How to Set Limits With the Adult Whose Kid You are Babysitting

Dear Kid Whisperer,

I care for my seven-year-old niece two times a week so her mom can get things done around the house and so I can spend time with her daughter. After a month, her behavior is starting to come around (it was terrible at first). Nevertheless, her mother doesn’t like the way I do things with her daughter. She doesn’t like her child suffering consequences or going to a room until she can be pleasant. It’s becoming a real point of contention, even though everyone is aware that my niece’s behaviors are improving when she is with me. What do I do? -Kim, Columbus, Ohio


It’s time to set some limits with an adult.

It’s not your sister-in-law’s fault that she doesn’t know how to set and enforce limits with her kid. No one taught her how.

The key to this situation is to avoid the temptation to share your successful strategies with your sister-in-law. “I learned how to handle your kid and let me bestow this knowledge upon you” has never been well-received one time in the history of the world.

While you should never give unsolicited advice to your sister-in-law about how she should handle a kid who is under her care, she should afford you the same courtesy. You are in charge when you have her kid. She is free to take her kid from you whenever she wants, but you have your ways of doing things, and that’s that. Here’s how I would handle your situation. Let’s just say that this conversation occurs on the phone.

Sister-in-law: I need to talk with you about something. From now on don’t tell my daughter that she has to leave the room if she’s being rude. She has very delicate self-esteem and being rude is one of the only things she’s good at, so…

Kid Whisperer: I will be using my own ways of dealing with your daughter while I am taking care of her. Feel free to use your ways of working with your kid when she’s with you.

Sister-in-law: But, please, I would really appreciate it if from now on you applied the bubble wrap I have provided to my child whenever she walks outside…

Kid Whisperer: And what did I say about that?

Sister-in-law: But I’ve read that people aren’t strong enough to be held accountable for their actions until they are 37 years old, so…

Kid Whisperer: And what did I say about that? Oh, dear. This doesn’t feel constructive. I’m going to get off the phone here in a moment. I believe you are scheduled to drop her off to me tomorrow morning at 8:00 am. If I see you both on my doorstep at that time, I will assume you have decided to allow me to use my personal babysitting rules. If I do not see you, I will assume you have decided to do something different with her. I hope to see you both tomorrow.

In the morning, if Sister-in-law drops off without comment or critique, Kid Whisperer accepts the seven-year-old package. If any comments are made or any negotiations are attempted, Kid Whisperer calmly asks “And what did I say about that?” If anything is said after that besides sincere expressions of  appreciation and a goodbye, Kid Whisperer repeats his question, escorts the family members to the door, and begins enjoying his time off.