As I learned from being a terrible babysitter, the best bosses don’t freak out when mistakes are made and give their employees time to get better at their job.
I don’t have kids. But I’ve got to think that trusting your children with a babysitter can be a nerve-wracking experience. Particularly if that babysitter is someone like me or my brother Nicholas.
Like many teenagers, Nicholas and I made a few extra bucks babysitting. And with an extended family as large as ours, there was never a shortage of ankle-biters to keep us busy. As grateful as I’m sure my aunts and uncles were to have an evening out to themselves, let me be clear: we were not good babysitters in the beginning.
For starters, we probably scarred our cousin Erinn for life. Looking after Erinn and her three older siblings started out as a pretty solid gig: my aunt and uncle’s farm boasted a barn for kick-ass games of hide-and-seek, better snacks than we had at home and a VHS collection featuring an all-you-can-watch Disney buffet.
However, as Erinn took a massive dump in her diaper, we soon realized that babysitting wasn’t all fizzy pop and Little Mermaid sing-alongs. Holding her as far from me as possible, I carried the filthy sewage baby to the bathroom. Meanwhile, Nicholas recruited Erinn’s big sister Angela to walk us through this diaper-changing ordeal.
Nicholas and I gagged in unison as I peeled back the diaper to reveal the unholy mess contained within. Over the course of several traumatic minutes, we cleaned up Erinn’s befouled butt. Only when the dirty diaper was disposed of and Erinn in a reasonable state of cleanliness did we dare allow ourselves to breathe once more.
“OK, now the cream,” instructed Angela, pointing to a jar next to the change table.
Nicholas and I exchanged confused looks. “You have to put the cream on her so she doesn’t get a rash,” she explained.
“How?” I asked, dreading the answer.
“With your hand,” Angela said.
Nope. Nope nope nope. Mopping up feces with baby wipes was one thing. But smearing cream onto a naked baby’s butt? Forget about it.
Still, we had a job to do. And after some consideration, I popped out to the kitchen and began rummaging around. A minute later I returned with a butter knife in hand. Unscrewing the lid of the jar of diaper rash cream, I dug in and proceeded to butter up Errin’s butt as if I was icing a cake.
A rather elegant solution if you ask me.
Once we had Erinn properly buttered up, we slapped a fresh diaper on her, plopped the knife into the kitchen sink and made it back to the living room in time to hear Ursula the Sea Witch sing “Poor Unfortunate Soul.”
I’m sure by this point Angela was questioning the wisdom of her parents’ babysitter choices.
Then there was Ria. Oh dear lord — Ria. To put it mildly, Ria had the temperament of a honey badger with hemorrhoids. Judging by her lung capacity, the rage-filled rug rat seemed destined to be either an opera singer or an Olympic athlete (assuming of course the demon child couldn’t find a job as a hope-stealing Eater of Souls).
From the moment her parents left the house, Ria wailed. Standing in her crib, Ria would grab the rails, throw her head back and scream. For hours. The house trembled as the shrieking banshee made it very clear how she felt about babysitters. Naturally, Nicholas and I were useless at calming her down. No amount of comforting, bribing, cajoling or ignoring could soothe the savage beast.
She was the Breaker of Babysitters. And she was very good at her job.
My babysitting career was peppered with face-palms and fails. But despite coming home to cream-smeared butter knives and screaming babies, our aunts and uncles continued to throw us into the thick of things. And sure enough, with time and practice, we started to get the hang of it.
Although I never found a way to calm Ria down or got comfortable with baby bums, I learned how to keep my cousins entertained and how to make a mean bologna sandwich. Slowly but surely, I grew from awful to adequate. And for five bucks an hour, that was good enough for me.
Letting go of control
Handing over the reins can be scary. I’ve had my share of my-way-or-the-highway micromanagers and bosses who had a real hard time letting go of control. But I’ve also had really positive experiences. Indeed, the best bosses I’ve had were the ones who were ok with me screwing up — as long as I learned from my mistakes. They were the ones that let me fail forward, understanding that the only way I was going to get better was by actually doing the work.
If you’re in a managerial position, learn to let go. Give your employees responsibilities to sink their teeth into — even if there’s a good chance they’ll bite their tongue in the process. It not only gives them the experience they need to get better at their job, but it often motivates them to work harder as they feel a sense of ownership over a project.
When problems do happen, see it as an opportunity to help your employees grow. Chew them out and slap their wrists if you must, but be sure to take the time to explain why a butter knife shouldn’t be involved in the diaper-changing process. And afterwards, don’t be afraid to hand over the reins again.
If you’re an employee, resist the urge to get defensive when a mistake has been made. Instead, take accountability for your actions and figure out a better way forward. Finally, cut yourself some slack. Everybody makes mistakes and usually the only way to become good at something is by making tonnes of them. Whether it’s changing diapers, learning new software or perfecting a sales pitch, give yourself time to get your feet under you cool it on the self-flagellation.
Like these stories? You’ll find a whole whack of them — more than 50 in fact — in my book Simple(ton) Living: Lessons in balance from life’s absurd moments.