Sooner or later, parents leave their kids with other people. And those other people—teenagers, family members, daycare providers and nannies—have cell phones.
It’s no secret that cell phones are distracting—and irresistible. One survey by researchers at the University of Washington found that, among caregivers surveyed on a playground, 28% felt it was perfectly OK to engage in cellphone activities like checking e-mail or reading while supervising children. Another 24% chose to curtail phone use when they were responsible for kids. The largest group–44%–thought they should restrict pho use but found that they often couldn’t resist the temptations of the tiny screen.
All of this means parents need to think carefully about what they expect from caregivers—and then have a frank conversation about how and when it’s OK to use a cellphone. Rules may vary depending upon the experience and maturity of the caregiver, but here are some things to consider:
1. Clarify expectations. The first responsibility of a caregiver is to keep kids safe, and it’s all too easy to lose track of what kids are doing if you’re focused on a phone. Using a cell phone should be totally off-limits during any kind of risky activity—driving, swimming, bathing, bicycling, walking on the street or, for that matter, climbing on playground equipment. If you expect the caregiver to be interacting with your child—playing, talking, having fun—it makes sense to adopt the policy of most employers: no personal cell phone use during business hours. Be specific about what’s excluded–social media in all forms, calls and texts that aren’t related to caregiving, watching videos or listening to music with headphones.
2. What About phone fun? Smartphones are very entertaining. Depending on the age of your child and the good judgment of the caregiver, it may be perfectly acceptable for them to bond over an amusing game or a funny video. Just be sure your caregiver knows what you consider acceptable. Is it OK for your child to watch YouTube? Which apps meet your standards? What kind of music is acceptable in your house? If you have any doubts about your caregiver’s judgment, point them toward a site like commonsense.org that identifies apps, games and other media that are fun and age-appropriate.
3. Sharing is not caring. Your kids are cute. Nobody knows that better than you. A cell phone makes it way too easy to take and share adorable photos and videos. Decide in advance about what is permitted. Even if you allow your caregiver to snap a picture or record something fun, make it clear that nothing gets posted without your permission. Also, ask your caregiver not to post status updates while working for you. There’s no reason for anyone to know that you’re not at home.
4. Anticipate emergencies. A cellphone can be a lifesaver in an emergency, so encourage your caregiver to keep one close and functional. Program 911 and other emergency numbers into the phone and talk about what constitutes a crisis. How should your caregiver handle an injury or illness, a storm or power failure, an intruder? (The Red Cross has a very thorough guide for caregivers at tinyurl.com/nsvtdux.) Remember that the camera on the phone can be invaluable if the caregiver has a question about the seriousness of something like an insect bite or a scraped knee.
5. Appropriate contact. Ask your caregiver to add your contact information to his or her phone rather than leaving it on a piece of paper that might get misplaced. Be specific about the circumstances under they should contact you. If a caregiver is new or inexperienced, you may encourage questions about basics like house rules. Let your sitter know whether you prefer a call or text message. And be clear about times when you will be unavailable because you’ll be driving or in a meeting. Provide a back-up number for a spouse, a neighbor or a close friend.
6. Kiddy calls. Talk with your caregiver about whether and when it’s OK for your child to call you. Some children settle down for bed more easily if they get a quick good night from a parent. For others, knowing that Mom is a phone call away makes it harder to feel comfortable with a caregiver. If your child is old enough to have a phone of his or her own, explain that the caregiver is in charge, so you won’t be fielding questions about routine problems or complaints about siblings.
7. Be realistic. Nobody, including you, can be attentive every single minute. Talk to your caregiver about acceptable breaks. Is it OK to check in on the cellphone when a child goes down for a nap or when the kids watch a favorite show in the afternoon? Be respectful of your caregiver’s needs. Maybe he or she needs to touch base with their own children or a parent.
8. Don’t be a distraction. Yes, it’s tempting to check in on your kids, especially if you don’t leave them very often. Just remember that your caregiver can’t focus on your kids if they’re constantly being interrupted by calls and texts from you. Limit yourself to pre-set check-in times or if you have to make a change in plans. Finally, don’t be afraid to use social media to do a little screening. A quick search for your sitter’s name may alert you to other situations you’ll want to anticipate or other rules you’ll want to institute. Just be sure your cell phone policies are crystal clear before you walk out the door.
Carolyn Jabs, M.A.,has been writing Growing Up Online for ten years.
She is also the author of Cooperative Wisdom:
Bringing People Together When Things Fall Apart.
Visit cooperativewisdom.org for more information.