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What Your Babysitter Wishes You Knew

Lynn Weiss, 20, is a pro: She's learned to handle pretty much anything in her eight years of working weekends, holidays, and summer afternoons in East Meadow, New York. But when she was watching 3- and 5-year-old siblings recently, it was a nightmare of an evening. "They ran around like lunatics. They got ketchup all over the dining room and play dough on the basement carpet. I was mortified." Their mom, when she got home, didn't seem to care: She thought Weiss would be happy that she'd told the kids they could do whatever they wanted. Hardly.

Weiss never told that mom what she thought  -- most sitters, teenage or otherwise, wouldn't dare. But for some insight into what'll keep your Saturday-night saviors happy, here's what they have to say about discipline, respect, and more:

Make the rules clear up front...
One of Jessalyn Pinneo's worst sitting experiences was when a parent failed to tell her what was and wasn't permitted. "The kid wanted a soda, but in my experience that's a special treat, so I said we should wait for his mom," says the Manhattan Beach, California, sitter. He snatched one from the fridge anyway. "I wrestled it from him and gave him a time-out," says Pinneo. Later, his mom said he could have soda whenever he wanted. "After that he glowered at me every time I sat."

Letting your children know the babysitter's in charge, even though it's their house, can go a long way toward making the night better for all. Announce bedtimes in front of everybody to cut fibbing off at the pass.

...punishments, too
Slacking on the rules when the sitter comes actually makes her job harder. "The kids will take advantage," says Weiss. Tell the sitter what types of punishments you practice  -- time-outs? Loss of TV? Be specific about what you want her to do if your kids aren't angels while you're out.

Leslie Pepper, a mom of three in Merrick, New York, also writes for Babytalk, Harper's Bazaar, and Redbook.

Write everything down

Of course you've thought to leave your cell number, but does the sitter know where the upstairs phone is? To you, certain things are obvious. To a sitter in your house for the first time, they're a puzzle.

Before the sitter arrives, run through your child's nightly routine as if you were a stranger, and think up all the questions you'd need answered. She won't be offended by lots of details. "I once had to interrupt a night at the opera to ask a mom where the Mickey Mouse blanket was," says Weiss.

Print out instructions if your child is on any medications. "I'll feel a whole lot better if I can look at a piece of paper instead of worrying about the exact dosage of two cold medicines, an allergy medicine, and three vitamins," says Pinneo.

Be specific about when to interrupt you
Don't just say, "Call if you have any questions." Most sitters won't  -- they'll be too embarrassed or won't want you to think they're clueless. Instead, explain exactly when he or she should call, rather than handle it solo. For instance, do you want to be called at every whimper or only when there's blood?

Prep your child

Explain that when the sitter comes, you'll give him a kiss and leave  -- and then do it. "When parents stall, it always makes the kid more hysterical," Weiss says. And make sure you tell your child you'll see him in the morning! "Bedtime is hard. Kids often get upset, and when I remind them that when they wake up their parents will be home, that helps them feel better," she says.

Help the sitter avoid stressing out
Besides good snacks, sitters would like a few things sorted out before you go.

* Negotiate the fee up front, as well as responsibilities that go beyond watching the kids.

* But don't get greedy. Asking the sitter to put the kids' toys away? Okay. Vacuuming the playroom? Not okay. "If your sitter does make some kind of extra effort, say that you appreciate it. It'll make her more willing to do it in the future," says Weiss.

* Tell your sitter what time you expect to be home so she can make plans  -- and not have to wonder where the heck you are. Weiss says: "Call if you're going to be more than twenty minutes late. We do get concerned about you."

Plan ahead

Set aside a first-aid kit stocked with bandages and antibiotic ointment. "Searching for Band-Aids while kids are hysterical is extremely stressful," says Beth Perkins, a sitter who lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

Provide a set of keys in case she needs to take the kids outside for any reason, and show her all the exits from the house. And since cell phones don't always work, she should have the phone number where you'll be, and a few neighbors' numbers.

If you want the sitter to give your kids dinner, leave some instructions  -- and enough food. "One time the parents told me to feed the kids, but there was absolutely nothing in the refrigerator," says Heather Kryczka, a teenage sitter in Naperville, Illinois. "All the kids wanted to eat was marshmallows." Some sitter-friendly dinners: Anything you've prepared that she can heat up, like boxed macaroni and cheese, canned soup, or leftovers.

If the sitter will need money for anything  -- the ice-cream truck will be coming around, or you ordered pizza  -- leave cash before you go (and figure in the tip).

Treat your sitter with respect
Don't ask him or her to do the things you hate. "One of my friends used to have to bathe these two kids who had clearly not been washed in days," says Weiss. She quickly realized why: They'd kick and scream through the entire bath. But instead of telling the parents she felt uncomfortable, the sitter just stopped returning their calls. Don't become that pariah parent: Save those messy, tantrum-inducing duties for yourself  -- or your mother.

And if you're unhappy with anything the sitter does, say so. Perkins used to take a 6-year-old girl down the street where her friend babysat for a girl the same age. She was mortified when her charge told her they couldn't go anymore: Her mom didn't like it. "It was disrespectful of the mom not to tell me herself," she says.

Put her mind at ease
Sitters also wonder: "Should I answer the phone, or just let the machine pick up?" "Is it okay to use the phone after the kids are asleep, or should I use my cell?"

And as odd as it may sound, let her know where it's okay to sit after your children go to bed. "Most sitters feel weird being too far from the kids," says Weiss.