Last autumn, we were at our local park with our neighbor, Kim and her children, Jessie (3) and Ben (4). It was one of those outings which unfolded smoothly (no screaming, no bleeding, no excluding). Little Jessie informed my 11 year-old that she was going to the prom with him when she was a big girl. Turns out she’d seen teens in high fashion on their way to last year’s big event. To a girl who loves dress-up, this looked like heaven.
Ben had shown Daniel (my 9 year-old) utmost respect by loaning him his favorite toy. Daniel was carefully examining Ben’s transformer, a yellow mass of plastic pieces which, when altered just so, became a hornet-warrior. Then just as quickly, it converted into a race car (with some bee-like features). Meanwhile, my daughter, Annie, was flitting seamlessly between the two groups. Kim also recognized how well our kids of varied ages were playing and asked, “Would your boys be interested in babysitting? Well actually mother’s helper work, I’d be home when they came over.”
I felt a moment of concern. You see, when you’ve worked as a psychologist on abuse and neglect cases for many years like I had, you undoubtedly hear many abuse stories. A subset of these involve male babysitters who, therefore, have a pretty bad rap. Thus, when I later found myself the mother of two boys, I’d hesitated about babysitting as an option for them. This was where I sat when Kim posed her question.
But it was so rewarding to see my big kids being patient and supportive with Jessie and Ben, and it occurred to me that the authors of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys (one of my all-time favorite psychology books) would have fully backed Kim’s idea. Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson write about how to raise what I would call three-dimensional boys, rather than the shallow, two-dimensional ones that our media, marketing culture, and sports often encourage.
This one book has given me perhaps 70% of what I need to know about raising emotionally healthy boys. Wow, that says a lot about how much I didn’t know about boy culture before kids! Raising Cain also offers astute advice on helping boys be successful in our schools which tend to require behaviors more easily summoned by girls, such as sitting still, listening, and writing.
Kindlon and Thompson definitely would have encouraged me to let my boys babysit. With this task the boys would be forced to put themselves in the shoes of young children. They would learn to read a 3 year-old child’s emotions and respond in a way that would soothe her when upset. This work would impart lessons that would help my boys become better partners and parents in the future.
So Todd and I went for it. Not working in child psychology, yet having taken much care of his baby brother as a teen, Todd saw no problem with the arrangement. Having a good relationship with Kim also eased my worries. We were able to discuss any concerns ahead of time, and check-in regularly as babysitting progressed.
Now each Thursday afternoon Daniel and Stephen split a two-hour shift of mother’s helper work at Kim’s. Sometimes the kids congregate in the backyard while Kim works inside. Dress-up, Monster, and Wonder Woman scenarios are the main play themes I’ve heard about. Daniel and Stephen agree that babysitting is work, but note that sometimes it’s surprisingly fun. Both boys regale us with play situations and funny comments by Jessie and Ben, as we eat dinner together on Thursday evenings.
Stephen and Daniel charge $3 an hour for their mother’s helper work. Three dollars an hour for my sons to practice being nurturing and responsible. I should be paying Kim!
Other ideas for teaching kids (boys or girls) those all important life social skills? Or good books on raising boys? Leave a comment!