ideology and style. How do you relinquish some of a child's care without losing the rules and rituals you've established for everything from bedtime to eating to discipline?
"Consistency between parents and caregivers is very important," says Bernard Arons, M.D., director of the Center for Mental Health Services, in Washington, DC. "A child learns how to approach the world by observing the behavior and values of the people around him. The more consistent the messages he gets, the more stable he feels. Without consistency, kids have a hard time controlling themselves."
For Judith Lederman, of Irvington, NY, things did indeed spiral out of control. Lederman -- mother of Jason, 12, Ricky, 7, and Casey, 4 -- had such a difficult time getting a series of sitters to abide by her rules that she chronicled her experience (Searching for Mary Poppins: Childcare Chills and Nightmare Nannies). The result of her kids getting mixed messages, she says, was ugly: "I'd come home to the kids bouncing off the walls and behaving in ways that I found totally unacceptable."
But it's rare that total anarchy reigns when you leave your kids in someone else's hands. To stay in charge, you just need to follow a few basic principles:
Christina Frank writes for several national magazines. She lives in New York City with her husband and 2-year-old daughter.
Pick Your Battles
It's your call which issues are worth fighting for. You might feel strongly that your toddler take a nap every day but not consider it a big deal if your sister-in-law offers him cookies while he's on her watch. "I call it gnats and rattlesnakes," says Alan Williams, Ph.D., a child psychologist at Mercer University School of Medicine. "You have to decide which issues are the minor ones and which are major."
Cherie Singer decided she could be more permissive about her children watching TV at their grandparents' house if she knew other concerns were taken care of. "Safety and discipline are the issues I realized could not be compromised," says Singer, who made it clear to her in-laws that they shouldn't leave their prescription medications out on the kitchen counter. "Now that I know their house is safe, and that my in-laws will usually follow our lead if anyone has a tantrum, I can handle it if the kids watch a little too much television."
For Maura Larkin and David Christenberry, of Philadelphia, a conflict arose when they learned that their daughter Sophie, then 3 1/2, was being taught values at daycare that they didn't approve of. Sophie would say things about boys being tough and girls being meek. And one of her caregivers was teaching religious beliefs to the kids. Sophie started talking about God being up in the sky and was made to say grace before lunch. "We dealt with it by explaining to Sophie that the caregiver's view was only one way, not the way," says Larkin.
Knowing when to kick up a fuss and when to lay low also depends on two key variables: "How much time the person is spending with your child and how strong the bond is between them," says Linda Wagener, Ph.D., a child and adolescent psychotherapist in Pasadena, CA. "If the contact is only occasional, the impact on the child's character will be minimal. A strong bond will naturally result in a bigger influence on the child."
It's important to establish right away that cooperation and a partnership are important. "You want the person caring for your child to understand that when an issue comes up, you'll take the 'let's figure this out together' approach," says psychologist Martha Farrell Erickson, Ph.D., director of the Children, Youth, and Family Consortium at the University of Minnesota.
When your child is being looked after by a relative, though, communicating can get trickier. "Because my in-laws care for Jordan and Rebecca," explains Cherie Singer, "we have all these other dynamics. Sometimes when something's bothering me, it's hard to bring it up. If it weren't my in-laws, I'd feel comfortable just saying, 'Please turn the TV off.' On the other hand, there's so much that the children get from their relationship with their grandparents. I have to balance a few negatives with all the positives."
When a relative seems to be supporting behavior you're trying to discourage, Erickson suggests "you might say, 'Mom, I appreciate how much you love Erin, but we're trying to get her to stop talking back now. It would be really helpful if you could work with us on that.'" And then go on to suggest ways with which you've succeeded in discouraging the behavior.
Observe Check-In Times
"Every time you pick up or deliver your child, there should be a brief conversation about what happened or will happen during the day," says Wagener. Then make a point of checking in regularly, and even showing up unannounced once in a while. Though you might feel awkward doing this, remember that it's in your child's best interest. After all, you don't give up your parental responsibility just because you've temporarily left the premises.
By arriving home unexpectedly one day, Kristin Derosby, a Brooklyn, NY, mom, learned the woman who cared for her 16-month-old son, Cole, was putting him down for a nap with his bottle -- something she would never do, though she had neglected to mention it to the caregiver. "I explained that it wasn't good for his teeth," she says. "If I hadn't come in early, I never would have known what she'd been doing."
Staying in close touch with whomever is caring for your child has an added bonus: It helps you anticipate upcoming issues as the child grows; for example, when a baby graduates to toddlerhood. No longer content to be held, fed, and strolled all day, a toddler is an almost entirely new creature, and one who may be daunting to the people who care for him. "A person may be good with infants but not so good with an older child, who may be stubborn and difficult to handle," says Wagener, who had her own experience with this. "My daughter went to daycare as a baby and it was a great match," she says. "But when she got to be 2 and discipline became important, things fell apart. I confronted my daughter's caregiver when I discovered she had punished her for doing a very 2-year-old type of thing. It took me by surprise, because until then we agreed on almost everything." A detailed conversation can usually head off such snags.
Listening to your child may offer the best clues as to whether you and the person in charge of her care are in sync. When Molly Jones, of Hamilton, MT, was 3, she told her mom, Maggie Sheridan, that she was supposed to have two naps in one day at her daycare center. Maggie was confused at first. "Then she said, 'Well, I couldn't go to sleep when they wanted me to, so they made me have a second nap later.' I feel that if a child has outgrown the need for a nap and can't sleep, she can't sleep. So I suggested to the center that they have something planned for the kids who don't nap -- let them read quietly or go into another room, or something."
On the flip side, it's essential to praise caregivers when they do things the right way. A sense of appreciation will help build the alliance between you.
Make Rules...And Bend Some of Them
Your child should know that there are certain rules that aren't breakable -- such as not hitting his sister. "Children need to know what to expect," says Anita Landau Hurtig, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. That said, some flexibility is critical for parents, says Erickson. It's good for kids to know that some things are negotiable in certain situations, like being allowed to have sweets at Grandma's or staying up late with the sitter on a Saturday night. Explaining that you're aware there's a deviation from the norm lets kids know that the change in schedule isn't random.
The bottom line? "Children need people and rules that they can depend on," says Landau Hurtig. "Because that's how they build value systems and expectations."