Q. I need help to make an objective evaluation of the child-care situation for my 1-year-old son.
I have had a babysitter come into my home ever since he was 3 months old, when I returned to work.
We couldn't ordinarily afford in-home care, but this young lady is of a low-income background, with no transportation, and is thrilled to have a job where she can walk to work and bring her own son, who is only three weeks younger than mine.
She is kind and interested in our boy and it's comforting to know he is in his own home.
Now, however, the boys are older and more mobile, and the sitter has begun to show signs of poor judgment. Once she left her baby in his stroller at the end of the driveway while she retrieved something from the house. She also has let the boys play with objects that aren't baby toys, such as ballpoint pens, old jewelry, long-handled silverware.
On another occasion she handed her baby a prescription bottle full of his antibiotic while she left the room for a moment.
I've thought about putting my son in a different situation, but I wonder if I will be sorry later. My babysitter usually is good about correcting a problem when we mention it to her, but I know we can't instill good common sense or maturity in someone who doesn't already have it.
I hate the thought of firing her, but is a day-care situation any better for my son?
A. Overall your sitter has done a good job -- working hard, taking corrections, giving value for money. She comes from a poor family but she is motivated enough to work her way out of poverty, and to do it on a dependable, day-in, day-out basis, even though she has to bring her son to work. Most of all, she seems to be good with the children and enjoys them.
Unfortunately, two bouncing baby boys would put any care-giver to the test, and -- based on just the things you know about -- her judgment hasn't passed with high marks. Baby toys aren't the only playthings, of course, but no one should ever let young children play with sharp objects, medicine bottles and jewelry, or leave the children outside, unattended.
So, yes, you probably do have to let her go, as tough as it is, but remember, she is on the cusp. Her assets have to be recognized and rewarded, so she'll be encouraged to go as far as she can.
It will take some time and trouble, but try to find a day-care center that will not only be good for your son, but will hire your sitter as an aide, if not now, then later. This isn't as unlikely as it sounds, since even a good center may lose a fourth of its employees in a year. With your sitter's warm ways and innate skills -- and with supervision -- she should be an asset on any staff.
She would benefit, too, by working in a field she likes, in a place where she could learn more about safety, about the best toys and activities for children and about new ways to solve the hundreds of surprising problems that child care involves. In addition, the center probably would give her little boy a partial scholarship, and since you live near your sitter, you could give them a ride.
Although these efforts will complicate the transition for you, your son will find it easier to have his old sitter and her little boy there. Even if they're not, however, he should be about ready for a day-care center, for he's probably talking a little and can tell his care-givers if he's got a problem. This makes day care much easier for many children.
Look for a well-run, licensed place and expect to take several mornings to interview and observe before you find the right one.
You want a center that has a large full-time staff and cares for the children in groups, so that two care-givers take care of six children under age 2; three adults are grouped with 12 2-year-olds; two adults handle 16 children between 3 and 6 -- and every one of them pays much more attention to the children than they do to each other. Indifference is the cruelest fate of all to a child.
You also want a nice balance between free play and directed play -- indoor and out -- and between active and quiet activities, as well as a director who knows so much about child development that she won't let the children be pushed, academically or physically.
The atmosphere should be fairly calm and the environment should be cheerful, with art hung at the children's eye level.
For more pointers, read "The Parents' Guide to Daycare" by Jo Ann Miller and Susan Weissman (Bantam; $8.95), a helpful book for working parents. To find the right day care in this area, get "The Metropolitan Mothers at Work Book," by N. Susan Satterfield and L. Kim Smith ($14.95), and "The Preschool & Daycare Book," by Merry Cavanaugh ($7.95), both available at Washington area bookstores.
Questions may be sent to P.O. Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.