Kidpower Safety Tips for Babysitters, Nannies, and Caregivers

Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director

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Some things are not a choice.

Some things are not a choice.

Taking care of children is the most important job in the world.  Once you start being a babysitter or nanny, no matter how young you are, you are taking on adult responsibilities and, when this article uses the word “adult”, we mean YOU! Here are twelve Kidpower tips that can help you to stay safe, keep kids safe, and have more fun.

1) Put Safety First. Kidpower’s Underlying Principle is: “The safety and healthy self-esteem of a child are more important than anyone’s embarrassment, inconvenience, or offense.” Remember that you are responsible for the safety and well being of the children in your care.  Even if others will be annoyed with you and even if it is inconvenient for you, avoid any activities that might distract you from doing your job well. Have the courage to speak up to parents and other adults about any concerns you have, even if you feel embarrassed. Insist that children follow your safety rules even if they get angry or upset.

2) Stay Aware, Stay Awake, and Stay Connected with the Kids Rather Than Your Technology. By staying aware, you can notice potential trouble and take preventative action to avoid or stop the problem early, before it grows.  Potential trouble when babysitting might be someone at the park who is acting in a way that makes you uncomfortable, a car backing up from a driveway as you are walking down the sidewalk, someone unexpected coming to the door, or a pill dropped on the floor. When you act alert, you are also much less likely to be selected as a victim by an attacker.  Staying aware also means paying attention to your intuition. If you feel uncomfortable about a person, place, or situation, don’t ignore your feelings. Instead, figure out what the safest choice would be and take action.

In order to stay aware, you also have to stay awake . Babysitting is a job that requires your attention. Avoid doing things that lull you to sleep, such as lying down to read or watch a video, unless children are very securely asleep themselves, such as babies in cribs and unable to get out without your help. Late night is an exception, and even then, do what you can to stay awake until you are certain kids are truly ‘out for the night.’

Unless the kids are fast asleep, you cannot stay aware if you are video-chatting, getting involved in phone conversations, texting, or playing electronic games.  Parents are paying for your time, and they are trusting you to be fully present the whole time you are caring for their children.  Make a decision to stay away your technology all the time when kids are awake. Ask parents about what their boundaries are about you communicating with friends, doing homework, or other activities when their kids are asleep.

3) Split Your Attention. Becoming so focused on something you are doing that you don’t see what else is happening around you is called “tunnel vision.” Tunnel vision can be caused by texting, talking with someone, doing homework, cooking, daydreaming, or cleaning up. Remember that an accident or other safety emergency can happen in an instant. Once, I stopped a boy of about 4 as he started to slip through the fence next to a steep cliff. A few feet away, his babysitter had her back turned because she was picking up his little sister from the stroller.

Avoid tunnel vision by splitting your attention. Interrupt what you are doing so you can keep track of what is happening around you every second that you are in charge. Notice where each of the kids you are responsible for is and what he or she is doing One time NOT to split your attention is when you are driving. Putting safety first when driving means not being distracted. If a child is being destructive or needs attention, stop the car as soon as you can safely do so.

4) Stay Together. Until children are able to stay in charge of their own safety, they need to be with adults who can protect them and keep them from harm.  Err on the side of safety in keeping young children close enough to you that you can hang onto them or get to them within a second if need be.  As kids get older, make sure that they will come back to you immediately, as soon as you call or as soon as they notice any person or animal approaching them.

Especially when you are out in public, insist that younger children stay within your reach. If you are the only caregiver and you need to take one child (or yourself) to the bathroom, take all the kids you are responsible for watching with you.  Be prepared for children to argue at times. If they tell you that their parents don’t make them stay so close, say that you hope they will discuss this with their parents when they get home. To practice, make it a game. Pretend to be in a place you visit together, such as a store or park, and have the children practice sticking close as you start going in different directions.

5) Check and Think First. Check First with parents before you change the plan about where you are going with their children, who is with them, or what they will be doing. Ask parents what their rules are, including about who is and is not allowed into their home or yard; what kids can and cannot eat; where their children are and are not allowed to go; and about their children’s use of computers, television, or cell phones. If you are not sure, err on the side of safety until you can ask.

Think First before you open the door to someone you were not expecting, even if that person seems very nice or is trying to make you feel sorry for him or her. Safety is more important than politeness and respect. You can choose to talk through the door, but avoid opening it unless you have thought carefully about the decision and feel confident this is safe. Teach children to Move Away and Check First with you before they try to cook, pick up something that is not theirs, go outside, or let an animal or person they don’t know well get close to them.

6) Move Away From Trouble. The most effective martial arts technique of all time is called “Target Denial”, which means denying yourself as a target to a dangerous person or situation. In other words, “Don’t be there!” Suppose you are waiting in line with kids at a store, and you see two men ahead of you in line getting into a heated argument that starts to sound ugly. It is neither emotionally or physically safe for kids to be close to a potentially abusive or violent argument.  This is a good time to change your plan and go to a safer place, perhaps quietly notifying the clerk, a manager, or a security guard if it is safe to do so. If someone in the park talks to you or tries to get close to the kids in a way that bothers you even a little, it’s time to leave the park.

7) Know How to Get Help. With the guidance of the children’s parents or your supervisor, make a safety plan for how to get help every place you will be with kids– in any part of the building or yard, in the neighborhood, and at the park.

In addition to mobile phones, make sure this safety plan includes how to get help from someone in person. If you need help for a problem that is not affecting your immediate safety, such as you need to be picked up because a bus has broken down, using a mobile phone from right where you are may be just fine. However, if you believe you or the children may be close to a threat, such as a person acting unsafe in any way, move with the children toward a place where people who could help you actually are, such as in a store or movie theater, if you possibly can. You can get help from one of those people. You can also place a call on your phone from that place. Using a phone requires shifting your awareness, making it harder to watch the children, watch the possible problem, and communicate with people who can help you, so getting away from the problem first can help you be safer.

Out in public, your safety plan will often involve getting help from people who are working in stores, restaurants, kiosks, or offices.  If you have a safety emergency, be prepared to go into places with the kids where you would not normally go, interrupt busy adults, and persist in the face of their negative reactions until you get the help you need.  If someone is acting violently or has gotten injured, call 9-1-1.  Remember that you can make anonymous reports if you don’t feel safe telling public safety officials your name.

8) Don’t take what kids say or do personally. When children are unkind or push boundaries, they are doing this for reasons that are important to them, not to make your life miserable.  First of all, protect your own feelings by using an imaginary Trash Can to throw away hurtful words or insulting gestures. Then, say something nice to your self. Remember that your job is to create a safe and respectful environment, not to be liked all the time. If you make a mistake, tell yourself, “I don’t have to be perfect to be great.”

Next, look for the reasons underlying this child’s negative behavior. Assess the problem by asking yourself and others, “When does this problem happen? During transitions? When I am busy doing something else? What purpose does this behavior serve for this child? What is the motivation?” If you understand, for example, that this child wants attention, you can provide positive ways to gain attention instead of negative ways by involving the child in helping you. If you know that a child is more likely to become difficult when feeling overwhelmed (as is true for most of us), you can make plans for how to avoid overwhelm. If you know that a child will be heartbroken when it’s time to leave the park, make an agreement ahead of time, give plenty of warning, and have something fun to do on the way home, or when you get back.  Younger children especially will love it if you make up a story.

9) Set Powerful and Respectful Boundaries. Children need powerful, respectful adult leaders (and, if you are reading this, you ARE an adult leader) to set a good example and stop them from being unsafe or disrespectful to themselves or others. One of Kidpower’s boundary rules is that, “Some things are NOT a choice.” Use your “AND” Power to honor emotions while managing behavior. Acknowledge upset feelings, express caring, AND set a boundary. For example, “I understand that leaving is upsetting for you. I am sorry. I care about you a lot. AND this is not a choice right now.” Or, “I see that you want to use this toy right now AND hitting is not safe. Instead, you can say, ‘Wait! It’s my turn now. You can have it when I’m done.’”

If need be, gently and kindly, but firmly, stop a child physically from hitting, throwing, or being destructive. Give the child positive alternatives for releasing feelings, such as jumping up and down. Acknowledge the child’s unhappiness while setting the boundary. For example, “I see you want that. I am sorry that I cannot let you play with it. It’s okay to be sad.” Respectfully and powerfully, interrupt a child who is saying unkind things or using a whiny voice. For example, “Please ask me to help you in a kind way with a regular voice.  Say, (model the tone of voice), ‘Excuse me. Would you please help me?’”

Also, be prepared to set boundaries with a parent who expects you to do more than feels wise or safe to you.  For example, ‘I understand that you are very busy, AND I really need to have enough time to do my homework. Please be sure to come back when you say you are going to.” Be prepared to say, “Sorry, no!” or “No, thank you” for requests that don’t work well for you, even if someone is disappointed.

If you have set clear boundaries, considered what is leading to certain behaviors, and strengthened your skills but find that a child’s behavior demands skills you do not have, get help in the moment if you need it and decline future opportunities to babysit that child. One Kidpower instructor who spent her high school years babysitting and had outstanding skills as a teen babysitter remembers most clearly a child whose explosive behavior and tendency to run away, which the child’s parents did not seem to be able to manage. She was able to keep herself and the child safe for the evening and declined future opportunities to babysit.

10) Learn Self-Defense, First Aid, CPR, and Emergency Preparedness.  In addition to calling for help, knowing what to do in an emergency can make the difference between an upsetting experience and a traumatic one. Take a personal safety class of the kind taught by Kidpower to learn how to defend yourself  (and the children with you) in case of an attack. Take first aid and CPR classes to learn how to prevent and handle injuries and health emergencies.  Know what kinds of natural disasters might occur in your area, and ask the child’s parents or your supervisors what their plan is for this kind of emergency. Check out the Red Cross online and classroom trainings for babysitters and caregivers.

11) Be Worthy of Trust.  When you are responsible for the safety and well being of children, you must stay in charge of what you say and do — no matter how you feel inside. Teach children and follow Kidpower’s safety rule that “Touch, games, or play for fun, teasing, or affection must be safe, okay with each person, allowed by the adults in charge, and NOT a secret.”

Act in a way that you would be comfortable with everyone knowing about. Be aware of and manage your emotional triggers so that you stay aware, calm, respectful, and confident. If you feel upset, get centered by taking a breath, pressing your palms together, and straightening your back. Use the Screen Technique by imagining a screen catching and keeping out insulting behavior or comments while taking in useful information.

12) Teach Kids How to Be Safe With People. At Kidpower, we use the term “People Safety” to mean being emotionally and physically safe with and around people. The more that everyone in a child’s life has a common language about “People Safety”, the safer that child will be. Children benefit hugely from your modeling and in the moment coaching about how to stay safe and act respectfully with others.  Ask parents for permission to use free and low cost resources from Kidpower, such as the ones described below, to introduce and practice skills with their children – and share these resources with them.  Instead of using fear to teach kids about danger, Kidpower makes it fun for children to be safe – because we all learn more easily when we are having fun!


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About the Author

Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director
Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe, the Kidpower Safety Comics series, the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults, and The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People.
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