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July 14, 2009

Babysitting has figured in much of society's angst over teen culture and the changing American family

Laura Vanderkam:

Like many girls, I began my adventures in babysitting when I was 11 years old. It was in the late 1980s, after I had taken a Red Cross course to become "babysitter certified," acquiring expertise in dislodging an object from a choking baby's throat and learning to ask parents for emergency phone numbers. During my roughly four-year career, there were highs, like using my babysitting contacts to co-found a lucrative summer day camp in my neighborhood, and lows: bratty children and stingy parents, such as one mom who would have me come over 45 minutes early but wouldn't start the clock until she left and always wrote out a check when she got back -- even though, considering my $2-per-hour rate, she probably could have paid me from change in the bottom of her purse.

My experiences were fairly typical of those encountered by millions of young women, as I might have suspected at the time and as I am thoroughly convinced after having read "Babysitter: An American History," a scholarly examination of the subject by Miriam Forman-Brunell. Ms. Forman-Brunell is a history professor at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, but she is also a mother who reports that she has hired a bevy of babysitters.

Babysitting, the author says, has always been a source of tension: "Distressed parent-employers have suspected their sitters of doing wrong ever since the beginning of babysitting nearly one hundred years ago." Before that, extended families or servants ensured that someone was watching the kids, but with the rise of the suburban nuclear family, parents looking to preserve adult intimacy in their marriages were forced to seek help elsewhere. Since most either weren't willing to or couldn't pay adult wages, the labor supply was reduced to young teens who wanted money but didn't have other ways of earning it.

Posted by Jim Zellmer at July 14, 2009 9:59 AM
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