Can babysitting aunt put kids in time-out?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  July 11, 2011 06:00 AM

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I baby sit my niece and nephew on a daily basis. At their house they practically get away with murder, and I have different rules at my house. I don't allow food in my living room, or for the kids to go outside without supervision. My question is... Is it ok for me as their aunt, when they are at my house to put them in time out if needed? I have been trying to do a marble jar where they can earn marbles for good behavior, but they get taken away if they disobey rules. But they seem to not care when I take them out. They play nicely with my daughter, but when I have found Ranch Dressing all over my living room carpet and couch, I feel this is where a time out is necessary. Any advise?

Dear Auntie,

It's not only OK but absolutely appropriate for you to discipline kids in your charge, especially when they are there on a daily basis. Kids understand that different homes have different rules; one of my favorite lines with visiting children has always been, "In our house, we (fill in the blank)." It's a way to differentiate without passing judgment.

I also love your marble reward system, but if it is working, it may be because they are too young or because the rewards are too far in the distance or insignificant for them to understand/care. Ditto for time-out. It doesn't always work, especially if kids are too immature to understand the concept. Review what makes it work (or not) here.

So what to do instead? When appropriate, the best discipline by far is natural consequences, in this case, getting out the cleaning tools and supervising them in the clean up of the Ranch dressing. Yeah, it's a lot of work but believe me, that'll stick with them in a way that time-out never would.

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14 comments so far...
  1. I absolutely agree with Barbara that it is appropriate to discipline the children you are caring for. I do think that it is worth considering that locale matters; if you are caring for a child in the child's own home, it may be worthwhile to have a chat with the parent and discuss appropriate discipline techniques. But yes, different home, different rules.

    I can't stress how important it is that you must have some way to exercise control when you are providing childcare. As a caregiver, and not the parent, the risk assumed in caring for others' children is high. Nobody likes to think about worst case scenarios, but as the adult in charge, a caregiver absolutely must have a way to keep control. I once terminated a childcare relationship because the parents were very laissez faire about their kid's behavior. I am willing work with parents to meet their own parenting ideologies, but I must have something to work with. Its too risky for me not to be able to have any power in the care relationship.

    Posted by SB July 12, 11 07:12 AM
  1. If the kids are old enough to carry food into the living room and eat, they are old enough to understand time-out. Just make it age appropriate. To a 3 year old 3 minutes is an eternity. Sit with kids when they eat and put all the food away when they're done so that it is clear that eat is done in the kitchen or the dining room table (or wherever) and model the behavior yourself. If you are their everyday guardian (especially in your own house) you set the rules.

    Posted by Inf July 12, 11 07:32 AM
  1. This letter brought back wonderful memories - I am (for the past 25 years) the step-mom to 4 amazing now young adults. When I met them they were 5, 5, 6 and 11 and were not used to the idea of picking up after themselves, having chores, having any responsibilities... (Their mother wanted them to stay 'children' forever.)

    They learned that when they were in our house, they were expected to do certain things and learned that there were consequences to their actions (both good and bad). Funny thing, when their mother complained about the messes they left, we could say that the kids didn't do that at our house because we held them accountable. Don't think it ever sunk in with her, but now the 'kids' are all parents and are sharing age appropropriate rules with their little ones.

    Posted by thetealady July 12, 11 07:38 AM
  1. You should also have a talk with the children's parents to reinforce that the rules at your house are different and that you are indeed in charge while the parents are away.

    The parents should also know that your "free babysitting service" will only put up with so much.

    Posted by J July 12, 11 07:39 AM
  1. I think that, absolutely, you can put your neice and nephew in time out in your home but maybe you ought to save that particular tactic for truly serious offences--aggression or safety issues.

    As a mother of nine I've found that I need to use different strategies with different kids. With the few tough nuts I've had to crack positive reinforcement has worked best. In other words, your marble jar is a great idea. It sounds, however, like your neice and nephew are finding it a bit abstract. It seems to me that they could use some more instant gratification. Give them a prize at the end of the day for not taking food out of your kitchen or for waiting for you to go outdoors. Let them be in on deciding what the reward will be--some things at my house have been silly bands, a special treat for like gummies for their lunch box, being allowed to use video games for 30min. You could even give prizes throughout the day--"If stay in the kitchen with your food this morning I can give you a snack-size Snickers to enjoy with your lunch."

    If the kids find it difficult to obey your rules even with the idea of a reward for doing so you could make it a little less challenging for them to start with. Use a 1-2-3 approach. I'm working on that right now with a couple of my kids who are having a hard time doing what they're told the first time I say it. I offer them the chance to earn three silly bands a day by doing so. They begin with three but the first time they don't listen I say, "That's one," and one silly band disappears. If they get to three they don't get silly bands at all that day.

    One final bit of advice, to begin with give them an easy opportunity to earn rewards too--something you know they can succeed at. That way they don't feel defeated by the hard stuff immediately and the positive experience right out of the gate will help motivate them to keep going.

    I hope that helps!

    Posted by Erin July 12, 11 07:51 AM
  1. Absolutely put them in time out, and don't feel guilty at all about it. If they're in there tearing up your house, then you put your foot down about what's acceptable and not acceptable! You're very good to watch them every day, so your house, your rules! Who knows, maybe your rules and guidance will rub off and they'll take it home with them too!

    Posted by tlo July 12, 11 08:01 AM
  1. It's appropriate to punish them when you are babysitting them (especially if it's kids that you babysit regularly). I think it's a smart idea to discuss in advance what your disciplinary tools are with the parent of the kids though. If the parent doesn't like it, then they can pull the kid. If they are okay with it, then you can proceed and know that you have their full support.

    Posted by mmg2 July 12, 11 08:19 AM
  1. Yes! You can put children in time out whether your the aunt or the babysitter. In addition, I would talk with your sister or brother about the incident and let them know for future incidents this is how you will be handling it.

    Posted by Lisa July 12, 11 08:46 AM
  1. Of course you can. I babysit my neice at least once a month and I told my sis and my neice - when she is in my care - she has to listen to my rules or we either do nothing for the rest of the day or I take her home. She does need a few minutes to calm down and she does come to the realization that she does want to do something. Try it and it just might surprise you that kids nowadays do need some discipline/ rules to ground them.

    Posted by buppity July 12, 11 09:02 AM
  1. Try modeling the behaviour you wish to achieve.

    When you find ranch dressing all over your living room carpet and couch it begs the question, where were you?

    Establishing a set of rules and announcing the penalties for infractions is the way things are set up in (very) general society. This actually does not work well for young, curious human beings and, reading the daily score in the morning paper, seems to be equally ineffective overall.

    The purpose of parents and those older and more experienced than small children is to show how things are properly done and demonstrate that there are benefits and fun in all of it. Of course, this may well explain why our culture continues to perpetuate its nonsense.

    Still, when we model, observe, coach, and then step back and watch, we may be surprised to find the rule book is no longer needed, and never worked anyway.

    Posted by Mark Richards July 12, 11 09:10 AM
  1. I agree that making the kids clean up their messes (and sticking to that regiment) will be more effective than a time out. What will work better is "no food outside of the kitchen at any time". Sometimes this is inconvenient for the adults, but with children around, the adults sometimes must sacrifice their wants for the sake of setting the example.

    Posted by Jean O'Brien July 12, 11 09:15 AM
  1. Absolutely. If not, don't do it - it's that simple.

    Posted by ME July 12, 11 11:31 AM
  1. It's really sad how this has changed over generations. I was often "babysat" by my aunts or neighbors. When my mother left, the adult was in charge - no questions asked. Now, people are so afraid of stepping on toes, they question everything. We need more old-style grandma's....

    Posted by ME July 12, 11 11:34 AM
  1. I am going to clear up where I was when the Ranch accident happened. My daughter is 9 months. I am still nursing, and so I was in the other room doing that. I do appreciate all the comments, and have decided that a timeout is not going to hurt them, and as long as they are safe and taken care of things are going to be ok.

    Posted by Margo July 13, 11 12:47 PM
 
14 comments so far...
  1. I absolutely agree with Barbara that it is appropriate to discipline the children you are caring for. I do think that it is worth considering that locale matters; if you are caring for a child in the child's own home, it may be worthwhile to have a chat with the parent and discuss appropriate discipline techniques. But yes, different home, different rules.

    I can't stress how important it is that you must have some way to exercise control when you are providing childcare. As a caregiver, and not the parent, the risk assumed in caring for others' children is high. Nobody likes to think about worst case scenarios, but as the adult in charge, a caregiver absolutely must have a way to keep control. I once terminated a childcare relationship because the parents were very laissez faire about their kid's behavior. I am willing work with parents to meet their own parenting ideologies, but I must have something to work with. Its too risky for me not to be able to have any power in the care relationship.

    Posted by SB July 12, 11 07:12 AM
  1. If the kids are old enough to carry food into the living room and eat, they are old enough to understand time-out. Just make it age appropriate. To a 3 year old 3 minutes is an eternity. Sit with kids when they eat and put all the food away when they're done so that it is clear that eat is done in the kitchen or the dining room table (or wherever) and model the behavior yourself. If you are their everyday guardian (especially in your own house) you set the rules.

    Posted by Inf July 12, 11 07:32 AM
  1. This letter brought back wonderful memories - I am (for the past 25 years) the step-mom to 4 amazing now young adults. When I met them they were 5, 5, 6 and 11 and were not used to the idea of picking up after themselves, having chores, having any responsibilities... (Their mother wanted them to stay 'children' forever.)

    They learned that when they were in our house, they were expected to do certain things and learned that there were consequences to their actions (both good and bad). Funny thing, when their mother complained about the messes they left, we could say that the kids didn't do that at our house because we held them accountable. Don't think it ever sunk in with her, but now the 'kids' are all parents and are sharing age appropropriate rules with their little ones.

    Posted by thetealady July 12, 11 07:38 AM
  1. You should also have a talk with the children's parents to reinforce that the rules at your house are different and that you are indeed in charge while the parents are away.

    The parents should also know that your "free babysitting service" will only put up with so much.

    Posted by J July 12, 11 07:39 AM
  1. I think that, absolutely, you can put your neice and nephew in time out in your home but maybe you ought to save that particular tactic for truly serious offences--aggression or safety issues.

    As a mother of nine I've found that I need to use different strategies with different kids. With the few tough nuts I've had to crack positive reinforcement has worked best. In other words, your marble jar is a great idea. It sounds, however, like your neice and nephew are finding it a bit abstract. It seems to me that they could use some more instant gratification. Give them a prize at the end of the day for not taking food out of your kitchen or for waiting for you to go outdoors. Let them be in on deciding what the reward will be--some things at my house have been silly bands, a special treat for like gummies for their lunch box, being allowed to use video games for 30min. You could even give prizes throughout the day--"If stay in the kitchen with your food this morning I can give you a snack-size Snickers to enjoy with your lunch."

    If the kids find it difficult to obey your rules even with the idea of a reward for doing so you could make it a little less challenging for them to start with. Use a 1-2-3 approach. I'm working on that right now with a couple of my kids who are having a hard time doing what they're told the first time I say it. I offer them the chance to earn three silly bands a day by doing so. They begin with three but the first time they don't listen I say, "That's one," and one silly band disappears. If they get to three they don't get silly bands at all that day.

    One final bit of advice, to begin with give them an easy opportunity to earn rewards too--something you know they can succeed at. That way they don't feel defeated by the hard stuff immediately and the positive experience right out of the gate will help motivate them to keep going.

    I hope that helps!

    Posted by Erin July 12, 11 07:51 AM
  1. Absolutely put them in time out, and don't feel guilty at all about it. If they're in there tearing up your house, then you put your foot down about what's acceptable and not acceptable! You're very good to watch them every day, so your house, your rules! Who knows, maybe your rules and guidance will rub off and they'll take it home with them too!

    Posted by tlo July 12, 11 08:01 AM
  1. It's appropriate to punish them when you are babysitting them (especially if it's kids that you babysit regularly). I think it's a smart idea to discuss in advance what your disciplinary tools are with the parent of the kids though. If the parent doesn't like it, then they can pull the kid. If they are okay with it, then you can proceed and know that you have their full support.

    Posted by mmg2 July 12, 11 08:19 AM
  1. Yes! You can put children in time out whether your the aunt or the babysitter. In addition, I would talk with your sister or brother about the incident and let them know for future incidents this is how you will be handling it.

    Posted by Lisa July 12, 11 08:46 AM
  1. Of course you can. I babysit my neice at least once a month and I told my sis and my neice - when she is in my care - she has to listen to my rules or we either do nothing for the rest of the day or I take her home. She does need a few minutes to calm down and she does come to the realization that she does want to do something. Try it and it just might surprise you that kids nowadays do need some discipline/ rules to ground them.

    Posted by buppity July 12, 11 09:02 AM
  1. Try modeling the behaviour you wish to achieve.

    When you find ranch dressing all over your living room carpet and couch it begs the question, where were you?

    Establishing a set of rules and announcing the penalties for infractions is the way things are set up in (very) general society. This actually does not work well for young, curious human beings and, reading the daily score in the morning paper, seems to be equally ineffective overall.

    The purpose of parents and those older and more experienced than small children is to show how things are properly done and demonstrate that there are benefits and fun in all of it. Of course, this may well explain why our culture continues to perpetuate its nonsense.

    Still, when we model, observe, coach, and then step back and watch, we may be surprised to find the rule book is no longer needed, and never worked anyway.

    Posted by Mark Richards July 12, 11 09:10 AM
  1. I agree that making the kids clean up their messes (and sticking to that regiment) will be more effective than a time out. What will work better is "no food outside of the kitchen at any time". Sometimes this is inconvenient for the adults, but with children around, the adults sometimes must sacrifice their wants for the sake of setting the example.

    Posted by Jean O'Brien July 12, 11 09:15 AM
  1. Absolutely. If not, don't do it - it's that simple.

    Posted by ME July 12, 11 11:31 AM
  1. It's really sad how this has changed over generations. I was often "babysat" by my aunts or neighbors. When my mother left, the adult was in charge - no questions asked. Now, people are so afraid of stepping on toes, they question everything. We need more old-style grandma's....

    Posted by ME July 12, 11 11:34 AM
  1. I am going to clear up where I was when the Ranch accident happened. My daughter is 9 months. I am still nursing, and so I was in the other room doing that. I do appreciate all the comments, and have decided that a timeout is not going to hurt them, and as long as they are safe and taken care of things are going to be ok.

    Posted by Margo July 13, 11 12:47 PM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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