A few years ago my office manager showed up late for work because her seventeen-month-old son’s baby-sitter had canceled at the last minute. (She usually brought her infant daughter to work with her.) It was the latest in a series of frustrations she was having finding someone to help her out for a dozen or so hours per week.

“I’m looking for the type of baby-sitter I was when I was in high school,” she said plaintively. “It’s a constant problem. The other parents in my neighborhood won’t give me the names of their good baby-sitters. They don’t want them to be stolen away,” she added.

Parents searching for baby-sitters often receive a crash course in microeconomics. If you’re trying to hire someone to look after your children on a summer morning or a Friday evening, you’ll soon discover that you’ve entered a seller’s market.

But with teenage sitters, the critical variable may not be how much money you offer or even what your children are like. Baby-sitters often rate their employers more by the quality and abundance of the snacks they leave than by the behavior of their children. (Having a reputation for providing two pieces of cake, a pizza, or a pint of the latest gourmet ice cream can sometimes mean the difference between finding a sitter and not.)

Adults who baby-sit — not including those who provide full-time childcare either in their home or in yours — are relatively rare. While older adolescents may have the maturity and reliability parents want, they often prefer to take jobs in fast-food restaurants since they see them as offering higher status. That’s partly because, unlike baby-sitting, there’s a minimum age for such workers. (Actually, teenagers and adults can sometimes make more money baby-sitting even through they may have a lower hourly wage, since they’re almost always paid in cash and seldom report the income on their tax returns.)

That leaves the younger adolescents, who may not have the maturity and judgment you want in someone who cares for your child, even for a few hours. One response to the shortage of older, experienced babysitters has been the development of formal courses and videotapes that help early adolescents learn the rudiments of childcare.

Baby-sitting courses are now offered by the Red Cross, YMCAs, churches and synagogues, and Scouting groups. In addition to learning how to change a diaper and play with a toddler, such training often emphasizes what to do in a crisis, such as a fire or a medical emergency. The courses include basic first aid and CPR, as well as elementary work etiquette. (“Never eat the first or the last piece of anything in the refrigerator” is a common guideline.) There are also some programs on videotape that help young teenagers and even experienced baby-sitters learn some of the tricks of the trade, review emergency procedures, and give them some insight into child development.

These courses and videotapes also provide teenagers with a much-needed sense of status for what they’re doing. Young adolescents respond very well to the “professionalism” that goes along with a Scouting merit badge or a diploma from completing a course in baby-sitting. The certificates are tangible signs that they are progressing toward some of the responsibilities and privileges of adulthood. For many children, baby-sitting is a way to test new approaches to relating to adults as peers rather than superiors. Being aware of adolescents’ needs to see signs of their development into young adults can make hiring and retaining baby-sitters easier for parents.

Here are some things you can do when you’re looking for and working with a baby-sitter that can make things easier for everyone involved:

  • Interview prospective sitters during the daytime, ideally a few days before you need them. Be clear about your expectations such as when they will arrive and what they will do for your children. Talk about what they’ll be paid and what types of food you’ll leave for them to eat.

    Remember the adolescent’s need for social status. The more you treat them like employees instead of just children from the neighborhood, the more likely they’ll rise to your expectations and standards, and follow your instructions.

  • Ask specific questions about how she would handle an emergency, such as a child who bumped his head, a small fire in the kitchen, or a power outage. Also ask about safety issues, such as what she would do if she were bathing the child and the telephone rang. (She should simply let it ring.)

    You might even ask her to role-play what she would say if your child was injured or if someone knocked on the door. Remember that your having high but realistic standards for the job will often make it more attractive.

  • Pay the baby-sitter to spend some time with your child while you are there. Let the child get used to the sitter, and let the sitter learn, for example, how you prepare your baby’s bottle or the rituals you use to put her to bed.
  • In addition to leaving written information on where you can be reached and information about the child’s bedtime and feeding, it’s a good idea to show the sitter where you keep such things as flashlights and first-aid supplies. You should also write down and show her such things as where the fuse box or circuit breakers are, where the shut-off valve for the water is, and other emergency measures.
  • Have an emergency information sheet near the telephone that, in addition to emergency phone numbers and the name and number of a nearby friend or relative, lists your name and street address. During the stress of an emergency, a baby-sitter may give the police, ambulance, or fire department her own home address instead of yours.
  • Give the baby-sitter a spare set of keys to keep in her pocket. A pediatrician friend of mine who runs an emergency phone service says that they regularly receive phone calls from baby-sitters who have locked themselves out of the house, leaving the children inside.