Interviews in Babysitting

The time has come (again) for us to find a regular babysitter. Once we’ve found a few good candidates, the Wife and I will have to find the time to schedule interviews with them. Scheduling face-to-face interviews is actually pretty difficult and time-consuming for us; we pretty much need to hire a babysitter so we have time to interview potential babysitters (though I did my first such interview over Skype a couple of weeks ago and it was better than I expected).

Way back when we were first looking for someone to babysit a then-infant RU we had no idea how to go about it. Our idea of a babysitter was a high school girl looking to earn some spending money who is already known to the family, either directly or at one remove. Indeed, once upon a time, the Wife was just such a teenaged babysitter. But we don’t know any such people. We’re thirty-somethings who have no teenagers anywhere near our social circles. Where does one turn for childcare when bereft of high school-age girls? Having found someone willing to watch your children for cash, what happens next? We were clueless about what information to ask candidates about or what to tell them.

Remember the Wife’s review of Gavin De Becker’s book Protecting the Gift? Well, it also talks about babysitters and childcare, and it was that section that has probably been the biggest help to us as parents (so far). Reading it opened our eyes to the fact that in looking for a babysitter, we were essentially hiring an employee. What’s more, it would be an employee who would be looking after the most important thing in our lives (and would be in our home with access to lots of the things that also rank pretty high on our list of important stuff). It gave us permission to actually ask probing or difficult questions and to turn people away if we didn’t think they were a good fit for us. 

The book helpfully provides a list of good questions to ask a potential sitter or nanny, and the bulk of the interview I just conducted was mostly drawn from them. Many of the questions have answers that should be obvious, such as, “What’s your opinion of drugs and alcohol?” Clearly, there’s a wrong way to answer that and you might therefore think the question has little value. We like to ask that one right away so we can save our time in case anyone is dumb enough to answer, “Oh, I think drugs and alcohol are great! I’m high right now!” Some folks will even miss the slow pitches and you sure don’t want them watching your kids. Also, people can reveal a lot about themselves even when they’re not being truthful (aside from whether or not they’re good liars). 

Open ended questions can help gain more information about a candidate’s background than what’s on the resume or reveal their thought processes. We ask about their best friend and if they go to church (potentially gaining contact information for extra references by doing so). We have them talk about a time when they needed help or how they handled an emergency. What they consider to be an “emergency” usually reveals a lot about their life experiences — we’ve talked to a lot college-age candidates who really struggled to find a meaningful answer. We ask them to discuss their philosophy about discipline. Some people grew up with spanking as an acceptable form of punishment for children, for example, while others feel that all problem behaviors are the result of children not having some specific emotional need met. The Wife and I have eliminated a lot of potential sitters who looked good on paper but clearly didn’t mesh well with how our household does things.

We save the potentially difficult or awkward questions for the end, when the candidate has gotten warmed up and talking more freely. At first, the Wife and I struggled with these. We’d look at each other, trying to figure out which one of us was willing to sheepishly, even apologetically, broach the topic. Really, though, “Have you ever suspected a child under your care was being abused by someone,” is exactly thing kind of information you want to know about the person who will be alone with your offspring. A lot of candidates who have worked in schools, daycares, or summer camps will have been trained on such a situation or even have first- or second-hand experience with it. (On the other hand, we had one interviewee reply, “Wow! Gosh! I don’t know… Hire a private detective to find out, I guess.” How she expected to do that given what we were offering to pay her, I have no idea.) Experience with this process has made the Wife and I much more comfortable delving into taboo topics or asking probing personal questions. 

The list of questions in Protecting the Gift is a great starting point, but your interview also needs to include topics relevant to your specific situation and parenting style. Because having the kids watch television isn’t an option at our house, we ask candidates if they’ve ever nannied or babysat for a family that is tv-free. We’ve encountered more than one who simply didn’t know how they would keep children occupied if they couldn’t be sat down in front of the tube for a while. (We actually lead with, “How much television do you watch? What are your favorite shows?”) These questions can be a springboard for telling the candidate about how your family does things, giving them an idea of what’s expected of them.

The Wife and I have built up a nice back-and-forth for these interviews. She’s the “Faceman” of our A-Team, able to chat comfortably with just about anyone and get them to open up more. (With her penchant for planning, she’s also our family’s Hannibal.) I guess my interjections of wacky humor make me Murdock. (I often also emulate B. A. Baracus — at least, the way he is just after he’s had the drugged cheeseburger.) Well, regardless of which ‘80s action show our method resembles, we’ve grown adept at drawing the interviewee out and interrogating them under the guise of friendly conversation.

(RU herself actually proved to be a valuable asset in the interview process when she was very young. She’d sit her in high chair at the Panera and play “I’ll drop the pacifier so you can pick it up.” The best sitter we’ve ever had was hired because she was able to not only answer our questions but was automatically retrieving RU’s binky and keeping her content while doing so. The other candidate never even noticed what the baby was doing. I guess that makes RU — who? That reporter from the first couple of seasons?)

Today, however, I had to fly solo. That’s not good for “Howling Mad” Murdock to be doing (or Baracus, for that matter) but I think it went well even if it got a little dicey when I had to lift the candidate’s fingerprint off her glass unnoticed.