ADVICE 18: Adventures in Babysitting


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We hired a babysitter the other day to watch our 2-year-old daughter while I was assisting a handyman in our yard. Our yard is enclosed, but the back gate was open, and a big dog wandered in, loose, with no owner in sight. And I mean big -- its head reached above my waist. As the dog started to go into the house, I heard the babysitter call me. I chased the dog out and ran it down the side of our house -- a dead end where the handyman was working. The babysitter had picked my daughter up, and I shouted at her to get back inside the house. Instead, she carried my daughter toward the cornered animal. Fortunately, the dog's owner arrived at that point and no harm was done. But I fired the babysitter then and there. I paid her in full, but sent her straight home. The thing is, my daughter really liked her and keeps asking for her. Did I overreact? Should I give the babysitter another chance?
--A Father; Los Angeles, CA

Just reading the term "cornered animal" freaks me out, so I can only imagine what it was like for you having to face down that behemoth, thinking your daughter was in harm's way. It's why I'd never have a pet that could maul me if the wrong wires got crossed.

I understand why you did what you did. I don't have children, but I know the paternal instinct is to always, always, always keep your family safe. As it should be. You sensed danger and you took action, quickly and decisively. In the big picture, it's hard to go too wrong if you're guided by that motivation.

And when you consider that you had virtually no track record with this person, your actions make that much more sense. You'd just hired her, and during her short employment, she disobeyed you AND carried your toddler toward trouble. Not exactly the bullet points on which any babysitter should build her resume.

Still, I think it's smart that you're conducting this self-evaluation. It's what we should all do after an experience rattles our equilibrium. Once the trauma is over, when we have a little more clarity and a little less emotion, we can see what we did right or wrong, and what we can do better the next time.

When you think back over the situation, is it clear to you that this babysitter purposefully endangered your daughter? If it is, that's the ball game. There's nothing else to consider.

If, however, there are shades of gray at play, you probably want to dig deeper. For instance, is it possible that when the babysitter approached the animal, she was actually trying to help? Is it possible that in the chaos of the moment, she rushed "into the fire" without realizing she was holding your daughter?

Granted, I could be reaching here, and "forgetting there's a toddler in your arms" is among the worst attributes a babysitter can possess. But, a protective instinct that's immune to danger can be equally valuable. You'd prioritize your daughter's safety over your own, so don't you want a babysitter who would do the same?

When you fired her, did you explain why? Did she act surprised/upset? Did she offer an explanation? I'm assuming she showed some level of dismay or remorse. Had she reacted stone-faced and serial-killer-y, you wouldn't be having second thoughts.

Given that, it might be worth reaching out to her and listening to her side of the story. Before you consider giving her another chance, this situation must be completely resolved, and new guidelines must be established. She's got to know what you expect of her when she's watching your daughter.

What I wouldn't put too much stock in is your daughter's opinion. I get that it can be hard to find help with whom your kids feel comfortable, but she's 2 years old. Do you remember anything from when you were 2?

She might be asking for this babysitter, but she'll get over it. Toddlers pull off 180s constantly, transitioning from screaming to satisfied in an instant. One second it's, "My life could not be any worse," the next it's, "Hey, a piece of cardboard."

It sounds as if the whole encounter, both with the dog and subsequently the babysitter, happened very quickly, which makes it difficult to assess in the moment and its immediate aftermath. You're on the right path by reflecting back, because doing so will help you answer the only question that matters:

Can you trust this babysitter with your daughter's life?

COMING FRIDAY: Making sense of regret...

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ADVICE 12: Is My Boyfriend Suicidal?

To send in a question, please complete this short Google form. All submissions are anonymous, even to the author.

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