Kids are a handful.

The three kids I babysit (ages 6, 8, and 11) are sweet and cheerful and I love them, but they are so much work. And I’m only with them 10 hours a week.

When I started the babysitting job, I was told that they aren’t allowed to play with each other because they  play too rough and they fight. There are no limits on how much TV/video games they can watch, and there are enough TVs in the two-story house for every kid to watch something different. They don’t like to read, and although they all have summer homework to complete, they throw a fit every time the topic is breached. And to top it all off, the parents would prefer if we don’t play outside because one boy is allergic to pollen and one is allergic to mosquito bites.

So that leaves me with… what?

What do I do with these kids?

The first day, I sat back and let them do whatever they wanted to, just to get a feel for how they interact. The youngest peed his pants and the oldest hit the middle child.

Okay, so obviously they need some structure.

The next day, I forced them to watch TV the whole time, and while it went smoothly, no one had fun. Strike two.

On one sunny day, I rang the doorbell and three pairs of feet dashed to the door. As soon as I stepped inside, they bombarded me with pleas to go to the park. Although I had been previously told this was a bad idea, their mom (who was still there) agreed and off we went.

They were so excited to get their bikes out of the garage and put on their helmets. They raced all the way to the street corner and then back to me, then to the corner and back again until I reached the street. Then we’d cross and they’d do it again. Once we reached the park, they swarmed the jungle gym, wanting to play “Transformers” all over the set. I was impressed because this was the first time I had seen an interest in creative and imaginative games. So we crawled all over the park until it started raining. Then they wanted to play outside with their water guns, which at first seemed like something that fell under the category of “they can’t play together because they don’t get along”, but they were so excited that I had to let them do it. And it was wonderful. They ran around in the yard for almost an hour with no problems at all.

I started to have my doubts about the alleged fact that they can’t get along. Maybe they simply have never had a constructive way to play, with rules and accountability. I had noticed already that each kid had a bad habit that made them hard to get along with. The oldest would get violent quickly if provoked, the middle would whine if he didn’t get his way, and the youngest would cheat if he wasn’t winning.

But I didn’t want those habits to grow up with them. If kids don’t play, what makes them a kid? I thought it was really unfortunate for them that they couldn’t bond with each other in that way. So I tried to trick them.

One day, we were watching Transformers (how many times have we seen this?) and the youngest asked Can we play Transformers? Although I my usual response was No, your mom says you shouldn’t play, I decided to try something new. The other two kids were in a different room watching TV, so we played a one-on-one game of Transformers and he absolutely loved it. He led me all over the house, flying and smashing and fixing (all imagined, of course). But then we caught the attention of the middle child. He wanted to join in.

I was nervous at first, since this is what I was supposed to avoid, but how do you tell a kid they’re not allowed to play with you when you’re letting his brother play?

So the three of us played Transformers, and it went surprisingly well. They mostly took turns giving directions, and there was no fighting. When their dad came home, they asked me to stay.

That’s when I knew that even though the parents told me I shouldn’t let them play, that was the reason I had to. I just had to do it the right way.

So the next day, I gathered the three kids and asked, What do you want to do today?

They all yelled, TAG! So, we played tag.

But that turned out to be a bad idea. The youngest tripped on a blanket and almost hit his head on the wall. Then the middle and oldest got in a fight about who tagged who and the oldest stomped away angrily saying, I hate brothers!

I had done something wrong. And I almost gave up on my conquest, but after sitting in front of the TV for three hours, I knew I had to figure something else out. It took several more failed tag sessions to discover it:

It’s not that they can’t get along, it’s that they need certain rules in place.

Running games are bad because people can get hurt. But Hide and Seek is a perfectly acceptable game! And so is Hide and Clap, a game of their own invention involving a blindfold. And with extra rules to make it possible for the youngest to win, like a limited number of times you can run away, everybody stays happy because everyone can win. We came up with a fair system to decide who’s “It”, a game called Blue Shoes (better than Rock Paper Scissors because you can’t cheat), and now no one thinks it’s unfair. We made rules about hitting and rules about stopping when someone says “ow” or “no”. We made rules about hiding only in the basement, otherwise it’s too hard for the youngest.

And with all these rules in place, they’re really sweet to each other. They giggle and squeal and laugh until they can’t breathe. They’ve even suggested rules to make it easier for their younger brother, who can’t count to 50 (the designated number) and therefore can’t be “It” for Hide and Seek.

The first time they wanted to have a pillow fight, I was against it. But seeing them interact so well in the other games gave me confidence, so today I allowed it. Guess what? No crying, fighting, or hurting.

I’ve learned to listen for when yells of happiness turn into yelps of pain. I’ve learned to pick out the “ows” among the giggles. I’ve learned to put on my strict voice and order a child to their room when they throw a fit (which I could never do before) and then to make them feel better when they come out. I’ve learned you have to remind them not to go in the street every time you go outside, otherwise they will. I’ve made bad decisions with them that have led to fights and scrapes and almost crossing the street without looking. Once I let them go to the park when it was already raining, because they didn’t care, but then we got caught in a hailstorm.

But I’ve learned a lot from them, just as I hope they’re learning from me. I hope that when I leave them after this summer, they remember how there have to be some rules to have fun and they remember to be considerate and nice. I hope some of the things I say stick in their head, like Don’t talk with food in your mouth, or Remember to flush the toilet. 

It was a hard choice to break the rules. I didn’t want to go against what their mom had told me, but it’s natural for kids to play. And at first, I had the same negative results as she did. But I learned to get over the initial reactions of the kids. Often when they hit their head on a pole, they don’t even notice! But if you make a big deal of it, then they will too. The same goes for crying. A full-blown tantrum was turned into a five-minute cry when I closed the boy in his room and continued playing with the other kids. He decided it was more fun to get over it and keep playing.

They have to figure some things out for themselves. They have to learn that people don’t like playing with cheaters or criers or hitters. And the only way they will learn is if they experience it themselves.

So do I regret breaking one of the only rules the parents gave me?

Not at all 🙂

Share your babysitting or rule-breaking stories in the comments! Happy reading!