I babysit twice a week at the Jazzercise studio I go to. It’s great social time for Kiddo, gets me out of the house, and it helps out other moms. I enjoy it a lot. Sure, there are nutso days when I am counting the minutes until class is over because I’m on the verge of pulling out my hair, but most of the time things go pretty smoothly and the chaos isn’t terrible.
There’s one “regular” who is giving me quite an education. She’s five, quite willful, but also quite sweet at times too. Likes to be in charge and is not happy when she’s not, but can also play extremely well with the younger girls. Needs emotional validation, but also needs tough love. Something I’m learning is that the tough love often doesn’t work without the validation. Like, I need to establish that I am the authority in the room, but in order for that to work best I also need her to feel like she can trust me. It’s a tricky dynamic to establish, and when it works, it works great. When it doesn’t…well, then we just get through the hour as best we can and we’ll try again next time.
Today was a good day. It started out rough. Five minutes into class she was following the boys around crying big crocodile tears and wailing “I have a question for youuuuuu! Why won’t you talk to meeeeee! You’re being meeeeean to meeeeeee!” Of course it was making me insane too, and I just wanted it to stop. It’s not a huge room, so one kid crying makes it feel like a dozen kids are crying.
Tough love wasn’t working. I’d tried telling her to leave the boys alone and find something else to do. All that did was a whole lot of nothing. So with a deep breath, I went for Plan B. If I was five and feeling left out and frustrated and didn’t know what to do with myself, what would I want an adult to do?
I beckoned her over to me with a kind voice. At first she didn’t want to come. “He won’t listen to meeeee!” she wailed, standing in the middle of the room.
“But I want to listen to you,” I said gently. “So come on over.”
Reluctantly, she did. I offered to fix her scarf that had come untied, and we talked while I arranged it around her neck. “I can see that you’re upset and having a tough time,” I said. “I understand. Look, there are a lot of other little girls here today. What’s something you could do with one of them?”
As I mentioned before, this one is willful. Everything has to be her idea. And she was having none of that. Okay, fine, I can’t force her. On to the next option.
“Okay, how about you come sit by me until you feel better then?”
Silently, she went and got her blanket and stuffed toy she always brings, came back, and laid down on the floor next to me. I let her be for a bit, and after a short while she was up and playing an imaginary fairy game with one of the younger girls, and proceeded to do so with almost no conflict for the remainder of class.
People. This was a miracle day. This does not happen every time. I do my best, but kids are kids. A lot of the time, I spend the hour merely refereeing the older kids while making sure the toddlers aren’t trying to climb up onto the table and eat the crayons. But once in a while, we strike gold. And those days? Are very, very good days.
Here’s why I love babysitting, and always have loved babysitting: It is excellent practice for parenting. I’m the one who learns. I’m learning how to remain in control, how to establish my authority while establishing friendships with kids, how to get to know different kids so I can figure out what works with each of them…there are endless lessons there. I’m going to spend my parenting years doing all of those things. And sometimes it’s going to get tiring. Sometimes it’s going to be tough. Sometimes I’m going to be on the verge of pulling out my hair and counting down the minutes until naptime. Sometimes I’m going to exhaust every method and idea I have and be at the end of my rope.
But I can do it. I can try one more thing. I can offer one more hug. I can dole out one more time-out. One situation at a time, one day at a time, one year at a time, I can do it.