Tiny Bullies, Big Problem

Have you ever been bullied? I believe most people have withstood some childhood bullying to some degree. This isn’t an article about how to save your kids from bullying. This is about how to save your adult self from being bullied by a child you’re babysitting. Yeah, I didn’t think that was possible either. Until last night.

It started out like any other babysitting gig I’ve worked in the past 11 years of my babysitting career. The dad greeted me at the door. I came into the family’s house where the two girls were watching my beloved Harry Potter on TV, finishing their pizza dinner. What a perfect situation for me. I love Harry Potter and they were already fed. Cool! I sat down on the couch with them and had the usual small talk you have with four- and  six-year old girls. The transition between me coming in and the parents leaving was perfectly smooth and so I thought, “Great, they’re comfortable with me now. We’ll have a great time tonight.” Boy, was I wrong.

We finished Harry Potter and moved on to a short episode of Scooby Doo before bedtime. The four-year old said she wanted to tell me a secret. This was a cute thing she did the last time I came over. She would say she wanted to tell a secret and then just whisper some random fact in my ear, not really a secret, but cute. Well, this time, she whispered, “You’re fat.”

How do you let a child know they’ve crossed a line without giving them more ammunition to hurt you later? I had no idea so all I could mutter was, “That’s not a nice thing to tell someone. You should apologize.” She looked sincerely sorry and whispered an apology. Her older sister said their dad let them know not to call me fat before I came over. I realized this must have come up earlier and now they have it in their head to not call me that but since they’re small children, they have to push the boundaries. And the younger one pushed and pushed and pushed some more. If that one whispered comment was all that happened, this would be a boring story. So thankfully for you, my dear reader, that’s not the end.

As bedtime neared, the younger one started to explode with sarcasm, rudeness, and downright bullying. She had no interest in hearing from me that she needed to brush her teeth. “Shut up!” she said as I stood in the bathroom doorway, flabbergasted. “Fat girls aren’t allowed in here!” As I continued to try my hardest to not show any emotion and keep my cool, I kept repeating my instructions, just knowing I would wear her down. I was so wrong. When it came time to read them both a book in their bed, I had so little motivation to be nice and loving. I wanted to throw all of the books out the window and slam the bedroom doors shut because I was so hurt. Since, I’m an adult who can control her emotions and actions, I sat there and read a muppet baby story. Now, I thought, this has to be the end. She’s got to go to sleep and stop this behavior. Nope. She would not listen as I instructed her to get into her pajamas and into her bed. “NO! Shut your mouth! I don’t have to listen to you. Get out of my room!” I just shut her door and went downstairs, holding in all of my anger, shock, disgust and tears. How in the world is this happening?? How can such a sweet, little four-year old girl become such a monster, bullying me, a mature and emotionally stable 27 year old??

From the time I was about 8 years old until the end of my high school days, I was made fun of for being overweight right to my face. Kids can be so cruel and brutally honest. As an adult in school or at work, I haven’t encountered direct bullying so much as overhearing comments that I wasn’t supposed to hear or noticing the looks people give when they do not approve of my size. I can read their thought bubbles hanging over their heads…”Lazy!” “Glutton!” “Beneath my social standards!” “She would be so pretty if she could lose weight.” I’ve heard and seen it all. Through all of it, I’ve managed to cope. I’ve learned to live with and love myself, and my Standard American Diet, hypothyroidism and depression, all contributing factors to my size. I’ve run through the gamut of diets, exercises, therapy, etc. etc. etc. I will not ever pretend that I haven’t contributed to my problem on my own but it’s my problem and I’m learning every day. So when I’m standing in some family’s house, hearing from a small child all of the possible insults that prey on my vast insecurities, it took all of my strength to not cry.

For a few minutes, I thought the war was over. I heard a noise and she came downstairs refusing to go to sleep. Go back to bed. Go back to bed. Go back to bed. That’s all I could say, trying to interrupt her so I couldn’t hear what she would say next. I finally texted the dad explaining the situation. To my disappointment, I received a message back saying she must be so tired and she needs her pacifier and special blanket. I was expecting shock and disbelief. I was expecting for him to say they were on their home immediately. As this small human and I continued to go round and round, she tried throwing things at me. Of course, I grabbed the items before she could throw them and let her know she was being very mean and disrespectful. As a babysitter, there is only so much you can do at this point. I had to keep my cool. She said things like, “Well you have a fat tummy and I don’t. You’ll never be like me. I’m beautiful and you’re ugly.” I finally called the dad while she was yelling at me. He told me where to find the pacifier and blanket. I gave them to her, she went upstairs and I didn’t hear a peep from her after that. Again, I expected more from her parents. I wanted to go home immediately. They didn’t come home until 4am. I sat in that house angry, sad, exhausted and in shock for five more hours than I wanted to.

When they came home, they showed general concern for me, we talked about everything that happened and all they could say was that they would continue to work with her and talk to her about this in the morning. I am not a parent so I don’t want to pretend that I have all the answers for discipline. Nobody does. Every family is different. Every child within a family is different. The older girl was a perfect angel, went to bed the first time and showed sincere sadness for me when her littler sister hurled insults at me. I don’t know what this family has been through in trying to discipline them. What I do know is that children are not born with hate and ready-made sarcasm, rudeness and insults. Those are learned. It makes me sad to think that this child has heard these things and now uses them to get what she wants.

As I am only the babysitter and not a family psychologist, I can only impart some sitter wisdom to you the reader, who may one day face this very situation. I will say that if this had happened to me 10 years ago, when I was emotionally UNstable, it would have broken me and I would have quit sitting altogether. Last night, I came close to vowing to never sit again…also to never have children, if they ever come out like that! But, this morning, I had a pep talk with myself. “You are a smart, talented, loving, giving, hard-working, independent woman. That poor child hasn’t been taught correctly and it’s no reflection on you.” I was able to dust my shoulders off, get back up from the edge of my emotional downward spiral and walk in the other direction.  I will not tolerate disrespect from an adult let alone a child. Needless to say, I will not be going back to that particular household but I will babysit again. This has been a new experience in which I can learn from and hopefully pass on learnings to others. Here are a couple of tips to prevent this situation from happening to you:

  1. Ask the right questions. Before the parents leave, ask for bedtime routine details. What is the protocol if one of the children refuse instruction? What are the magic phrases that get them to follow your word? If everything goes wrong, what are the last resorts? A special story, a pacifier, a blanket? Sitters need all the information they can get.
  2. Speak up! When a situation escalates beyond your control, call the parents and ask them to come home immediately. Don’t assume they will. They will think you’re okay unless you tell them you’re not. Don’t be afraid of them thinking less of you. You are not a failure.
  3. Know your worth. Never let a child’s words make you feel less than. Whatever stage in life you’re in, whether you’re 16 or 60, you are valuable and loved by many. Words can cut right to your core but please, get your strength from within and keep on going.
  4. Know that you are not alone in your struggles. Whether it’s your body, your hair color, your voice, etc. children are very observant and will talk about any and everything they can. Believe me, as a child myself, I said some pretty dumb things to strangers, completely embarrassing my mom. I also remember pointing out my mom’s pores on her face or her stretch marks on her thighs. “Kids say the darndest things!” Whenever they surprise you, tap into why you love children and why you love working with them. Talk to other sitters and share stories.
  5. If you realize that you are just doing “the babysitting thing” for extra money and cannot tap into your love for children, stop babysitting. Working with children is one of the hardest jobs. You need more motivation that money.

It takes a village to raise a child. I have always loved being a part of that village. I have always loved helping parents get their date night on, or a single parent go run errands. I will always love helping people. I hope by reading this you have learned something for your future sitting experiences, or simply having compassion for someone struggling. If you’re a parent, I hope you take to heart how much your babysitter really cares and loves your children while you’re away. Please listen to them and give them as much information as possible. Help the village get stronger to ensure your children have a fun and safe experience. And remember, whatever you might say around your children when you think they’re not listening, they will repeat it to their babysitter.  What are you creating in the world through your children?