It was an odd scene: Nine young girls sat cross-legged on a classroom floor, practicing first-aid and CPR on their well-worn Cabbage Patch Kids and other dolls. One girl in blond ponytails tried hard not to laugh while giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a stuffed teddy bear.
These girls will soon be putting their dolls away for good, turning their attention instead to caring for real kids. They spent a recent Saturday at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange to learn the finer points of baby-sitting as part of a two-day course designed by the American Red Cross.
In addition to first-aid skills, the course covers everything from child development--what to expect from a 2-year-old, for instance, and how to keep him or her occupied--to preparing snacks. Identifying household hazards, handling emergencies, supervising play and even deciding how much to charge are all part of the curriculum.
"We cover all the bases," said Linda Cassidy, who was teaching the class at St. Joseph along with Lisa Hudson. "They learn quite a bit."
The rising number of families with two working parents is increasing the demand for baby-sitters, Cassidy said, and many of those parents want sitters with at least some training in child care. Students who complete the 10-hour Red Cross course and pass the written and skills tests are given a certificate that they can show prospective employers.
Occasionally, Cassidy said, parents will even pay for their sitters to attend the classes. And often, the students take the course so they can properly care for their own younger siblings. Cassidy even recalls one woman in her 60s who took the class as a refresher because she was going to be taking care of a grandchild.
Most students, though, are the archetypal baby-sitters--girls about 12 years old (11 is the minimum age for the class). Cassidy, who has been teaching the course at St. Joseph for more than a year, has had only one boy as a student. Many of the students have had at least some baby-sitting experience, she added.
Student Jessica Liberman, an 11-year-old from Costa Mesa, has taken care of a young cousin and the child of a family friend, but with summer approaching she is looking forward to making some pocket money by expanding her client list. The going rate for baby-sitters these days is $2 to $2.50 an hour.
"There are a lot of babies in our neighborhood," Jessica said. The thing she liked best about the baby-sitting class was that it taught her how to cope with emergencies. "I would freak out if I didn't know the things they were teaching us," and an emergency arose, she said.
Kim Smith, a 12-year-old from Orange, is an experienced sitter but took the class to polish her skills in dealing with potential emergencies--"in case something happens, I'll know what to do."
Hudson, a member of the hospital promotions staff at St. Joseph, sees the class not only as a way to teach baby-sitting skills, but also as a "pre-parenting class"--a general introduction to the rigors of being a father or mother. Hudson said she could have used the class herself before her 4-year-old was born.
"I found I had to learn a lot on the job," she said. While many first-time parents take classes in childbirth, she said, few study what to do after the child is born. "I don't think that many take the time to take a safety class," Hudson said. "I think (the baby-sitting students) are going to be better prepared as parents."
In addition to teaching the skills involved in caring for a child, Cassidy said, the class also gives youngsters the confidence to deal with their employers--the parents--in an up-front manner. They are told to ask for a tour of the house to identify potential hazards, to ask the parents specific questions about a child's habits and special needs, and to decline responsibilities that might make them uncomfortable, such as supervising a child in a swimming pool.
The sitters are also told not to advertise but to accept work only from people they know or from referrals. "They need to protect themselves, not just the people they're sitting for," Cassidy cautioned.
The Orange County chapter of the American Red Cross teaches the baby-sitting course for a $10 fee. The classes are offered monthly and are rotated among the organization's Orange County facilities. Information: (714) 835-5381. St. Joseph Hospital offers the class roughly every other month for a $20 fee. Information: (714) 633-9111. Other hospitals and organizations, such as Girl Scouts, also offer the Red Cross course on an occasional basis.