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​​​​​​​Whatever Happened to Teen Babysitters?

​​​​​​​Whatever Happened to Teen Babysitters?
​​​​​​​Whatever Happened to Teen Babysitters?

Babysitting used to be both a job and a rite of passage. For countless American teens, and especially teen girls, it was a tentative step toward adulthood—responsibility, but with guardrails. Perhaps you didn’t cook dinner, but you did heat some leftovers for the kids. Maybe you arrived to find them already tucked in, and you read them a story, turned out the lights, and watched TV until the car turned into the drive. You knew who to call if anything serious came up. Paula Fass, a historian of childhood at UC Berkeley, told me that she started sitting around 1960, when she was 12 or 13. By the time she’d arrive, she remembers, the parents had put their kids to bed and stocked the fridge for her to raid. They recognized that she was grown-up enough to be an extra eye in the home—but childlike enough to go looking for snacks.

Sitting was a “quintessentially American experience,” Yasemin Besen-Cassino, a Montclair State University sociologist and the author of The Cost of Being a Girl: Working Teens and the Origins of the Gender Wage Gap, told me. For decades, working a part-time job was common for teens in the U.S.—perhaps a reflection of the cultural emphasis on hard work, discipline, and financial independence. Even tweens would babysit. And something about that position, teetering between dependence and independence, got lodged in our cultural imagination. Starting in the mid-20th century, the young sitter became an emblem of American girlhood—both a classic coming-of-age character and a locus of anxieties about girls’ growing autonomy. Just how mature are these teens? How much control should they have? And what kind of adults are they on the cusp of turning into? Those concerns preoccupied people not only in real life but also in a plethora of books, shows, and movies.

Today, the teen babysitter as we knew her, in pop culture and in reality, has all but disappeared. People seem to worry less about adolescents and more for them, and for their future prospects. As Fass put it, “Teenagers don’t seem very grown-up these days.” There’s not much reason to fear or exalt babysitters anymore—because our society no longer trusts teens to babysit much at all.

The 1920s were boom times for leisure. New technologies made chores easier, freeing up couples’ time, and growing wages gave people more disposable income. Meanwhile, restaurants and movie theaters proliferated, and car ownership exploded. Parents were going out at night—and more mothers were working during the day too. At the same time, traditional child-care providers were becoming less available, Miriam Forman-Brunell, a historian at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, wrote in her book Babysitter: An American History; grandparents, for instance, were enjoying social lives of their own. Working-class families, Fass told me, would still have been likely to enlist older siblings to watch the young ones. But middle-class parents could also afford to pay a few bucks to the kid down the block, who—as companies were marketing products, more and more, to youths—now had a reason to want pocket money. The teen babysitter was born.

From the beginning, the role was viewed with suspicion. Granting a young person unmonitored control over your children and your house may naturally have been a little worrisome—but beyond that, the sitter took on brewing cultural anxieties. Given that she was working outside her own home—and earning her own pay—she represented teen girls’ growing autonomy, according to Forman-Brunell. She was also associated with women’s liberation. After all, parents needed her partly because moms were starting not only to work but also to enjoy free time on the town. (Before the ’20s, Fass told me, “that kind of leisure had not been common to married women.”)

Those domestic worries came through in pop-culture depictions of the sitter. In the midst of the 1960s sexual revolution, she was often portrayed as a temptress, seducing fathers when mom was away; in the ’70s, she started showing up in horror movies, trapped with a killer in the house and kids to protect—perhaps a way, Forman-Brunell suggests, to see her punished for her self-sufficiency or for the irresponsible behavior audiences seemed to imagine. None of that was likely helping sitters’ reputation, but parents still needed them. That’s when The Baby-Sitters Club, the ’80s book series about a group of tweens running a sitting business—and solving mysteries in their spare time—came to the PR rescue. The novels exemplified what Forman-Brunell calls the “supersitter” trend, portraying fun but well-behaved, competent girls: role models for kids, and also a comfort for nervous parents. Teens’ trustworthiness was a tug-of-war.

But that cultural battle has quieted. There’s little point in it now, perhaps, because actual teens may not be babysitting so much anymore. The field is hard to track precisely, because it’s so informal by definition, but sources told me that many parents today are looking for professionalized child care, or at least older and more experienced caregivers. Teens, meanwhile, are given few opportunities for responsibility—especially with the kind of training wheels that babysitting used to entail.

The archetypal sitter lived just a few doors down. She was the daughter of your friends; she was the girl you’d been watching grow up for years. But Americans today tend to be less well acquainted with neighbors than they used to be, and they trust other people less in general. If you’re not familiar with the high-schooler on your block, you might not feel comfortable placing your children in her questionably capable hands. Even more than that: You might never connect in the first place.

Even if parents do know potential young sitters nearby, they may still hesitate to rely on them. In the past few decades, as “intensive parenting” has become a child-rearing ideal across classes, grown-ups have broadly begun to see kids as fragile and in need of constant oversight. Tweens or younger teens might not seem like comforting sources of protection—they might seem like children in need of watching themselves. As Fass pointed out, it didn’t used to be unusual for 12-year-olds to babysit. Now more than two-thirds of American parents think kids should be 12 or older before they’re even left home alone. Several states have guidelines issuing a similar age limit; in Illinois, kids legally can’t be left unattended until age 14.

The intensive-parenting approach isn’t just about physical safety; it’s also about ensuring kids’ future financial security, using every spare moment to “enrich” them with skills. Besen-Cassino found in her reporting that this was very much part of parents’ calculus when it came to their children’s care. Many families don’t want their kids wasting time sitting in front of the TV or even just playing, she told me; they want them learning, say, math or piano or another language. And if kids are spending time in scheduled activities led by adults, they don’t need a sitter.

The same trend means teens themselves are also likely to be preoccupied—too busy with SAT prep or Model UN to be babysitting. Indeed, teen-labor participation has been dropping for decades, driven in part by adolescents turning instead to academic pursuits and internships. (High-schooler employment rates rose slightly after 2020—perhaps partly because employers, strapped while emerging from pandemic lockdown, were more willing to accommodate teens’ hectic schedules—but remain lower than they were in the latter half of the 20th century.) Part-time employment used to be a milestone in many kids’ transition to adulthood. But today, the period between childhood and adulthood seems to be longer than ever—psychologists call it “extended adolescence.” Americans are getting married, having kids, and buying houses at older ages, and spending longer on education and career exploration beforehand. So teens don’t just seem unfit for babysitting; babysitting might also seem unfit for teens. It’s not the kind of thing you think to put on a résumé.

Of course, not every teen has the privilege of doing an unpaid internship rather than making money; not every family can afford to fill their kids’ time with tutoring or extracurriculars. But intensive parenting isn’t limited to the superrich; it was initially described as a middle-class phenomenon, and more recently it’s spread, at least as an aspiration, across classes. So while less wealthy families are particularly likely to rely on unpaid child care from relatives or friends, many other parents are scrambling to give their kids a leg up with activities—or, if they’re really rich, leaning also on au pairs or boarding schools. It’s unclear who exactly the clientele for the humble babysitter really is anymore.

The result is that babysitting today feels more like a symbol of a bygone American era than a normal part of how teens come of age. The glut of babysitting pop-culture content has thinned significantly; even the TV reboot of The Baby-Sitters Club, which was such a massive hit as a book series, was canceled in 2022 after two seasons. The creator, Rachel Shukert, told Vulture that she believes that was partly because Netflix marketed it to girls rather than to grown-ups: “A show like this has tremendous nostalgic potential,” she said. “But if you’re 35 and you loved the books … Netflix is not going to show The Baby-Sitters Club to you.” It doesn’t sound like it hit teens particularly hard, perhaps because the experience of babysitting isn’t relatable to them.

Or maybe it just didn’t hit a cultural nerve because our fears are evolving. The Baby-Sitters Club was a blueprint for girls becoming women in a time when people were anxious about them maturing the right way. But most of the main characters are 12 or 13 when the series begins; Mallory, initially one of the club’s charges, starts babysitting herself at 11. It might no longer seem like a coming-of-age narrative because people may be less likely to see 11-to-13-year-olds as coming of age at all—just as kids.

Teen babysitters still exist, but they’re facing a different field than they once might have—more structured and formal. A 2020 study found that sitters tended to prepare carefully for their role, taking safety courses and planning a slate of activities in advance—and parents were comforted by those displays of seriousness. When Besen-Cassino spoke with sitters for her research, she learned that they had used their free time not just to get CPR training or lifeguard certifications or driving lessons but also to take classes so they could offer to help kids learn math or music or sports. They advertised themselves, she told me, as “not just a babysitter but someone who can change the life of that child.”

Especially given that babysitting has long been undervalued and underpaid, it seems unfair that teen girls should have to make all that extra effort just to get their foot in the door. And yet, caregiving is serious work; the fact that parents are taking it seriously is warranted. For so long, it’s been treated as something girls and women do naturally, not as labor that requires skills and deserves fair compensation. If we acknowledge that babysitting is more than just a starter job, maybe it makes sense for adults to take it on.

But young people do need some opportunities for growth. Rebecca Raby, a professor of child and youth studies at Brock University, in Canada, told me that first jobs can be extremely formative, even empowering experiences. She’s found that many young babysitters have a sense of pride in their craft and their earning ability. In the liminal space of early teenhood—a time of feeling awkward, misunderstood, and largely powerless—having a job can grant you dignity. And to be a role model for a younger kid might be nothing short of profound.

Ideally, society could acknowledge the gravity of caregiving but also support the teens who want to do it—and some people are working toward just that. Margaret House, a coordinator for Oregon State University’s community-partnership program, runs a babysitting-training program through the youth-leadership organization 4-H. She teaches teens about child development but also how to impress wary parents: the dos and don’ts of being in someone else’s home, different parenting styles, how to talk about yourself in interviews. They discuss how this work can lead to a real career—working in a day-care center, teaching preschool, researching early childhood—and how they might include babysitting on a résumé. Still, she doesn’t forget that this work is about creating trust in communities. Sure, it takes a village to raise a child, she told me, but “there is no village.” So grown-ups have to build it themselves.

House does sometimes have trouble connecting her sitters to parents. Recently, she tried to do a meet and greet at the local library, and she remembers that only a couple of adults showed up. But she doesn’t doubt that there’s an audience out there. She reminds the teens to tell parents about any extra talents they have, yes, but she boosts them up regardless: “Parents might want someone who’s older and going to be able to teach them multiple languages or whatever.” But just by being present and attentive, they’re offering a valuable service. “So don’t shortchange yourself,” she tells them.

Families still need help caring for their kids. Teens still need money, and chances to practice responsibility. And neighbors could stand to trust one another more—to start building their village. That won’t look just like it did in 1950, but that’s for the best. Perhaps we’ll find a way to finally treat adolescents as just what they are: not children and not adults, not scary and not superhuman. Just young people who, with a bit of support, can be capable of a great deal.

By Miriam Forman-Brunell

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