I had a major personality flaw. I was way too considerate. I cared way too much about what other people thought. These seemingly pleasant personality traits put my kids at risk. When interviewing for a babysitter, they caused me to not ask the right questions. I didn't want to be rude. I didn't want to be presumptuous.
I will never make that mistake again.
I share some of my story to not highlight my parental inadequacies (although it is a risk). But rather to help other parents learn from my mistakes.
We spent over $500 at a nanny placement agency. I know that sounds crazy, but I was willing to spend any amount to ensure my children's safety. The agency was supposed to complete a full background check, check all references and ensure the applicant had enough expertise to care for our children. I trusted them. Mistake #1.
We got to interview the applicant they sent over. Our guard was down -- as we felt she had already been properly screened. After all, we had forked over $500 for that very purpose. Mistake #2.
We never asked her the hard questions. I have always been overly polite. I never liked to step on anyone's toes. I have replayed that interview over and over again in my head. What if I had asked her better questions? What if my guard had been up? Would I have seen things -- warning signs?
We had our sitter for over a year before any hint of a problem showed up. What had I missed before then? She was always friendly. My son always went to her -- he never cried in her presence. She had children of her own. She was dependable. She was nice. She was a nightmare.
Trust me -- this could happen to anyone. As a therapist, I read people for a living. I get people. I used to go into daycare facilities to observe their staff. I missed this because I was looking in the wrong direction. Asking the wrong questions.
Parents do this all the time. I hear similar horror stories in my child therapy practice. They thought they could trust their sitter. They thought they knew their sitter well. They thought because it was a relative they were safe. They thought wrong.
If you are searching for a babysitter, save yourself the guilt (trust me, it's not fun) and ask the sitter these tough questions, along with the easier ones. It is not important what sitters say to these questions (because frankly, if they have a problem, they aren't going to admit it), but watch how they say it.
Have you ever had any problems with drugs or alcohol? Did any previous employer have these suspicions?
The last part of the question is meant to make applicants second guess themselves. Did you hear something from one of their references that indicated an issue? Either they will adamantly deny an issue -- or will stammer and try to defend themselves.
Do you have to take any prescription medications that make you drowsy or impair your thinking?
You don't want babysitters sleeping all day. Some prescriptions can make people extremely lethargic. You have a right to know what their mental state will be when they are watching your children.
If I had known the real answer to this question, it might have made me second guess putting my children in her care. It might have made me second guess her story about how my child got ant bites all over his body because he was playing in the backyard for just a "minute" while she was on the phone.
Do you have a history of anxiety or depression? If so, what normally makes you feel anxious?
I have absolutely nothing against anyone who suffers from anxiety or depression -- after all, those are the people I try to help at work. But I do want to know if those issues will interfere with their ability to keep calm under stress.
I knew our sitter had anxiety, but I did not realize that it made her sleep all day or that it made her go into such a panic that she didn't know what to do when minor situations popped up.
Will you ever need to bring anyone else to come with you when babysitting? If so -- do they have issues with drugs, alcohol or mood instability?
Even if applicants insist they will never have to bring someone with them -- probe further. Ask them, "But if you did, who would it be?"
I doubt my sitter would have been honest if I had asked, but it would have been worth asking.
Instead I had to find out the hard way -- with the discovery of little liquor bottles hidden all around our house and a browser full of visited porn sites that had been viewed while she was watching our kids.
It turned out that our sitter had a pretty disturbed 20-something son. Apparently she would drop him off a block from our house and call him to come over when we left.
Was he safe to be around kids? Did he have a criminal history? I will never know. I do know, however, that he felt free to drink and view porn in a stranger's home.
What's the worst scenario you have had to deal with while babysitting?
Stop asking the happy questions -- and focus on the hard ones. Did the applicant have an example? Did the applicant handle the situation well?
Who would you call in case of an emergency?
This may seem obvious, but when our infant son had over 100 ant bites from head to toe, our sitter called her teen daughter for help. Not us. Not poison control. Not the doctor. Her teenage daughter.
Have you ever hit or come close to hitting a child?
They won't be truthful, but if you are able to read people -- this would be a good question to ask.
Have you ever had any issues with the law or has your license ever been suspended?
Let them know that you will do a background check -- that you do it for all applicants. Once they know this they might be forthcoming.
Describe the most annoying kid you've ever babysat.
Get a window into what bothers them the most. Does their example show some impatience? Is the answer sugar coated?
Describe the most annoying parents you've ever had to work with.
Are they describing you? Are they more annoyed by involved, caring parents or indifferent, uninvolved parents?
If you had to discipline our kids, how would you do it?
Such an important question to ask. Don't assume they won't hit your child or punish them in another way you might find unacceptable.
How were you disciplined growing up?
If you want a better peek into the last answer -- ask them this one. What do they describe? If they experienced harsh discipline do they support it or talk about how they would do things differently?
Trust your gut!
When I look back -- there were many times my gut told me something was not right.
When she told me she took him to the store, but something told me she went to her home.
When I told her not to take him out anymore, but when I forgot my bag I arrived to an empty house.
The warming signs goes on and on. But with each warning sign I had a rational explanation to dial back my concerns and she had good excuses.
I will always trust my gut from now on. I will not care if other people think I am paranoid or overreacting. I will not worry about hurting other people's feelings. I will react. I will protect.
I am one of the lucky ones. I dodged a major bullet. My kids are okay. Four years later and my kids don't even remember her name. But, I do. And I will never forget the lessons she taught me. Don't judge a book by its cover. Because sometimes the cover is nice, but the story is ugly.
Have you had a similar experience with a babysitter? Do you have any other good questions we should ask sitters? Leave a comment and help us all do a good job screening the people we are entrusting to care for our kids.
Do you know other people who need to ask babysitters these tougher questions? Share this article and protect their kids.