There's no doubt that the coronavirus and circuit breaker in Singapore has thrown our lives into disarray. But for better or worse, we've learnt, or are still learning, to make peace with the situation. For me, this new reality means that I’ve gained a new co-worker — my four-year-old son.
And boy is he one loud and clingy colleague who doesn't know to pipe down when I'm in the middle of a meeting. This is where having someone, in the form of a babysitter or caregiver, can help. But during this time, physical help is the one thing money can't buy.
The good news for parents out there who may be just as frazzled as me is that you can get temporary relief from parenting duties in the form of remote babysitting. In a time period when almost everything has gone online, babysitting is no different. The business has pivoted to one where children can be engaged from the other side of a screen.
But like many others, I was naturally sceptical when I was given the opportunity to try out the service — how is someone who's not even physically present hold the attention of my hyperactive 4-year-old? It's hard enough as it is in person already.
Turns out it could actually be easier. Remote babysitting is recommended for children ages 5 years and up, according to the reps from Babysits, a listing site with nannies from all over the world.
According to its statement, Babysits is one of the first in Singapore to provide remote support to families who are struggling with homeschooling and 24-hour childcare, making it easier for parents to "acquire virtual homework help or entertainment for their children".
Remote babysitting: How it works
For the trial, I was allocated a session with Sophie, a member of Babysits' marketing team located all the way in Rotterdam (!) as my son's nanny for an hour. From what I gathered, she has no professional training but had done this a couple of times before while introducing the service to media in Singapore and elsewhere.
Two days prior, I was asked to share my son's interests so she could plan her session with him. Since I'd mentioned that he loved superheroes, she emailed over an outline of some superhero masks to print out for a colouring activity.
Our session began right on the dot through the Caribu app, a third-party application dedicated to children's activities with video-conferencing and screen-sharing enabled.
To be honest, it started off rather shakily as my son wanted to run off every few seconds. 10 minutes in and I was ready to write off the experience as a waste of time.
However, I guess it can be attributed to "first date" jitters, as the situation improved when the conversation turned to the solar system — one of my son's favourite topics. He led the conversation expertly, and remained engaged and interested as he happily showed off all the planets he knew and regaled Sophie with random trivia about Saturn, Mercury and Mars.
In fact, I was surprised by how chatty he got and how invested he became in the conversation, which soon moved on to hurricanes, quicksand and venus flytraps.
Besides the chatting, a drawing activity took up a good chunk of time, while a co-colouring activity on the Caribu app took up another 20 minutes. In fact, at the 45-minute mark, just as my son was about to run off, Sophie deftly picked a colouring activity on space and the galaxy, which immediately captured his attention.
Though I started out wondering how the session would sustain itself for one hour, by the end, I dare say that it could have gone on for even longer. After the call, my son was content to continue doodling by himself, so I scored another 15 minutes of peace.
The session turned out so well that I immediately signed up on the website (there's a $15 monthly subscription fee) and booked myself for another hour the next week with a local babysitter.
From the list of available nannies, I picked a Singapore undergraduate who had some experience working with children with special needs as a caregiver, but was doing remote babysitting for the first time.
This second try was somewhat less successful, with my son's interest waning at various points during the session. This was in part, I suspect, due to it being a new experience for the sitter as well. Still, I thought it was $10 well spent for the hour and I'll recommend it to anyone willing to give it a go.
Far beyond freeing up my time, the experience has offered me a glimpse to a side of my son I don't often get to see, such as when he interacts with peers in school, for example. I'm also surprised by how well he takes to talking to strangers and the additional insight into his personality and ability that I get is a bonus.
While I didn't have to stay beside him all the time throughout the sessions, I sat there engaged and entertained as well, and I came out having a greater appreciation for my child and a little more patience when his bad behaviour as my fellow "coworker" rears its ugly head.
Want to engage a remote babysitter? Here's what you should know
- You get additional feedback and insight into your child's personality and how he interacts with others outside of the family
- The interaction is great for children who are growing up in an only-child environment or when there is limited supervision
- Sites like Babysits offer a wide pool of nannies on their database, and with remote babysitting, you can even hire someone from overseas
- Although there's a monthly fee but if you've found 'the one', arrangements can easily be made outside of the website
- Much like on a dating site, you may have to hunt around for the 'right one'
- The quality of babysitters can be a hit or miss
- Your child may not take to talking to a stranger through a screen; some supervision still necessary
- Remote babysitting works best when your child is at least four years old and can focus for at least 30 minutes on a task
- Talk to the babysitter beforehand to figure out your child's interests and topics so he/she can prepare for the session and advise on materials for you to prepare, if any. And an interview can help to weed out any potentially unsavoury characters.
- The session is best done over a wide-screen such as an iPad, especially if shared-screen activities are involved. I've found the Caribu app to be a bonus, as the activities on it are engaging enough on their own, but better with a guide