clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Adventures in baby-sitting

Is there a parent who hasn't fretted about getting a baby sitter for the night? Is there a baby sitter who hasn't felt put upon, underpaid, distrusted?

For more than eight decades, baby-sitting has been part of our social and cultural history. Now, Miriam Forman-Brunell, history professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, has analyzed its origins, evolution and inner workings.

In her new book, "Babysitter: An American History," Forman-Brunell describes how baby-sitting got all tied up in 20th-century struggles over gender, age and family. Somehow, even baby-sitting became a situation for workplace conflict. And whence the lore of the "bad baby sitter"?

Forman-Brunell teaches the history of childhood and youth at UMKC and is the author of "Made to Play House" and editor of the book "Girlhood in America: An Encyclopedia."

Here are excerpts from a recent interview.

Q. What spurred your interest in baby-sitting and its history?

A. I was revising my dissertation about the history of dolls and girlhood for publication and ran across a memoir of a girl, from about 100 years ago, who would wheel babies in perambulators, as they called them, to make money to buy dolls. Later while teaching at Princeton, I overheard a group of preadolescent girls at a pizza place talking about their baby-sitting activities. I was surprised to hear them talk about it in business terms, about how they were charging parents by the number of children.

I started to think about the connection between that girl at the beginning of the century and these girls at the end of the century.

Q. How are you defining baby-sitting and baby sitter?

A. For the purposes of this book, I defined baby-sitting as part-time work, for pay, by youth, typically away from the home. I didn't look at children taking care of siblings, or nannies or other adults.

In the 1920s, there was no term "baby sitter," but there was the phrase "minding the children" and then "child-minder." It was not until the late 1930s that the term "baby sitter" emerged.

Q. What changed starting in the 1920s?

A. Baby-sitting began to emerge because of a variety of social trends, the expansion of the middle class, declines in the birthrate and a rising desire among mothers and fathers in the 1920s for leisure and recreation. More teenagers went to high school, including girls, and did not enter the job market. And adolescent girls were also stimulated by a consumer culture and a new, self-styled teen culture.

Q. So that sounds like a good economic match, teens who need spending money and parents who need baby sitters.

A. One would think so, but there have been many undercurrents that make it not such a good match. For instance, adults typically look for somebody who's going to be fun with their children, responsible and reliable, and who's going to be inexpensive. The assumption has been that girls are going to be all of those things and that they naturally have an instinct to take care of children. And that's not necessarily true. When you interview girls about why they want to baby-sit, it's the money that generally motivates them.

Parents want to pay the least amount of money they can. The result is that, back to the earliest days of baby-sitting, girls have felt they were being gypped, especially when girls found out what boys were being paid to mow lawns — or what boys were paid to baby-sit. Boys are often paid more.

Also, developmentally, adolescence tends to be a period marked by greater self-absorption. So when it comes down to it, I'm not sure it's the best match at all.

At some point, baby-sitting became a job for pre-teens.

In the 1980s, there was a downward movement in terms of age, and that was partly because of a baby boomlet. There weren't enough teenagers for the job. Plus, with the expansion of suburban malls, teenagers were taking jobs in retail and service. There were many benefits to taking those "real" jobs, too. So the shift to preadolescent baby sitters, which has been the case since the 1980s, made sense in terms of the labor market. Also in the 1980s in the popular culture, teenage female baby sitters were being demonized.

Q. How did that happen?

A. It was rooted in social changes going back decades. Girls sought more freedom and authority and rebelled against restrictive gender ideals. They were misperceived as dangerous to families, to marital stability, even to children. By the 1960s, baby sitters were often portrayed as sexpots.

Then in the 1980s, ridiculous horror scenarios in the many made-for-TV movies about teenage baby sitters presented girls as having way too much power and control. They became knife-wielding murderesses. In parents' imaginations, there lurked this image of the bad baby sitter. So if you have the choice between a perky, can-do preadolescent next door and the teenage girl with dyed-green hair and piercings, you're probably going to pick the preteen.

Q. What's the state of baby-sitting today?

A. Many of the same tensions are still there. I've spoken to baby sitters who feel unappreciated and who don't like the way they've been presented. They want to know what role they can play in changing that image of the bad baby sitter.

There is clearly a demand for baby sitters. But there are also a lot of parents of potential baby sitters who give their children an allowance rather than allow them to baby-sit. It could be because their own experiences as baby sitters weren't particularly good ones or a feeling that girls might be endangered while baby-sitting.

Q. Anything to be done?

A. Parents as employers of baby sitters need to become aware of their expectations. Just because a baby sitter is a girl doesn't mean she'll be a great caretaker. And just because she's a teenage girl doesn't mean she'll be unruly.

It's the same with boys who have been extolled in the popular culture that demonized girls. Parents often assume that if they hire a boy, he'll be good with their sons and play outside, which is another gender stereotype. On the other hand, I spoke to one boy baby sitter who after he turned 17 said he started getting funny looks from parents, as if he were some kind of sexual threat to children.

It's a social problem that requires a lot of discussion and thought. And it requires that we re-evaluate our assumptions, especially about teenage girls.


(c) 2009, The Kansas City Star.

Visit The Star Web edition on the World Wide Web at

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.