Babysitter: An American History
By Miriam Forman-Brunell
(NYU Press, 313 pages, $29.95)
Review By 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.
According to Ms. Forman-Brunell, neither side has been entirely pleased with this unregulated slice of the labor market. Hence, babysitting has figured in much of society’s angst over teen culture and the changing American family since the words “baby sitter” first appeared in print in the book “American City” in 1937. In the 1940s, parents with memories of the Depression still fresh complained about sitters driving up their phone bills. In the 1950s, parents groused about girls “raiding the fridge and jitterbugging in the living room.” In the 1960s, the criticism centered on rebellious teenage babysitters necking with their boyfriends or taking drugs. (An urban legend, often called “Wasted and Basted,” involved a babysitter taking LSD, mistaking the baby for a turkey and sticking the kid in the oven.)
The 1970s saw adults seeming to take their revenge: Jamie Lee Curtis in “Halloween” (1978) was just one of what seemed like a schoolbus-full of babysitters who would be terrorized in slasher movies. But babysitters haven’t been uniformly the cause of complaint or dark thoughts: For a while in the 1980s and 1990s, the vast popularity of Ann M. Martin’s “Baby-sitter’s Club” book series helped recast teen girls as budding businesswomen. That positive image, though, was an anomaly.
For their part, babysitters haven’t been thrilled with their lot, either. At least my check-writing Grinch paid me; tales are legion of parents stiffing their sitters, staying out until 3 a.m. and then coming home drunk, demanding that the sitters wax the floors or, in the case of fathers, making lewd comments or actual advances. As Ms. Forman-Brunell observes, the inability of many young adolescents to stand up for themselves is one reason they’re not allowed into the workplace — and why they’re susceptible to being exploited behind the closed doors of the neighbors or family friends.
It is a bleak picture that the author presents, beginning with book’s cover art: a 1947 Norman Rockwell portrait of a screaming infant yanking a harried girl’s hair as she desperately studies a babysitting manual. But while Ms. Forman-Brunell does a good job of highlighting the woes of babysitting, one can’t help noticing that in her acknowledgments she profusely thanks her own sitters, including twin sisters who were “terrific mother’s helpers to me and playful companions to my children.” Maybe relations between parents and babysitters are closer to her own experience than to the fraught dealings she chronicles.
Ms. Forman-Brunell certainly brings to this project a scholar’s zeal for painstaking research. She digs up fascinating facts, such as that parents considered teen boy babysitters superior to girls for much of the 20th century. At Princeton in 1946, members of the all-male student body formed the Tiger Tot Tending Agency: young men watching faculty brats for 35 cents an hour. Less fascinating is the author’s style of presenting her research gems. Sentences that start with “Applying Michel Foucault’s theory of discourse to the history of babysitting” and that include the phrase “constituted subjectivities” may make the reader feel like crying for mommy.
Still, Ms. Forman-Brunell does a service by documenting one of the few remaining common denominators of American life — though this one, too, is disappearing. In recent years, she notes, teen girls have started participating in sports and school activities far more than in the past. And their allowances have increased. The result, Ms. Forman-Brunell notes, is that fewer and fewer girls have “either the time or desire to babysit.” And perhaps adults are growing more cautious. I liked earning money as a girl, but as a parent now I can’t imagine employing an 11-year-old to mind my toddler. So I hire adults instead — and pay a living wage.
Ms. Vanderkam is a writer in New York.