- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 16, 2003

The students, mostly seventh- and eighth-graders, have settled down long enough to investigate how the Velcro tabs on the disposable diapers work. They have discussed behavior problems that toddlers might have and how to save a choking child. They have gone over when to call the parents, how to contact poison control and what constitutes a genuine emergency.

They are almost ready to baby-sit.

The group is gathered at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda to attend a two-day Safe Sitter class. Safe Sitter is one of several classes offered around the Washington area to teach preteens and young teens the basics of the job from setting their fees to warming formula.

"I've watched kids at the pool, and I want to baby-sit," says Katie Caughlan, a seventh-grader at Westland Middle School in Chevy Chase. "My mom says I can after I take the class. Then I can say I am a certified baby sitter."

Classes such as Safe Sitter cover topics that may not have occurred to youngsters, says Sally Herrholz, executive director of the Indianapolis-based nonprofit educational group of the same name. The organization was founded in 1980 by Patricia Keener, a pediatrician whose colleague's son choked while in the care of a baby sitter.

"That sitter was an adult," Ms. Herrholz says, "and that adult sitter still didn't know what to do. So if adults don't know what to do, think of what adolescents may not know."

At Safe Sitter, the children practice resuscitation on mannequins and baby care using dolls. Among the practical lessons: how to change a diaper, how to quell a tantrum and how to burp a baby.

Mitchell Crispell, 13, of Chevy Chase, learned at his recent Safe Sitter class to do the latter gently.

"I think I can do it, but I would rather baby-sit for an older kid, like a preschooler," Mitchell says. "I haven't baby-sat before, but a lot of people have asked me to sit. My mom thought it would be a good idea for me to take a class."

Mitchell says he is looking forward to the chance to make his own money. In the Washington area, baby-sitting fees range from about $3 an hour for a mother's helper (a sitter who watches children while parents are home) to $10 an hour for an older sitter watching multiple children.

"We talked about setting rates, and I am going to ask for $4.50 an hour," Mitchell says.

Kathy Sartori, one of the instructors at Safe Sitter's Suburban Hospital class, says professionalism is a big part of the curriculum. That includes lessons in setting fees, being on time and having the sitters check with their own parents to get permission to take a particular job.

"We talk a lot about responsibility and success on the job," Mrs. Sartori says. "We talk about the importance of a handshake and how it is OK to refuse a job if you don't feel comfortable about the ages of the children, for instance. We give them a lot of scripts of possible situations."

At the American Red Cross' Baby-sitter's Training classes, professional behavior also is stressed, along with safety, hygiene, baby care and decision-making.

"The kids learn the enormity of the responsibility of baby-sitting," says Ted Crites, senior associate for research and product development at the American Red Cross. "They learn how to practice decision-making skills. We guide youth through the decision-making processes figure out the problem, identify solutions, name the positives and negatives, decide the best choice, and act. That is a good process that will take them through life."

Participants also learn how to craft a resume, interview for a job and ask questions of the parents, such as "What areas are off-limits?" and "When is bedtime?"

More than 120,000 11- to 15-year-olds nationally took the Red Cross class in 2002. That is nearly triple the enrollment of five years ago.

"We feel the baby sitters come out confident to care for children," Mr. Crites says.

Ready to sit?

Most states have guidelines, rather than laws, on the minimum age for baby-sitting. Maryland is the only state with a law that sets a minimum age 13 for baby sitters, Ms. Herrholz says.

The reason most states have guidelines is because so much depends on the maturity of the sitter, the age of the child, the number of children watched and the length of time the sitter will be in charge, she says.

"I think seventh grade is about the right time," says Mrs. Sartori, whose son completed the Safe Sitter course when he was 12. "We tell [the students] not to accept jobs with young babies, though, unless they have experience."

Sarah Greenberg, whose children are ages 2 and 6, has a rotation of four sitters she uses. All of them are 13 or older, and three of them took the Safe Sitter course, she says.

"The course is not a requirement for me," says Mrs. Greenberg, who lives in Bethesda, "but I do feel better if I know they have taken a course. I know the law is 13, and all my sitters are over 13 but I know some mature 13-year-olds and some not-so-mature 13-year-olds."

She adds that one baby sitter used a "timeout" technique she had learned in Safe Sitter when 6-year-old Josh was acting up.

Parents who hire a sitter have to do their part in keeping the teens eager to baby-sit, Mrs. Greenberg says.

"I pay $5 and up an hour," Mrs. Greenberg says, "so I pay pretty well. They do not have to do any cleaning. They can eat whatever they want and can use the phone, TV or Internet. Often I let them bring a friend if they want. I will pay more during the day, too, because it is more work when the kids are up the whole time."

Parents hiring a sitter should not only ask about a potential baby sitter's training, they should be specific in their instructions, according to guidelines from the National Safe Kids Campaign.

Parents should give the sitter a tour of the home and point out such things as safety gates, smoke alarms and childproof locks. Parents also should show the sitter where phones, emergency numbers and first-aid supplies are.

Emergency numbers should include one for the parents, a doctor, a neighbor or relative and emergency personnel. Safe Sitter teachers encourage baby sitters to arrive early, particularly when working for a new family, so they can get oriented.

Safety for the sitter

To be a successful sitter is to be prepared, Mrs. Sartori says. That means sitters should take safety precautions for themselves as well as the children they are watching.

Safe Sitter encourages teens to arrange a safety signal with their parents ahead of time. A safety signal is a code word that means "come pick me up right now because I do not feel safe." Sitters also should write down for their parents the address where they will be, the phone number and what time they will return.

Safe Sitter also teaches sitters how to respond to situations such as an obscene phone call, dealing with an employer they suspect has been drinking or a sexual advance from an adult employer.

"Most baby sitters are children themselves," Ms. Herrholz says. "We teach them what to do to keep themselves safe. They need to know how to answer the phone or what to do if their employer comes home drunk."

Learning and graduating

Back at Suburban Hospital, the participants are learning five "magic" tricks to keep children entertained. They are trading tips on ways to manage and care for children.

"You have to be firm, because if you are too loose with the rules, they will not cooperate," says Mitchell, the eighth-grader from Chevy Chase.

The students will wrap up their class with written and demonstration tests. They will leave with a certificate and manual they can take on jobs with them.

Hopefully, they'll never need to perform the Heimlich maneuver or even break up a sibling squabble but if they do, they probably will be able to handle it.

"I'm learning a lot," says Katie, the Westland Middle School seventh-grader. "I am confident I will know what to do when I baby-sit."

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