Thoughts on Babysitting Which I May Sorely Regret Making Public

Back in the days when I needed a babysitter.

It seems that not everyone who gives birth to a child actually wants to spend all of her time with said child. Thank God for other people’s children, at least the teenaged ones. Need an evening out? Dial up a babysitter.

I began with mother’s helper kind of stuff when I was eleven or twelve, and babysat on a regular basis for several families in my town until I was 17 or so.

Enter a diabolically hyper four-year-old loose in a three-story house. I managed to dress the child in one leg of his red flannel footie jammies before the bedtime ignition. I stalked him up and down the stairs, on and off the beds, trying to stuff in another appendage each time the kid came to earth.

Some of my own babysitters had left strong impressions: stumbling to the couch to nap, feeding my brother and me as much ice cream as we could eat (or, on one memorable occasion, spoonfuls of icy, sticky-sweet orange juice concentrate right from the can), or telling my brother that vampires would come out of the woods to feed on his jugular if he did not go to sleep. I took my responsibilities seriously. I read stories, invented games, engineered blanket forts, went on walks and contrived experiments.

But while I was fond of all my charges, I never loved babysitting: the baths, the bucket full of bullfrog and pond water hitting the clean wood floor, the hurtling, half-jammied bodies. The children at one house, though they denied it, snatched raw cookie dough from the pan with the speed and accuracy of striking vipers. Meanwhile, the family dog had breath which could have been developed as a biological weapon of terror, the full blast of which he released on me after the kids tumbled, complaining of tummy ache, into their beds.

As I rediscovered recently in a Facebook thread from a friend soliciting advice on how much she should pay a local teen to babysit for her little boy, bedtime is an important consideration when calculating babysitters’ pay.

Part of the reason the discussion caught my eye was that though I haven’t babysat anyone for well over a decade, the pay mothers were suggesting last week was quite similar to what I used to get paid.  According to the majority of comments, a 14-year-old girl babysitting a one-year-old for an evening was entitled to $5-$10 an hour.

I put the question out to my own peers – how much had they earned for teenaged jobs? About thirty people replied, describing employment from cleaning to filing to yard work, stable chores, data entry and bagging groceries. Most people reported earning minimum wage up through $10, $12 or $15 an hour for this work. But the babysitters, while a few of them said they made $10 or $12 per hour, generally made do with much less.

A couple twenty-somethings said they had typically made $5 per hour. Another said she had made as little as $2.50 per hour. And another said she was paid $3.50 per hour to babysit four kids, and $3.75 or $4.00 per hour for five kids. But for me, the kicker was that this girl also did office work for $6.00 an hour, and yard work for $8.00.

Why are babysitters paid so little? It’s something that has irked me since I was a teenager myself. People will pay you more to mow their lawn than they’ll pay you to watch their kids.

As my mom so wisely said as we discussed our respective babysitting days, “trying to rationalize pay scales in relation to jobs is really impossible.”

But in the case of your kids’ safety versus the state of your grass, it seems to me that it shouldn’t be that difficult to prioritize. I’m not saying we should pay the yard-work kids less. Rather, let’s pay the babysitter at least as much as we pay the kid mowing the lawn.

But it seems that for the last fifteen years at least, teenage girls (I am assuming that the vast majority of babysitters are girls) are used to accepting $5-$7 per hour, and sometimes less, for what is probably the biggest responsibility the average person of that age will shoulder.

Maybe it’s because I don’t have a natural affinity for children, but babysitting seemed like hard work to me. It was physically tiring, especially when there were multiple kids, and mentally demanding. The responsibility weighed on me: I remember sudden high fevers and at least one epic nosebleed. I got a book on first aid for children and studied it frequently, and took a babysitters’ safety course at the local library. I was certified in CPR.

This is why I’m not on board with the women who suggested to my friend that since her little boy is well-behaved, she could pay a babysitter a lower rate. Again, it’s hard to objectively rationalize pay scales, and yes, some kids are harder to supervise than others, but I don’t like this method of determining the babysitters’ pay.

Even the most seemingly well-behaved kid could throw a tantrum – or unwittingly make a huge mess – once Mom is out the door. But more importantly, whether the kid is an angel or a hellion, the babysitter’s responsibility for the kid’s health and safety is the same. Parents should not justify paying a sitter less because they think their kids are well-behaved. If the child chokes or hits her head or reacts badly to a bee-sting, that sitter’s knowledge and presence of mind could mean life or death. Is that really worth only $5-$10 an hour to modern parents?

Some parents believe that having the sitter there after the kids are in bed should correspond to a lower pay rate.

My advice-seeking friend decided that she could settle on a rate lower than the general $10/ hour consensus (even though she says she thinks that babysitters are generally underpaid) because the sitter “only has him for two hours awake…and then about five hours watching TV.”

A friend backs her up on the lower pay rate: “she’ll be paid for watching TV pretty much.”

Worse, another friend weighs in with a different solution: “I have a friend who pays one rate when the kids are awake and another while they are sleeping.”

Excuse me, but what the hell kind of parental cheapskate thinks that the teenager watching over their children alone late at night deserves a lower rate because the kids are sleeping? Surely any parent knows that sudden illnesses can strike just as easily at night as they can during the day. Not to mention kids who might need comfort after a nightmare or become upset and disoriented to wake up without their parents near.

Do you want your babysitter to feel that her responsibility level is reduced after-hours, just because the kids are sleeping? If I were to have kids (yep, that’s right, I’ve written this treatise on hiring babysitters when I have no kids of my own), I would certainly hope that my babysitter is just as alert in the evening as she would be during the day, and I’d pay her accordingly.

And what’s this attitude that assumes teens are looking forward to an evening staying up late alone in your living room? Sure, I remember lots of peaceful nights from my own teen years. I’d get the kids to bed uneventfully and pop in a VHS, read a book, or do homework, checking periodically on the bedroom, until the parents came home.

But there were other times that after-hours babysitting was far from fun.  Sometimes (especially troublesome in the days before cell phones) parents came home much later than they’d said they would and I’d be struggling to stay awake, wishing I was home in bed, while my own parents surely were listening for me to return. On one memorable occasion babysitting at a very isolated house on a totally black night, a sudden loud banging at the back door terrified me (and the dog). Of course everything was locked up. I peered out the doors and windows to see if someone was out there. All I could see was the frosty, silent yard, with the woods on one side and a deep grassy field on the other.

When the parents came home, they said that maybe a skunk had come out of the woods and made the noise.

Sure it did. (To this day I wonder why they settled on a skunk.)

I’m not a fearful person by nature (one day I’ll tell you about my many nights at Eastern State Penitentiary with all the lights turned off). But anyone can get unnerved alone at night in a strange setting. Don’t assume your teenaged sitter is having a great time just because she can sit and watch TV.

So that’s why I’m sad that parents are still willing to pay teens $6, $7 or $8 per hour to take care of the kids, while implying that the job is low-key or easy if the kids are sleeping or well-behaved. Part of me wonders whether we’d have such persistent problems with the disparity between men’s and women’s pay in the US if teenage girls felt as if they could ask for a fair wage for babysitting, while the boy mowing the lawn earns twice as much. Maybe that’s far-fetched, but as I explained in a post earlier this year, I think your work experience as a teenager can have a lasting effect on your career. Who’s to say that the youthful habit of accepting $5 per hour (or less) to care for someone’s kids doesn’t affect a woman’s future ability to demand fair pay on the job?

I wish teen babysitters could be paid at least $15-$20 an hour, as a token of how important their responsibility is.

But I can hear the apoplectic parents now. How could they possibly afford to pay $40, $60 or even $80 just for babysitting every time they go out? I know a lot of families are strapped for cash. But I bet many of them have multiple TVs and two cars and a nice cable package plus Amazon Prime. I doubt many middle-class women balk at occasionally paying $40 or so for a nice blouse or sweater. Isn’t your kids’ wellbeing worth at least as much as a new outfit?

Maybe earning those few dollars for toting someone else’s kids around is an important rite of passage that teaches our teenagers a little hustle. If minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, maybe there’s nothing wrong with paying our babysitters a similar rate.

But it still seems to me that the low pay for babysitters is a legitimate part of a troubling tradition in our country: underpaying our teachers and child-care workers, while hedge fund managers and sports stars and advertisers and politicians are rich beyond most people’s imagining. Our treatment of the people who care for our children is a telling indication of our country’s true priorities.

Even as I write this essay, I’m afraid that I’ll desperately want to eat my words if I ever reproduce. A trustworthy teenager willing to watch my tot for a pittance will probably seem like the salvation of my sanity and bank account all at once.  So maybe I’ll wish I’d never written this, once I can actually relate to what it’s like to try to plan a night out when you have a young family.

But I still hope that if I ever hand my baby over to a high-schooler, I can pay her a rate that will signify how much I value the work she’s doing, and how important it is that she stay alert.

Parents, what is your experience? Babysitters, does what I say ring true?

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3 Comments

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  1. Babysitting is such an important job. As a mom, I completely agree with you on needing a break every now and then. Price varies so much based on where you live. We pay upwards of $15 / hour often.

    If you’re looking for a sitter, take a peek at Sitters Near Me (http://sittersnearme.com). It’s a search engine that lets you compare sitters and filter on what matter to you.

    • Thanks for weighing in from the mom perspective! I’m glad there’s a parent who agrees with my take – I could be blathering total nonsense, for all I know, since I have no children.

      I heard from a mom via Facebook that she gives her sitters a choice: the only way they can earn the same rate when the kids are awake and asleep is if she agrees to do housework as long as the kids are in bed. If the sitter doesn’t want to do housework, she has to accept a lower rate once the kids are in bed. Ouch! The babysitter-as-maid syndrome is something I didn’t even consider here…

  2. Haha I can totally relate to this. I have two daughters of my own and it’s a nightmare trying to get them to sleep. I feel bad for our babysitter at times…

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