Dear Carolyn: I am an unmarried male with no kids who has been dating a divorcee with two boys, 6 and 3 (her now ex-husband cheated on her). What age is appropriate for me to baby-sit them alone?
I ask this because I was given this duty this past weekend. I did not volunteer for it, and supposedly did it badly and got yelled at in front of her kids for it.
The younger was one room away, playing in the sink, making soapy water things, which he commonly does, while I set up a DVD for the older boy. Despite my checking on him several times, the younger one took blue water (the older son's artwork) and dumped it in a borrowed cooler.
I told my girlfriend about the incident when she returned, and she accused me of not watching her sons adequately and yelled at me in front of both of them.
I have no child-rearing or baby-sitting experience and am at a loss.
I got angry and said, "I am not your nanny, but only your boyfriend." I washed out the cooler.
Her response the next day was "I figured since you are a physician that you could manage watching my kids for 10 minutes."
This argument has me questioning this relationship, especially given her continued arguing and rebuttals. It has also made me question more what happened in her marriage, since I now wonder whether the ex-husband was not respected at home.
Carolyn says: That's often how it happens -- their words tell their side of the story, then their own behavior tells you the ex's side.
But I'll start with your opening question, because it helps answer the others: Children of any age can be left with an inexperienced baby sitter, as long as that sitter has maturity, general competence and any necessary instructions. The first two were up to you, and it appears as if you did fine.
The third is on your girlfriend. If her toddler needed and if she expected same-room supervision, then she needed to say so -- certainly to a rookie, and especially if she was going to hold you so strictly accountable.
You owed her an apology for your goof, which I hope you offered ungrudgingly. She, meanwhile, owed it to you to maintain self-control long enough to realize that you meant, and did, no harm. I'll give her half a pass for getting upset, since just knowing a kid was under-attended can set parental imaginations flying.
But there's no excuse for her deflecting her share of the responsibility once she had time to cool off. If you've represented her role in this fairly, her share includes: under-preparing you; yelling at you (bad on its own, worse with kids watching); perpetuating the myth that perfect supervision exists; failing to recognize the buck always stops with the parent; and mounting a loopy defense. You have medical training, so you know how sudsy 3-year-olds think? Yeah.
It's fair to question whether she's always this tough on others and light on herself. And, you might already know the answer: Does she allow for a nuanced view of her failed marriage? Or is it just, he cheated, his fault?
Whether she accepts her own weaknesses says everything about her strength as a partner for you.