March 4, 2010

America says "so long" to the babysitter

Some of the fondest memories I have of my later elementary school years involve hanging out with my best friend Robbie -- and his super-cute babysitter Susie. She was in her late teens, either a high school senior or just starting college, and therefore really playful around us in that way where teenage girls try to educate pre-pubescent boys in the ways of interacting with girls. Especially by being more easy-going and mock-flirtatious than they'd be with boys their own age, in order to get the younger boys to learn not to be afraid of girls: don't worry agnostic, i'm not gonna biteee. I even got to give her a shoulder massage a few times -- pretty sweet start for 9 years old.

Although she had a sweet and girly personality, she never tried to push any of that gross stuff on us. Besides, she could do something for us that she knew would get us so excited that the whining lobe of our brain would shut right off -- namely, take us for a cruise in her BLACK IROC-Z. Back when teenagers had a life and their own cars, that was one of the coolest things about having a high school babysitter: you could enjoy the freedom of driving around unsupervised by your parents or someone else's, even if you were never in the driver's seat. The car she drove was just a hint of her wild nature, however. After my friend became too old to need a babysitter, we found out that she'd taken up a topless dancing job to pay for college. She must be in her late 30s by now and so probably not in great shape, but I'm grateful that we got to enjoy her back when she was barely legal (or perhaps not even), unlike the poor deprived children of today.

A new book, Babysitter: An American History, details what I'd suspected about the prevalence of babysitting after the wild times ended in the early '90s -- it started fading away by the end of the century, and it's more or less gone today, at least as employment for young people. I've only browsed the book on Amazon; I might post a follow-up after I check it out. You probably hadn't thought about it, but it shouldn't be too surprising in the era of helicopter parents. First, the parents themselves have largely taken on the tasks of the babysitter. And second, with hyperactive parents pushing their kids to fill up every free second of their time with tutoring, student groups, sports, etc., the poor bastards have no time to devote to babysitting even if there were demand for their labor.

It's important that parents themselves are the ones hovering over their kids, chauffeuring them around, and so on. You might think that with the massive illegal immigration we've seen, parents are simply rejecting the too-high offers of native teens and going with cheaper-wage illegal immigrants. The timing isn't there, though, since Forman-Brunell notes the paranoia starting even by the late '80s and early '90s. If parents were just substituting one type of worker for another, "the babysitter" would be just as strong and obvious of a cultural symbol as before, except that she'd be a 30-something illegal Mexican instead of a 16 year-old white girl. Clearly that's not the case. Housemaids and lawn-cutters, sure, but not babysitters. Rather, as we all know, parents are rejecting offers from everyone and are just doing it themselves. The babysitter as an icon is just plain gone. (If they're well-to-do, women might participate in a babysitting co-op with other paranoid mothers who they're close to.)

When a firm used to contract some functions out to other specialists, and suddenly starts to move more of those jobs in-house, that reflects an increase in the transaction costs -- or the costs associated with contracting with other individuals who aren't under your own management. If aliens blocked off all accountant's offices from outside communication, your firm would have to move those accounting jobs in-house because otherwise you'd have to pay a much higher cost than before to contract with the accountant's office. However, these costs could be more intangible, such as having to trust the other party. If good faith is weakened between the two, their interactions become much more mercenary and lawyerly -- and therefore more costly -- since they will need to stipulate more things in the contract than if they could assume they'd be met out of good faith.

The General Social Survey shows that sometime in the late '80s, people's trust in others started to fall steadily. During the previous decades of high trust, people were afraid for the babysitter -- some escaped mental patient might try to hunt her down. When trust started plummeting, people were afraid of the babysitter -- now she was the basketcase who would destroy your family. In fairness, some of this decline in trust could be an understandable response to people's bad experiences with babysitters, even if you think it's an over-reaction.

I still recall one demented middle-aged cunt who locked me and my brothers in my room while she sat watching TV for a few hours. Hearing the lock caught us off-guard, and at first we had no idea what she was doing -- leaving us to starve, stealing things from our house, who knows? After we calmed each other down, I took off the metal ball that supported a corner of my bed, tossed it into a sock, and whacked a small hole through my door so we could at least see what the hell she was up to, and have our screams reach her more forcefully to ruin whatever she was doing. Needless to say, that bitch got canned. The only other incident across probably six years of babysitters and another two to four years of daycare was when a high school girl didn't like one of our smartass remarks and gave them a smack. I still forget who got it because it wasn't a big deal. She didn't show up again, and only later did we learn that she'd been fired for that.

Still, I think most cases like the first one can be avoided by requiring the babysitter to have a good reputation and provide some references. Of course, you have to trust those who provided the references, and if you're trusting, you may not even bother to follow up on them. Plus the gains are so large -- and I'm not only talking about the opportunity cost of the parents' time. The kids are especially better off because they get to hang around a cool teenager instead of their boring parents. That's a good step toward a lively social life right there. Just don't be cruel and hire a guy to babysit your sons. I had a male babysitter once, and he was cool enough -- he tried to teach us the make and model of all the hot cars in his car magazines, and again it was awesome to drive around in his Datsun 280ZX with t-tops.

At the same time, it's better for young boys to hang out with older girls. It boils down to their ability to take you to more enjoyable places because going anywhere with a teenage girl is automatically more fun. It could even be your own home, like the time when my cute high school babysitter had three or four chick friends over and were acting all goofy and giggly -- hey, what kid can't identify with that?! Her friends kept egging her on to omigod do the dog dance melissa, c'mon! and she'd follow with some funny dance. When she came back next week (alone), I tried to re-ignite that mood by begging her to tell me what the dog dance was. She looked really embarrassed and kept denying my pleas and trying to change the subject. Looking back on it, they'd probably gotten buzzed on alcohol and she didn't want her innocent little charge to find out what they'd done.

I think it was also her who hauled me and my brothers away at night, which we weren't too happy about. However, once we figured out we were on the Ohio State campus, it turned into a rite of passage -- our first wading through the sea of nubile estrogen-dripping college girls at night. It wasn't a typical sterile prison-like student dorm because it had wooden external stairwells and the students' doors all opened outward to a walkway that ran around the building, rather than facing an internal hallway. Doors were open, music was playing, lights were still on past our bedtime, and best of all her friends would all run up to these pint-size visitors and ask her, hey who's thissss???? omigod they're so cuuuuute!!! We didn't stay on campus very long -- I think she just had to talk to some of her friends or get something important from them really quick -- but still that was one of the coolest nights of my childhood.

And last but not least is the trip to the babysitter's house. Again, if she was middle-aged, it was like going to prison. But if she was a teenager, in all likelihood her parents would be gone too. It's not even a sexual thing -- like, I've got her alone at last! -- but just having fun unchaperoned in a new place. It seems like you're still supervised since the babysitter is there, but it never felt like that. Rather, it felt like the entire group -- you, your siblings, friends, as well as the babysitter and her friends -- were hanging out unsupervised. I mean, what's greater than getting to hang out unmolested with the cool high school kids, when normally they wouldn't be caught dead with you?

Perhaps the most vivid memory I have involving babysitters is of... damnit, I can't remember her name, but she was in high school. One day she took me over to her house so she could hang out with her boyfriend while I played Legend of Zelda with her younger brother, who as a 6th-grader was closer to my age. Her brother must have memorized the Nintendo Player's Guide because he showed me all sorts of places in that game that I'd been busting my balls to figure out how to reach. We were both completely engrossed in the game, he because he felt like hot shit showing off his knowledge, and me because it felt like discovering a hidden continent.

All of a sudden something breaks my focus, and I look over to see my babysitter and her boyfriend. They're both standing face-to-face, her with her back to us and him looking at us with a creepy grin. He says something like, "See this is how you do it..." It takes a few moments, but I notice that she has nothing but her bikini underwear on below her waist. (If I recall correctly, he'd taken down her shorts or lifted up her skirt.) "Left cheek, right cheek, left cheek, right cheek," he says while giving each one a squeeze. When you have no idea what's going on, you look to the other person's reaction to see what it means. If she'd been into it, she would've laughed in a mortified way and playfully slapped him, like hey don't do that when they're watching! But I just remember her standing dead still with her head hanging and a frozen, apologetic look on her face when she turned slightly toward us, like forgive me, it's not my fault.

Teenage babysitters today wouldn't believe it, but all of these episodes took place in an upper-middle-class suburb of Ohio, not some seedy slum in New Jersey. Times were just wilder then, even for little children, and that was only possible because of the high level of trust. Once good faith evaporates, parents go into lockdown mode and shield their kids from learning first-hand about how the real world works. Again, it wasn't that bad; the worst that happened was being locked in my room for a few hours. I did see my babysitter groped against her wishes, but if that kind of thing is going on in the world, it's better to know about it than be naive. Sometimes girls date creeps and losers before they figure things out.

Plus there's an entire world that kids need to get prepared for, but which their parents or other adults can't easily introduce them to -- namely the world of adolescents and young adults. As a kid, the only passport to visit that future of yours is hanging around your teenage babysitter. No other adolescent has any incentive to protect you like a guide when you venture into that world -- all the other older kids, the males at any rate, would drive you out. You might be lucky enough to have an adolescent sibling when you're little, but even then sibling rivalry will make them treat you like shit in front of their friends. I don't think it's only the financial incentive that the babysitter has to make sure you're fairly safe in teenage and college kid world, though that helps. Good babysitters -- the ones most likely to get hired -- give off a vibe of liking kids and growing somewhat attached to them. Then parents don't need to discipline the babysitter by threatening a pay cut if she does a bad job. Instead, she'd just feel horrible if another teenager tried to mistreat her cute little kids. She'll be permissive enough toward the kids that they can enjoy teenage world, but protective enough that they won't get seriously hurt if their bike turns over during the ride.


  1. I'm wondering ... could many teenagers be less willing to babysit because they're concerned that helicopter parents will wrongly accuse them of neglecting/abusing the children?


  2. That's a good point, one that I forgot to address -- the lack of trust on the babysitter's side, not just on the parents' side. Kind of like doctors wanting to practice less due to greater risk of getting sued for malpractice.

    This would have to apply to all groups of potential babysitters, not just white teenagers, or else those who were trusting would get the job. But the fall in trust is very broad, so I think it works.

    There was paranoia not just from parents about babysitters but also from babysitters about parents. That social history book has examples of pop culture stuff where the babysitter is increasingly afraid of the brats, the come-ons of the husband, etc., during the '90s.

  3. It's less about babysitters as it has become about having a nanny these days. High school and college age girls can't get paid enough to bother with babysitting. I'm a nanny an get paid $20-40 an hour plus perks like box seats, free flights to vacation spots, food, etc.

  4. Okay, funny babysitter story.

    My son was about 7 and I hired a 14 year old to watch him for the evening. She played video games with him, etc. Anyway, he asked me when she could come again. He went on to tell me how much he liked her.

    His exact words, "She is so young and sweet and pretty. She is nothing like you."

    It was the most hilariously honest yet innocent thing I had ever heard.

    All of the babysitters I now use are the children of family friends so there is no suspicion one way or the other. I also pay a lot, so I have no trouble getting them to sit. Boys make good babysitters, too, especially if your kids are boys.

    When my sons were infants I only left them with my personal friends or their mothers, never any strangers.

    I think there may be a decline in babysitting by non-family members. The Asians and hispanics on my street have so many extended family members that they always have family available to sit with the kids.

  5. Excellent post!


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