8/28/09 - babysitters

In today's excerpt - for almost one hundred years, American parents have been wary of the teenage babysitter:

" 'A good babysitter is hard come by,' explained a reporter on CBS News during the summer of 2007.' A year earlier, a mother blogged that 'babysitters seem to care nothing about kids and charge $16 an hour to watch TV and text message their boyfriends.' And then, of course, reported Living Safely magazine in the 1990s, there were the 'horror stories: parents arriving home to find their sitter has thrown a party, or gone to one. . . .' Intrinsic to such typical complaints is a longing for the golden age of babysitting when teenage girls were both pleasant and plentiful. Yet the view that babysitters today are hard to take and even harder to find is not new. In a letter to 'Dear Abby' in 1969, one woman described the batch of hungry sitters 'who ate the fridge to the bare walls' and disparaged the one with 'the gall' to raid the 'deep freeze.' What is unknown to these recent observers is that a prior idyllic age of babysitting is more apparent than real: distressed parent-employers have suspected their sitters of doing wrong ever since the beginning of babysitting, nearly one hundred years ago. In fact, parent-employers have been complaining about babysitters since the advent of the 'modern' American teenage girl, a debut that coincided with the creation of babysitting, the job that defaulted to white middle-class female adolescents by virtue of their sex, race, class and age.

"Though researchers have dated anxieties about babysitters to the expansion of babysitting after World War II, babysitters had already earned considerable notoriety by then. It was during the 1920s—when babysitting was just in its infancy—that one parenting guide first urged mothers not to hire 'high school girls' who trundled 'babies about to hockey games, basketball practice and [engaged in] street-corner flirtation.' As the 'babysitter' gained ground during the Great Depression (when the word was originated though rarely used), advisers focused on the unkempt clothing and garish cosmetics of female adolescents suspected of preferring their 'crowd' of friends to the kids in their care Then, despite attempts to make scandalous V-girls into patriotic babysitters during World War II, Newsweek reported that a veteran and his wife arrived home after an evening out only to find their 'bobby-soxer' babysitter dancing with friends and their toddler teething on marbles. Represented as villains who have caused danger, and as victims who have courted it, in the innumerable stories adults have been telling for almost a century, babysitters have ostensibly damaged property, ruined marriages and destroyed families.

"Though most often babysitting proceeds without a serious hitch, the problems associated with it have been widely and sometimes wantonly exaggerated. ... The omnipresent babysitter has been notorious for sneaking her boyfriend in the back door, talking on the telephone, sitting glued to the TV, eating her employers out of house and home, and neglecting the children while paying too much attention to the man of the house. This deceptively simple stereotype of the unruly babysitter expresses the anxieties of parents as well as the concerns of the culture about teenage girls. Left to do as they please, girls will recklessly transgress the essential boundaries between private and public, family and community, labor and leisure, childhood and adulthood, girlhood and womanhood, love and lust, reality and fantasy, culture and chaos, yours and theirs."


Miriam Forman-Brunell


Babysitter: An American History


New York University Press


Copyright 2009 by New York University


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