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Growing Concerns - 3/22/06 (03/22/2006)
By Dr. Martha Erickson


     
Question: A 12-year-old neighbor has expressed interest in baby-sitting for our two young children, and she strikes me as someone who would do a great job. But my husband says a 12-year-old is too young. What are your thoughts?

Answer: There's no magic age at which a person is mature enough to baby-sit. Some 12-year-olds are up to the task and others are not. The best babysitter we ever had for our children was 12 when she began, and over the years she became like a big sister or favorite aunt for our children. You obviously are seeing qualities in this girl that lead you to think she would care well for your children, and you may well be right. But so that both you and your husband will feel comfortable with this decision, I suggest you and your husband look thoroughly into her skills and experience - something parents should do when choosing a babysitter of any age.

To do that, arrange an interview with the girl and, if possible, one of her parents. Here are some questions to ask:

" What experience has she had caring for children? Has she cared for younger brothers and sisters, children in her church nursery, other neighbors' children? If so, would she mind if you called for a reference?

" Has she taken any classes that would help prepare her to baby-sit? For example, many communities offer baby-sitting classes, first aid for children, or other relevant courses.

" What does she know about how children behave at different ages, basic child care approaches, and appropriate discipline strategies? You could test her knowledge by describing some typical challenging situations with your children and asking her how she would respond.

" How does she handle responsibilities at home, such as taking telephone messages or carrying out simple food preparation?

" Is she able to find resources when she needs them - for example, looking up phone numbers and making businesslike calls, finding information in a reference book, reading and following directions on a prescription label?

" How would she deal with an emergency situation? I'd suggest you pose several hypothetical situations and ask her what she would do.

If, after the interview, you think the girl has potential as a baby-sitter, I'd suggest you ask her to take care of your children once or twice while you do other work in the house or the yard. This will give her and your children a chance to become comfortable with each other and will allow you to help her learn more about how you prefer things to be handled in your home. Then, if all goes well, she'll probably be ready for a "solo flight." When that time comes, just be sure to make your expectations clear - and be sure she has the number of a nearby adults who will be available in an emergency.

Question: My husband's father is very ill and is expected to live for only a few more months. I'm uncomfortable about how to talk to our two children about his death. At ages 4 and 7, how much can they understand and manage?

Answer: For many parents, talking with young children about death is one of the most uncomfortable things they ever do, especially when they are talking about the death of a close family member or loved one. At ages 4 and 7, your children will have very different understandings of the meaning of death. Before age 5 or 6, children typically do not understand that death is permanent and irreversible. By age 7, however, they know the permanence of death and they recognize that it is universal. At that age, they

often have very specific questions about the physical details of dying--questions that are sometimes shocking and disturbing for adults.

When talking with young children about the death of a loved one, adults often are tempted to cushion the blow by using euphemisms, phrases that disguise the harshness of death. But this can backfire. For example, while it sounds very gentle on the surface to say, "grandpa is going to sleep forever," it may lead a young child to fear going to bed. Or, upon hearing that the angels came and took grandpa to heaven, a young child may worry that the angels will sneak up and grab her too.

It is most helpful to explain death to young children in very clear and direct language. For example you might say, "grandpa was very sick and finally his body quit working." Beyond the simple explanation, it is important to express--and allow children to express--sadness and even anger about the loss. This also is a time to teach children your own family's religious beliefs about death and to encourage them to find comfort in those beliefs. For example, within the framework of my own beliefs, I might say, "We are going to miss grandpa a lot and we feel very sad right now. But in our family we believe that grandpa's spirit is with God."

When children first confront the death of someone they know, it is common for them to feel fearful that they, or someone else close to them (especially mom or dad) also will die. One of the best things you can do is allow children to talk about these fears. Although it's important to be honest and acknowledge that everyone dies sometime, you can reassure them that most people live to be pretty old and that you expect to be there to care for them for a long, long time. You also might tell them who would take care of them if something ever did happen to you, reminding them of the other friends and relatives who love them. Children feel most secure when they know that there is a plan for them, and that there is a network of adults who will be there for them no matter what happens.

For now, assuming that your children still can visit grandpa, encourage them to show their love for him and to tell him about all the ways he is special to them. And after his death, join them in remembering all the things they loved about grandpa, maybe making a special scrapbook to help them always remember. 

 

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