12 things you should never do while babysitting

Sept. 9, 2020

True story: My mom friend Lori had a babysitter who shoplifted while watching her child and got caught by the police. Total nightmare for a parent.

While shoplifting on the job is an obvious no-no for a babysitter, there are a lot of behaviors you might not realize aren’t OK. The consequences? It may make you seem unprofessional, put the kids in danger or break the parents’ trust in you. In fact, 64% of parents say finding a babysitter they like and trust is stressful — and a reason not to hire someone altogether, according to the Care.com 2017 Babysitter Survey.

To make sure you get hired — and keep getting hired — here are 12 things you should never, ever do while babysitting.

1. Don’t take the kids out of the home without permission

To prevent worry and safety concerns, parents should always know where their child is, says Elizabeth Malson, president and founder of U.S. Nanny Institute in Sarasota, Florida. If you’ve been hired for a regular after-school or date night babysitting job, they’re assuming you and the kids are going to stay homebound.

“You need to have permission in advance to take anyone’s child somewhere in advance unless it’s an emergency situation,” says Malson.

In the same vein, if you do have permission to take the children somewhere and you don’t go, the parents should know that, too.

“For example, if the child was supposed to be going to soccer but they’re not going because they’re ill, the sitter needs to communicate that,” says Malson. “Always let parents know if plans change.”

2. Don’t take or post photos of the kids

“Never post pictures of other people’s kids on social media,” says Malson. “It’s a privacy issue. Some parents don’t want their kids’ names and photos out in public, so this is not appropriate without the parent’s permission.”

According to the Care.com survey, 65% of parents ask caregivers not to post photos of their children on social media. Your employer might not want you to even take pictures, so always ask first.

3. Don’t be on your phone.

It’s not just taking pictures. You shouldn’t text, talk or use your cell phone at all while you’re on the job, except to communicate with the parents. Parents are expecting you to be 100% focused on watching their children. In fact, 76% of parents say they don’t want their sitter to be distracted by their phone.

“Put your phone away in your bag or purse,” advises Rachel Charlupski, founder of The Babysitting Company in Miami, who suggests communicating with a parent on how frequently you should check your messages. “If you’re on your phone, you’re not with the children,” she says.

4. Don’t smoke, drink or do drugs

Some sitters might think it’s OK to relax with a glass of wine after the kids go to bed, but remember you’re still on the job while the kids are sleeping. In case they wake up or there’s an emergency, you’ll need to stay sharp and fully responsible.

“Never smoke, imbibe alcohol or use controlled substances on the job,” says Malson, who adds that tobacco use of any kind is very unprofessional and often frowned upon by parents. “Don’t even go outside to smoke because the smell will be on your clothes.”

If you’re a smoker, consider quitting or stocking up on nicotine gum if you’re unsure you’ll last the whole job without craving a cigarette.

5. Don’t make the family’s business public

When I asked friends about negative babysitter experiences, several of them mentioned their sitters gossiping or saying negative things about them to others.

“My babysitter complained via text to our former nanny about how whiny my kids are, and she accidentally sent it to me instead,” says Shannon, a mom in Santa Clarita, California, who ended up firing that sitter.

Even if you send the text to the right contact, your complaints could easily get back to your employer, so be careful what you say or type. Even if you’re not complaining, any information should be handled discreetly. For example, if you’re asking a forum or other sitters for advice, you always want to keep your employers’ identities and correspondence private.

“It’s unprofessional to screenshot and post a message conversation with an employer,” says Malson. “If you need help, post a description of the situation in your own words, not a screenshot grab. There could be identifying information in the post, and it may or may not be out of context.”

6. Don’t watch inappropriate shows or videos

Your babysitting job isn’t the place to catch up on “Ozark” or revisit “Sex and the City.”

“If a kid comes up and sees this big scary [or inappropriate] thing, you could traumatize them,” says Malson.

May we recommend a little HGTV instead?

7. Don’t introduce new or controversial discipline

It’s important, before you babysit for the family, that you’re clear on the rules of the house and how misbehavior is usually handled. That way, you can implement the same strategies the parents usually do — taking away TV time or timeouts, for example. In discipline, consistency is important.

And it might be obvious, but babysitters should never abuse, spank or yell at kids.

“In no way ever should you hit or yell at any child you’re babysitting,” says Malson. “If you can’t manage your own behavior and emotions around the child, then you shouldn’t be babysitting.”

8. Don’t give kids food or medication without permission

“I would be very unhappy and uncomfortable if a babysitter gave my child medicine without checking with us first,” says Amy, a mom in Manlius, New York.

Even if the child has a fever and the parents told you where the Tylenol is, you should definitely get it approved before administering it.

Also, before the job, ask the child’s parents what specific snacks and/or meals are OK to give them while they’re away. They may only want the child eating certain foods or have house rules about things like candy or junk food. That way, when the kid asks for something to eat, you know whether or not it’s OK to give it to them. If you’re unsure, even if it seems harmless, you should say no.

Charlupski encourages sitters to communicate with their employer on what meals and snacks are allowed — and what is off-limits. “It’s not up to the babysitter to make the decision themselves to give the child what they want,” she notes. “There could be an allergy or certain rule against it. We’re there to enforce the rules of the home. That’s why it’s really important to find out all the household rules in advance.”

9. Don’t host visitors

It might seem fun to invite a friend or a significant other to keep you company while you’re sitting — babysitters do it all the time in the movies. But this one is another firm no.

“By accepting an hourly wage, you’re giving your time to that family, not paying attention to friends,” says Malson. “It’s also a liability if your friend comes over and something goes wrong. You’re responsible for any people you bring into that home.”

10. Don’t cross boundaries

Resist the urge to open medicine cabinets, dresser drawers or closet doors unless it’s something you need to do to care for the child, like getting their pajamas at bedtime. The family you’re sitting for has welcomed you into their home, but remember that crossing over certain boundaries invades their privacy. 

“No getting on the family’s personal computer,” says Malson. “Don’t pull up your personal social media account on it. There’s a level of privacy you want to maintain.”

There’s also a level of personal space and decorum people expect from their sitters.

“Don’t take a drink straight out of all the containers in the fridge,” says Anna, a mom in Winnetka, Illinois. “Yup, it happened to me, and it’s gross!”

11. Don’t cancel at the last minute

When sitters cancel on families, it can wreck their plans and cause stress. Whether it’s a much-deserved night out or an important work meeting they’re attending, you want to show your employers you respect their time and avoid canceling as much as possible.

Obviously, everyone gets sick from time to time though, and in that case, you should cancel.

“Going to a job when you’re sick is definite no-no,” says Charlupski. “If you need to cancel because you’re sick, do it at least 24 hours ahead of time. If it’s less than that, then definitely provide a doctor’s note. If you’re working with an agency, they’ll find a replacement. If not, give them a referral to another sitter you trust.”

Read more: What families and caregivers need to know about COVID-19 

12. Don’t forget to clean up after yourself (and the kids)

“I had a babysitter who left such a mess it looked like they threw a frat party, ” says Melanie, a mom in Medford, New Jersey.

Babysitting can certainly get hectic, but take a little time to clean up small messes throughout the job, so they don’t become a huge mess. For example, if the kids take out a toy, have them put it away before moving on to the next activity. If you give them lunch, put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher when they’re done. You may not have been hired to do housekeeping duties, but you are expected to maintain the status quo of the home while you’re there.

“Parents want consistency with their kids,” says Dan, a dad in Scottsdale, Arizona. “We want to come home to a house we know, routines observed as usual and calm seas in general… If a parent feels they can trust that their instructions and wishes will be followed while you’re there, they will call you again.”

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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