One of the things I always struggle with when I'm caring for other people's kids is aligning my "parenting" style with their parents' parenting styles. I know all the textbooks say to be consistent, that kids need consistency and rules and boundaries.
Sometimes this means grilling the parents extensively on their routines and approaches to various things and trying my damndest to replicate them. I just had a long conversation with Ezra's mom about sleep training and his bedtime routine, because the more of his sleeping cues I can replicate during naptime, the better he's likely to nap. And Sasha is a perpetual snacker, so we also had a conversation about how best to limit her afterschool snacking so that she'll actually eat dinner, without grooming her for an unhealthy relationship with food and control. (Lord knows she'll get enough of that from dominant culture.)
Sometimes consistency means being consistent to my own rules, even if they're (allegedly) different from the parents' rules. Real life example from a kid I babysat last summer:
Kid: "But my moms always let me have ice cream before dinner."
Me: "Well, your moms aren't here right now so we're going with my rules, and my rule is dinner before dessert."*
Most of the time, I feel like I straddle the line between these two approaches. After all, I figure these families hired me not to be a copy of themselves, but because they trust my judgment and they value having different adults in their kids' lives who will present them with different ways to see and interact with the world.
And some of the time, I resort to the old "pick your battles" standby.
I've written before about the tug-of-war that is Sasha and reading. This week after school, as usual, Sasha asked, "Can I watch a movie?" and I replied, "Yes. After you do your 15 minutes of reading homework." I offered different reading choices, and after waving aside my suggestions, Sasha sat up suddenly and said, "What if you write sentences about what you love about me, and then I read them?"
Good enough for me. "That's a great idea! Get me a pencil and some paper."
She returned with a notepad and a big black Sharpie. Little warning bells went off in my head. Is she usually allowed to use Sharpies? Do I really want to disturb this temporary reading truce for something as relatively unimportant as what writing implement we're using?
She uncapped the Sharpie and started drawing big hearts on the paper with lines in them for writing on. I tried to subtly hand her a ballpoint pen. Nothing doing. She carefully added stars around the borders of the page. Then little hearts that she meticulously filled in. She ate more pretzels. She made faces at the fussing Ezra.
Her stalling skills are truly something to be reckoned with.
Eventually she relinquished the paper long enough for me to write a few sentences. She added unnecessary periods to the end of every line, so that it read "I love. that Sasha. is smart." (I'm sure she's the next e. e. cummings.) With prodding, she haltingly, reluctantly read the first sentence. Four more iterations of that sentence and 12 minutes of reading time to go. She had gotten some accidental Sharpie ink on her hands at this point but nothing too major. Last week she and her friend had done full-body marker art (the phrase "We're gonna have to get naked for this" was reportedly heard from Sasha's room before a parent decided to investigate) and her parents had been pretty blase about it, so I wasn't unduly worried.
She busily traced all of the letters in each sentence; good, she's developing her writing skills, I thought. This is going well.
While she was thus occupied, I turned around for 30 seconds to address Ezra's increasingly loud fussing, turned back, and Sasha had drawn long lines in Sharpie all up and down her hands, on both sides.
"Sasha. Do you know how Sharpies are different from regular markers?" I reprimanded gently.
"Yeah, Sharpies don't wash off."
I had just sent Sasha to the bathroom to wash as much of the ink as she could get off her hands when her mom walked in. I explained what had happened and fortunately, she's pretty laid back and didn't seem upset at all. She rolled her eyes and said, "She knows she's not allowed to use Sharpies."
Oh well. Kids are washable. And even Sharpie comes off eventually, thanks to our constantly regenerating skin cells.
* = (Alternative answer: "Really? And when your moms get home, if I ask them if you're allowed to have ice cream before dinner, will they say that's true?" Usually this results in a sudden and creative revision of the initial statement, such as "Actually what I meant was that they let me pick out the flavor of ice cream I want before dinner, to eat after dinner.")