Virtual babysitting: A small patch for the childcare challenge


COVID-19: As scientists, we can glory in our community’s creativity and use of technology in generating multiple vaccines in record time, while at the same time we watch in horror as the pandemic exposes the inequities and lack of resources in our societies. Scarcity of childcare resources and the need for remote schooling are hurting our junior and mid-career colleagues as they try to juggle parenting and their careers, which are already stressed by COVID-19 challenges. These difficult times call for multiple creative and flexible solutions.

I want to share an example of how I’ve been using the Internet to “babysit” on a regular basis, which may help scientists who are parents and in need of available, safe childcare, as well as those of us who are grandparents or just very good friends.

Scarcity of childcare resources and the need for remote schooling are hurting our junior and mid-career colleagues….

My husband and I are on the U.S. East Coast and our adult son and his wife are on the West Coast, working full-time jobs from home while parenting their kindergartener. Parenting has become another full-time job now that their daughter’s school is closed. We had two goals in providing help: to give the parents some free time, and to maintain our relationship with our grandchild (especially once we realized that we might not see her in person for 20% or more of her young life).

Virtual babysitting is technically easy. Here’s what is needed: a collaborating adult at each end to initiate the call using FaceTime on compatible electronics (iPad, iPhone, Mac computer), Google Hangouts on other devices, or Zoom.

My specific examples are for three- to five-year olds, and you can make age-appropriate adaptations for older kids. I block one hour on my daily calendar although the required time is typically a bit less. These virtual times with grandparents (or loving aunts/uncles/friends) can be rewarding for all: the sitter, the parent, and the child.

These virtual times with grandparents…can be rewarding for all: the sitter, the parent, and the child.

We use stuffed animals and puppets (thank you Mr. Rogers and Daniel Striped Tiger for inspiration) to act out stories, to talk directly to the child—you get the idea. There was a four-month period where a small stuffed bear, called “Bear,” was my granddaughter’s favorite of our stuffed toys, and they had many conversations with each other. Bear would sit in front of my camera, and I only existed as his voice. She asked, “What’s your favorite color, Bear?” Or she declared, “After the virus, you can come with me on a sleepover and I’ll introduce you to my friends. And you can meet my stuffed animals and sleep in my tent.” Or she might ask Bear if he wanted to play hide and seek. If he agreed, she would close her eyes and count to 10 or 20, while Bear “hid” in many different places in our apartment: bookshelves, pantry, bathroom sink, refrigerator, oven (it was not turned on). She almost certainly understood, at some level, that I was hiding Bear and then pretending to search for Bear, but reality rarely intruded on the fun. And she once “babysat” Bear for us via FaceTime while we went on an errand.

Books are great. I ask if she would like me to read to her and then offer several books, either ones that she knows or a new one. It’s fun to read, trying my best to capture different voices, but that really isn’t required. If the book is illustrated, we can use the flipped camera so that she can see the images. We often “read a book together“: she has a print copy and I read aloud from the e-book version on my iPad. By choosing books that have engaging illustrations, she can follow with glee as I read, even though she doesn’t read words yet.

We have also played board games, e.g., “Spot It,” where she can move pieces for herself and then for me, when it’s my turn. For older children, playing virtual board games together may be ideal.

Many times our FaceTime visit consists of just being in the same space rather than engaging in activities. Currently, my grandchild and I have a daily routine for the hour before her remote school starts, while she is eating her breakfast. I can read to her, but she can also show me her painting, or her Lego or Snap Circuits constructions. She can also pet her kitten and my job is to be a witness. I am the adult whose presence can substitute for that of a parent. I may even be doing email in the background, while she colors. By keeping myself occupied in these “hanging out” times, it’s as if I am visiting in her living room; there is no pressure on her to have a conversation. She is comfortable with me being silent, as I would be if I were physically in the room with her as she played.

[Y]ou can simulate being together and you don’t have to have something happening every minute.

These (sometimes multiple) daily visits have evolved from “an interrogation,“ a common grandparent approach, to a more relaxed mode of “I live next door and came over to sit with you and have coffee and read the paper.“ These sessions feel very organic. The really important point is that you can simulate being together and you don’t have to have something happening every minute. Just because you are online, you don’t have to be constantly, actively engaging. In fact, you gain spontaneity by being less interactive.

You can watch a program together. In the years before we could connect via FaceTime, when we were geographically distant from kids or grandkids, we would connect via phone. This was often stilted, until we stumbled on the fact that we could each watch the same TV program simultaneously. This led to our laughing at the same time, gossiping about the actors, and having conversations about life, the show, silly stuff, etc.—some thought-provoking, some humorous, some outrageous. Again, often it was just hanging out and having a shared experience. We are open to adapting this to the current generation using downloadable shows or streaming videos, but haven’t done it yet.

Every visit is special and unique—we never know what will happen or be said next. Sometimes our visit is very short, truncated because I have laughed at the wrong time (the remote context may cause misreading of intentions), or I am BORING (her term, not mine). But she is the one who gets to end the conversation; in this otherwise unpredictable time, this constitutes something in her environment that she can control.

As you can see, the actual content of the activity is evolving, and we try very hard to pick up cues from her or her parents about her latest interests and skills. Our son and daughter-in-law are essential collaborators. They teach us how to best intersect in a respectful way. They first organize the iPad at their end, they then encourage our visitor to connect, and then they can retreat into the background, still within earshot if there is a call for help.

One of the loveliest sentences we hear is “Let’s take Bubbie (my name, grandma in Yiddish) into the dining room for breakfast” or “Let’s take Bubbie into the living room to see.…” I’m right there!

This has been an incredible silver lining to the COVID cloud. As the babysitter, I have a regular social event with a delightful person, whose playfulness and curiosity light up my day. I am watching up-close the development of a sweet child, and I also have a chance to reinforce some behaviors at a non-intrusive distance, like saying “please“ and “thank you.” Finally, her parents get some free time and know that there is someone who is totally in their corner as they navigate the flood waters of childcare, remote learning, and career.

About the Author:

Sandra K. Masur is a professor of Ophthalmology and Pharmacological Sciences and director of the Office of Women's Careers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.