Babysitting & Child Psychology

(Physical, Cognitive & Social Growth)

Babysitting may seem worlds away from the field of psychology. But even a basic understanding of psychology can help you better tailor your babysitting strategies to individual children.

How does babysitting relate to psychology? Babysitting relates to psychology in two main ways; child psychology and developmental psychology. These parts of psychology can help you to understand at what age children are developing certain abilities, how to better relate and bond with kids, and how to create enriching opportunities for them.

In this article, I'll discuss some of the most popular psychological theories that can help to shape how you babysit. Specifically Piaget's model of cognitive development, Erikson's theories of psycho-social development, and Maslow's hierarchy of needs. By the end, you should have a better understanding of how children mentally and emotionally develop.

Playing Amateur Psychologist As A Babysitter

You might be thinking "I'm not qualified to deal with psychology, I'm just a babysitter!"

Psychology can seem like an intimidating field of study if you've never looked into it before. For most people, when you think of a psychologist you probably think of someone like Sigmund Freud who has patients lay on a couch while he psychoanalyzes them.

But many areas of psychology are a lot more practical than that. In fact, most parenting books are just presenting practical things for parents and childcare providers to do based on child psychology.

Obviously, you won't be running psychological experiments on the kids you babysit! But there are things you can do to customize your babysitting practices and provide a better experience for kids based upon a better understanding of how kids think and develop.

Not all babysitters have a psychology degree, but many have other qualifications. Check out my article: Babysitting Qualifications to learn more.

Picking Age Appropriate Activities

Understanding psychology gives you a better understanding of what types of activities may fit the needs of children of certain ages or development levels.

You don't want to give a 4-year-old a 2,000 piece lego set because they will quickly become overwhelmed and frustrated. They haven't cognitively developed enough to handle a task like that.

On the other hand, you don't want to give a 10-year-old a toy that consists of putting wooden blocks through the correctly shaped hole. They'll quickly get bored if they don't think the idea is insultingly beneath them, to begin with! They've advanced past the stage of development where such games can really be engaging or serve a purpose.

Then there are some other activities like coloring that kids of most ages seem to enjoy. There are even adult coloring books now! (Here's an excellent one on Amazon)

Psychology gives you a grasp on the wants and needs of children at different ages so that you can pick an activity for them that isn't too easy or difficult.

In fact, the psychology of play is an entire segment of psychology all to itself and some psychologists devote their entire career to studying it! [1] That's how large of a field it is.

6 Areas That Child Psychology Touches Upon

What kind of things can child psychology help you to understand as a babysitter? Quite a bit actually!

1. Physical Growth

You might think that physical things are more in the medical realm, but psychology also looks at the speed and pattern of how children grow. It also looks at how genetic factors, as well as environmental conditions like disease or poor nutrition, can affect physical development.

Did you know that children grow from head to toe (cephalocaudal) and from the center of the body outward? (proximodistal) [2]

2. Motor Skills

Psychologists look at changes in how children are able to move. Newborns start off with mostly reflexive, involuntary movements that gradually develop into more voluntary and precise movements. Kids get a better understanding of moving in space and time as they grow.

3. Cognitive Development

This is the internal mental abilities that kids develop over time. It includes things like language, memory, and problem-solving.

The speed at which kids can think, the amount they can memorize, and how abstract of ideas they can conceptualize grows with age.

4. Social Development

Early on, babies are quite limited in their emotions and only feel things like happiness, anger, and sadness. As a child, they begin to experience a more complex and varied range of emotions.

As a babysitter, it can be helpful to know that newborns don't seem to experience fear, but around 8 to 12 months they may suddenly start to become fearful of threats and can show signs of separation anxiety when their parents leave.

5. Gender

Gender is how someone identifies as either male, female, or some other variation. Studies show that kids start to identify themselves as a particular gender as early as 2 years old! [3]

Psychologists are still debating if gender is changeable until late childhood, or if it's something that's established early on.

A good proportion of parents are moving toward raising their children in a more gender-neutral way. This puts more emphasis on letting children decide for themselves and not pigeon-holing them into specific ways of dressing, playing, or future aspirations based on their genitalia.

Ideas such as that girls can only play with dolls and boys can only play with toy trucks are becoming outdated.

Other parents still dress their baby girls in pink and their boys in blue and reinforce traditional gender roles. There isn't necessarily anything wrong with that either and it comes down to different parenting styles.

As babysitters, we just need to become increasingly aware and sensitive to how gender affects children, and also to respect the wishes of parents.

If you're are looking for some gender-specific games to play, see our list of over 200 babysitting activities and filter the results by gender to find exactly what you're looking for.

6. Communication

For kids to master a language and the ability to fully express themselves, there are four things they need to grasp.

Phonology relates to the sound of words and letters. As children grow, their accuracy and frequency of producing different sounds should increase.

Lexicon is how many words a child knows and can use when they talk.

Morphology is understanding how words are formed and how they relate to each other.

Pragmatics is the ability to use language to communicate desires or feelings to other people.

Kids start off saying individual words like "dada." Over time they add semantics to their speech, like "Where is Dad?" Eventually, they learn the syntax of the language and are able to start making full sentences.

Psychology can help you as a babysitter to understand if children are ahead or behind the average level of language development for their age.

Let's Learn Some Psychology Theories

Hopefully, I can cram most of the child-related stuff you would learn in an entire semester of a Psych 101 class into about 5 minutes of reading for you.

I don't want to bore you with details, so we'll try to keep this as simple and concise as possible.

Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development

Piaget suggested that children go through four stages as they develop [4].

He believed that children didn't just gain more knowledge and information as they got older, but the quality of information they can comprehend actually changes.

Sensorimotor – Birth to 2 years old

At this stage, a child is brand new to the world and trying to figure everything out.

They have some basic reflexes like moving their eyes to follow interesting objects, listening, sucking objects in their mouth, or closing their hand when an object comes into contact with their palm (palmar grasp.)

These reflexes start off involuntary but become voluntary actions within the first six weeks or so.

Infants are mostly concerned with the sensations of their own body and figuring out exactly what they are early on, and then shift their focus to how they can interact with the world around them.

Learn more about caring for infants by reading our beginners guide: How to babysit a baby.

Preoperational – 2 to 7 years old

At this stage, kids learn to speak, but they don't yet understand concrete logic and can't manipulate information in their mind. Kids also tend to think about things in very black and white terms during this stage, without much room for a grey area in between.

Kids in this stage really like playing and pretending. But they also have a hard time seeing things from other people's points of view. Most of their play and thinking is done symbolically.

At this age, kids can make use of magical thinking, which is essentially finding a relationship between actions and events [5]. Even if a particular outcome isn't actually influenced by the first action. For example, kids might develop seemingly random ideas like that food only tastes good if they eat it with a blue spoon. Or they might think that squeezing their blanket will keep monsters away at bedtime.

Piaget found that children during this stage lack something called conservation, which is the ability to determine if a certain quantity will remain the same even if it's transferred to another container.

You can take a tall glass of water and a short glass of water that hold exactly the same amount of water, and pour the water from one to the other. For adults, this demonstrates that the two glasses have the same volume. But for a child in the preoperational stage, they will always say the taller glass is larger, even after watching you demonstrate that the amount of liquid they can hold is the same.

See our babysitting guides in this range of years:

Concrete operational – 7 to 11 years old

At this stage, kids can begin to appropriately use logic. Their thought processes become more "adult-like" and mature.

Kids at this stage still have trouble thinking in abstract or hypothetical ways though. They can only solve problems that deal with concrete objects or events.

They will understand the concept of conservation discussed above. They can conceptualize that one nickel is worth more than three pennies. But they will struggle to answer a more abstract question like "If A is more than B, and B is more than C, is A more than C?".

Hands-on activities are great and developmentally appropriate for kids that you're babysitting in the concrete operations stage. For example, taking them on a trip to a petting zoo or holding a starfish at an aquarium. Or even just making objects out of clay or plasticine at home.

Formal operational – 12 years old or older

At this stage, kids develop the ability to think in abstract ways. They're able to use deductive reasoning and consider hypothetical "what-if" situations.

Once children reach this stage they can think about more complex things like ethics and morality.

Accommodation and Assimilation

This isn't a stage that kids go through, but a specific observation that Piaget noted that I think is worth mentioning.

When a kid sees something new, they create a new mental schema. A schema is a simplified idea in your head that helps to categorize things.

For example, there's a real bird, and then there's the idea of a bird in your head. It's likely something that has a beak, wings, feathers, and claws.

To put it another way, Polish-American philosopher and scientist, Alfred Korzybski said: "the map is not the territory." This is something even most adults don't usually stop to realize. That there is a distinction between an actual physical bird and the idea of a bird in your mind.

This is important because the more new experiences that kids are exposed to, the more accurate and expansive of a set of mental schema they will create.

Kids start off with only a few categories. So the first time they see a goat or sheep, they might call it a dog. After all, it meets their initial criteria for what a dog is. It's furry and walks on four legs, and is a specific size between cats and people!

When a kid gets exposed to a goat, they get a new mental schema for goat. They might relate it to existing schemas. For example, they may categorize goats in their mind as something that's like a dog, but that has a different shaped head and horns and makes a different noise.

So it's important to expose kids to as many different things as possible so they can create an accurate picture of the world in their minds.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow's hierarchy isn't just something that affects kids. All people fall somewhere on the hierarchy. But I think it's particularly important for children.

Basically, Maslow's hierarchy is five tiers of things that humans need [6]. Usually, they're shown in a pyramid shape. Everybody starts at the bottom of the pyramid and needs to have their needs met in that category before moving up to the next one.

At the bottom of the pyramid is physiological and safety needs. Kids need to feel safe, fed, cared for, and have a home for them to thrive. They aren't able to move on to the next stages where they can worry about belonging and self-esteem until their basic needs are met.

As a babysitter, you should be helping kids you're in charge of, to meet their basic needs so they can progress up Maslow's hierarchy and hopefully become a self-actualized person one day, which is defined as "having the desire to become the most that one can be."

Erikson's Stages of Development

Erik Erikson believed that people need to go through eight stages over the course of their life [7].

Each stage has a positive or negative, depending on how a person develops at that age.

For the sake of this article, I'll just talk about the first four relevant stages which cover children from birth to 12 years old.

Trust vs. Mistrust – Birth to 18 months old (Infancy)

If a child is properly cared for during this stage, they'll develop confidence, trust, and optimism.

If they aren't properly cared for, they may be distrustful of the world and feel insecure or worthless.

Autonomy vs. Shame – 18 months to 3 years old (Toddler or Early Childhood)

During this stage, a child learns right from wrong.

This is also the "terrible twos" where kids often become defiant and throw temper tantrums. While it seems like just misbehaving, the stubbornness that kids show at this age is actually a sign that they're developing autonomy.

Kids at this age need to be given lots of support, praise, and encouragement. Otherwise, they may feel shame and low self-esteem if they aren't able to pick up certain skills right away.

For more advice on dealing with stubborn kids, check out my article: How to Babysit a Difficult Child.

Initiative vs. Guilt – 3 to 5 years old (Preschooler)

At this stage, kids are fascinated by adults in their lives and may start to emulate them during play. A child may play out being a mommy for their doll or want to pretend to be a doctor.

Kids around this age are trying to figure out what it means to be an adult through experimentation. This helps them develop a sense of initiative and makes them feel secure about making decisions and leading others.

If kids are criticized or controlled too much during this stage, they can develop a sense of guilt. Some guilt is necessary or kids never learn self-control or have a conscience. But too much guilt can inhibit a child's creativity and make them hesitant to interact with others.

They also tend to get stuck on one very specific question: "Why?" This question helps them explore the world and piece together how everything works.

Industry vs Inferiority – 6 to 12 years old (School Age Child)

Kids in this stage are great at learning and mastering things. It's a great time for activities that help them build up musical, artistic, and physical skills to build their confidence and self-esteem.

Kids who are encouraged to pursue things feel industrious (or competent) and get a feeling of confidence from achieving their goals. If kids aren't encouraged to do things at this stage or are restricted, they might feel inferior and start to doubt their abilities and potential.

Of course, just like guilt, some failure is necessary so that kids can develop modesty. But it's about balancing a feeling of competence and modesty.

Children are also learning to read and write and do things on their own around this age.

A child's peer group also becomes more important during this stage and is a big source of their self-esteem.

Conclusion

Psychology can give you a lot of insights into children that can make you a more effective babysitter.

Regardless of which psychological theories you ascribe to, across the board, it's accepted that kids at different ages have different wants and needs.

By using psychological models to pick babysitting activities that are age and development appropriate, you can keep the kids you're watching engaged and hopefully contribute toward them becoming successful adults later in life.

Next:

Written by:

Matthew Taylor

Matthew Taylor

Kidsit Founder, Editor, Illustrator, Web Developer, and father of three beautiful kids in Sydney, Australia.

Published: 11 May 2019

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