Maybe it was because I had eight younger brothers and sisters and three older siblings that the other parents in the neighborhood thought it was logical to call on me and my sisters to babysit their children. My sisters and I all had pretty steady gigs as babysitters well into our teens.
We got a whopping 50 cents an hour, pretty good cash for a 13-year-old. I don't remember ever getting a raise during those babysitting business years. Once in a while I would receive a tip for staying well past midnight a few times or for cleaning up the dinner dishes while the children slept.
Watching after kids was second nature in a family and neighborhood full of children. It took skill to balance a baby on your hip while helping another child onto a tricycle. They don't teach those things in any book; you just do it.
Not all of my babysitting experiences included "little darlings" who behaved in my care. Some began to cry or throw a tantrum the minute their parents' VW sped out of the driveway. Those were challenging times but I soon learned the secret to convincing any child that I was not the enemy.
It was very simple - books. Not just any book, but colorful books with soothing stories. None of those Grimm's fairy tales would do; they were too dark and scary. Most of the kids I sat with had their favorite storybooks but sometimes I would bring a few well-worn Golden Books along from my family's overflowing bookshelf .
At one home, there were two rambunctious little boys who would jump on the beds and wrestle around until I thought they would literally fall through their bedroom floor. I soon learned that they could be tamed by sitting down on the couch with a good book, with both of the tots propped on either side of me. It took a little urging at first, but soon they dragged a blanket or pillow along until we were comfortably situated, immersed in a story of puppies, trains and airplanes. Sometimes they would interject their own experiences or create a new ending to a story.
Now I know it's easier to plunk a kid down in front of the television or entertain them with a movie on tape or CD, but you don't get the added benefits of smelling that freshly baby-shampooed hair or getting a hug as a thank-you for reading them a story.
When our own son came along, I often reached for his favorite read-to-me book, "No Jumping on the Bed" and my pick "A Little Excitement." His love of reading took us on many trips to Alan Lestini's Words and Music and the public library. Whether it was the latest in a series of "Goosebumps" books or something a little more studious, I knew it was one of the best gifts a child could receive.
So take a little advice from this seasoned babysitter and arm yourselves with a bunch of good books. Turn the pages slowly and watch the magic of the written word happen around you and your little ones.
Heather Ziegler can be reached via email at hziegler@the intelligencer.net.