Thursday, November 4, 2010

Really, Just How Much Should You Pay a Teen Babysitter?

I think I just got my first internet ass-whoopin'. I didn't expect it at all but that just goes to show you how naive I am.

Some background: In the past year, my teen babysitter has grown into a confident and adept teacher to my children. She is so fantastic and really beyond "babysitter" status now. In fact, she doesn't really do the traditional babysitting so much. She does things that are more akin to homework help and play therapy.

In the spring of this year, she signed up to get training to become a babysitter to special needs children at a JCC here in New York City. I also promised her a raise when she got her certificate of completion. Saying that she had learned so much from us, she tried to refuse it when she finally did get her certificate. Being an Asian American woman, I have been treated as a doormat on more that one occasion so I told her that she should learn how to accept what she deserves. It's harder than you think especially when you are a nice girl like Catalina Lopez (her real name). I also told her that I gave her a raise to stay competitive because it is in my best interest that she continue to work with my kids. Still I knew that the pay could have been more but that raise was all I could afford since she came on a regular basis and thus I would see my money leave me on a regular basis.

Raises.... That seems to be the big word right now because Catalina was featured in a column in the New York freakin' Times!!!!!! The story focused on how this program at the JCC helped turn this wonderful young person into a babysitter extraordinaire. In truth, she was always great but the training she received really gave her a stronger knowledge base from which she could be more effective with my children.

So when Susan Dominus, who was one of the most respectful and kid-friendly reporters I've ever met (I've met a lot), asked me how much I pay Catalina, I told her. I felt bad about it not because I didn't want people to know what I pay her but it was more to protect her privacy so she could have less pressure when negotiating rates with others. However, I didn't feel so bad when I found out that Catalina also told the reporter what she earned as well because if you think about it, salary or at least salary range is an important part of the story. If you are going to talk about how great teen babysitters are, then you must talk about how financially feasible it is.

Never did I imagine the verbal barbecuing that I would end up getting. I don't know why but people actually thought I was paying her $8 an hour to watch two children even though nowhere in the story was that ever written. Nevertheless, Catalina only gets $8.50 an hour from me to work with one child. She would receive more if she is babysitting both of them. In the story, the Ms. Dominus wrote $8 per hour because when she was factchecking with me, I didn't correct her. I was too embarrassed to point out the extra $0.50 an hour.

Irregardless, Catalina has grown into someone whose skills and experience could confidently command way more than $8.50 an hour from a family, whether that child is neurotypical or not. She doesn't just "watch" my kids and make sure they eat and sleep, she will get on the floor and really play with them. Also, if I give her a task like a puzzle or a worksheet to give to the kids, SHE WILL MAKE SURE IT GETS DONE.

However, I found my face starting to heat up as I read through the comments posted by readers of the article and saw that I was being criticized for the low pay. I am not sure if everyone thought I was paying her $8 an hour to care for two children but still, I couldn't help but feel terrible that so many folks may have missed the point of the story.

It is comments like these that make you not want to share your stories publicly. But I am quickly comforted by the fact that this story has enjoyed a most awesome response. On the day of publication, the JCC told me that they received calls from around the world asking them about their training curriculum so that they could replicate it in their area. Could you ask for better results? Ms. Dominus' story about Catalina and the JCC helped special needs families everywhere.

Back to salary- This is how I see it. You have to be as fair as possible because it is good for all parties involved. This means you have to pay as much as you can afford and hopefully for the family's sake, that will be at a competitive rate because a good sitter can't be kept at low pay unless there is some other draw like learning opportunities, flexibility and short commute. (Thank goodness our sitter lives in our building). All in all, I know that the rate I pay is all that I can afford. I wish I could afford more but I also wish my kids didn't have neurological issues and that I wasn't overweight.

Not that I'm not ecstatic about how skilled Catalina has become, but honestly, my original intention for hiring a teen was not really for the kind of work she is doing now. All I had wanted was to have someone safely occupy Spencer while I worked with Logan on academics and therapeutic activities. Back then, this was my only solution to not being able to find an afterschool program that was not just a good fit for Logan but also affordable and nearby. In our last effort to put him in to a neighborhood martial arts program, we were asked to leave before the one hour class was even over. I wasn't going to bring him back anyway since the other kids were so mean to him. That was a very bad day.

Bottomline, I was basically doing my own version of a homeschool-afterschool program and Catalina keeping Spencer out of our hair made it all possible. Even with this reasoning, it was hard to get my husband to agree to spend the extra money at first. He grew up in a Chinatown ghetto where he shared a bedroom with three older sisters. It is also important to mention that this apartment had no living room or dining room. Thus my "need" for help in order to pursue Logan's academic enrichment and a little alone time for Mommy and Logan was not really something he could easily understand as a "need." But like most things about the kids, my husband usually comes to my camp eventually.

But who knew that she would evolve into a dynamite mini-therapist? I certainly did not but there is no question that my family is extremely lucky. Again, I am SO SURE she can be paid more elsewhere but I think she might still be with us for other reasons. So to end this post, I'd like to leave with you what I've tried to do to make this job more meaningful to Catalina. Perhaps you can provide this to your teen babysitter if you have one.

I actually have some experience directing a youth program in New York City and I can tell you that many teens lack things like internship opportunities, professional connections, workplace communication skills, and self-promotion skills like resume writing and interviewing. Thus with college admissions and jobs being so competitive now, these teens really could use every boost they can get.

With that knowledge and my worship of all that is Catalina, I offered to help her write her resume, offered to help her find more jobs, and offered to help her with college applications. She has great parents to guide her but one more adult in her life can be helpful too. Schools are just too overloaded to give the amount of guidance that kids need now. Additionally, sometimes we'd just talk about her future. When she got her special needs babysitting certificate, I knew I'd scare her but I actually told her to negotiate her raise with me (even though I had already decided what to give her), because I wanted her to learn this valuable skill that so many young women often lack. While she hasn't taken me up on all of my offers, I hope I was successful in letting her know that I want to help her grow.

Additionally, I paid for her time to be trained. This is really beneficial for your babysitter. The training course was free so I just paid her registration fee and of course I made her ask her mother if that was okay because that is something that every employer of a teen should respect. I also paid her to watch Spencer's therapy sessions when she was off from school and the therapists had been coming to our house everyday. Once we had a therapy session outside of the home and I had her come and watch it because I thought it could help her. Since she usually babysits for us at home and has no commute, I paid her for the time that she traveled with us back and forth as well as the time for her to watch the kids' therapy session. In fact, whenever she ever came out with us, I would always pay for the travel time.

More importantly, I made sure that everything, and I mean everything was okay with her mom. This is really critical. If your babysitter's mom doesn't like you, then well... I don't think you will have her in your life too long. If I needed her outside of our neighborhood or did something else unusual then I would expect that she would have told her mother. From the beginning, I made sure that her mom knew my cell phone and knew to call our home if Catalina didn't answer her cell phone. I made sure that I would have Catalina's emergency numbers too. I don't believe you have to be chummy with your sitter's mother but if you are in her good graces, this can only help you.

Lastly, I try to set her up with learning opportunities by connecting her with other special needs professionals so that she can expand her network and attain some valuable advice. This can not only help your children right now but for the teen who is considering a career in special needs education or therapy, this kind of thing is just priceless. Current professionals can advise them on what are good college programs, where to find scholarships, and possibly know someone who can help her get admitted into a good school or help her find a good job later.

I thoroughly enjoyed doing these things because I feel grateful for the opportunity to be a part of Catalina's growth. Additionally, being a mentor to a talented young person definitely helps alleviate some of the emptiness I feel since I decided to press the pause button on my own career because of the kids.

Let it be said that all of these perks do not necessarily replace good wages. Some of the best internships are great because they are paid and so the person who needs to learn but also needs to earn can do both! Otherwise, you have only the privileged few that are already well connected get the unpaid-but-very-valuable learning and networking opportunities. I don't mean to sound naive. I am aware that the situation that I just described is basically the real world in which we live but, as employers of people who have a big influence over the beings most precious to your heart, we can all do our part to balance out this equation one teen at a time.

If I had more money, I would have Catalina take Spencer to his soccer class. Because he wants to impress her so much, I know he would try that much harder to fight off his anxiety. When I take him, he usually just runs off the field and straight to me whenever the class becomes too stressful. In this picture, I was not at soccer class that day, my husband was.

P.S. One last thing! Feed your babysitter! They are young and most likely are still growing. If you have them afterschool or around dinnertime or really anytime then you better have some food in your house. The teens most likely enjoy the same things that your little ones do. Catalina loves chocolate milk and white cheddar puffs just like Spencer does. Seriously, if you ask her to feed your kids dinner then it is safe to assume she needs something too. It could be a doubly good thing if your kid needs a good model for eating.


Unknown said...

We have had the same sitter for 6 years now. When Sadie was younger she was the only person we could leave her with. Even Grandparents couldn't take her for a couple hours. This sitter started sitting with us when she was 14 an we paid her $8/hr, for 4 children! Now that she is 21 we pay her about $12/hr and usually this is only for our 2 girls, since the boys are older. Even at $8/hr for 4 children she has always loved sitting for us. We have taken her on vacations with us where she does very little babysitting, but hte extra set of hands is nice, we have helped her with school work, wrote lots of letters of recommandations, and best of all she has become part of our family.
I think all that really matters is that both parties are happy about the arrangement. She has always enjoyed watching our kids and we have loved having her. If she were to find a family who paid more and that she felt she was getting more bennifit from she is free to say no to us any time she wants.
I spent my highschool and college years babysitting exclusively for 2 families. One of them paid me very well, and the other paid me ok wages. Truth was I enjoyed the parents and the kids of those families more then others. That was what kept me there.
Sounds like you have found a keeper!


At no point did I ever think the article stated you were paying Catalina $8 an hour for two children. An even if I did, what of it? What is wrong with these people who feel they have to criticize everything? Are they so ignorant that they do not realize people in different parts of the country and the world get paid different COMPETITIVE wages for their area for the same jobs? Or does it just go back to their need to complain and criticize others?

While I will admit that we pay our babysitters $13 an hour to watch our two children, I also realize we not only live in two very different parts of the country, but that our babysitters are much further along than Catalina, as they are also our ABA therapists - some of them even possessing Master's degrees.

I always hold out this hope that someday I will not be so amazed by the ignorance of others. However, the more time I spend online and the more I see of how people react to things and often times totally miss the point of information they read, the more that hope diminishes.

Rock on, Jen!

Anonymous said...

It was such a great article...inspiring...two families working together, benefits abound...thank you for sharing. I know that part of sharing is opening yourself up but who knows who else you inspired to reach out and find someone to offer similar support - on their street, in their building etc. The extra tips you wrote just make it that much easier for someone to reach out and see they can offer more than a monetary benefit. I enjoyed the article and see so much potential to help others in it.

foodie said...

Hi Jenn,

I think you should put a link to your posting in the comments section of the article. The readers are obviously taking the wage at face value, when there's a lot more going on.