You did it. I did it. We all did it in the brave old days of the 1980s and early ’90s.
As soon as we turned 14, our parents began to offer us up to their friends as potential babysitters. “Oh, she’s great with kids,” my mom would say. Yes, Elizabeth can totally watch your three girls, all under 6 years old for six hours at a time. And I did. I played with those kids. I cooked for those kids. And I put all three of them to bed and sat down on the couch to watch the only thing their parental-controlled TV would allow: Nick at Nite.
But my favorite kids to babysit were two boys, ages 6 and 4. I sat for them on New Year’s Eve, which meant that at 16, me and an Australian cattle dog had sole charge of two little boys until somewhere around 2 am.
This was totally normal in my small town. All the girls I knew did it. All of them were responsible. But now, talk about hiring a teenager to babysit and people clutch their pearls. “Is it safe?” one mom asked me. “What if something happens?” another asked, leaving the nature of that “something” dangling ominously between us. The consensus seems to be that if you’re not in college, you’re not fit to watch kids. This is grossly unfair. I had teenage sitters. I was a teenage sitter. And now, I use teenage sitters for my kids.
In fact, I had awesome teen sitters while I was growing up. Sure, there were a few disasters. When I was 3, my 2-year-old sister got her head stuck in the ornate porch banister. Poor teenage Carla had to call the fire department to free her. Then there was Becky who locked us out of the house, but she knocked on a neighbor’s door and called her dad to let us in. In those incidents, each girl showed a cool head and dealt with the situation. I couldn’t ask more from a college student.
And that’s why I use teens myself. I look for babysitters who have several younger brothers and sisters they’re comfortable bossing around (that’s often a good sign). I’ve seen that homeschooled teens in particular are often self-starters and content working on their own.
I hired 15-year-old Kyle to watch my boys while I went out during the day. While picking him up was inconvenient, my kids adored him. As another guy, he knew just what my boys needed. He picked them up and threw them. He wrestled. He carried them around piggyback. They build elaborate Lego creations and played outside. I always came home to exhausted kids when Kyle was at the helm. Unfortunately, I needed Kyle for daytime care, so with school, his schedule didn’t work out.
Fortunately, I have another one or two girls waiting in the wings for a trial. Contrary to popular belief, teens can be responsible. Kyle listened closely to the directions about how to use my son’s EpiPen and made sure he understood their food intolerances. When I came home, he’d made sure the boys had cleaned up after themselves, which is more than I can say for some of my college sitters. And so what if he couldn’t drive? If a sitter of mine needs to drive in the event of an emergency, they best just call an ambulance.
That’s not to say I’ve used every teen I’ve encountered. One potential sitter didn’t interact with the kids enough and had a giant leg tattoo at 17. Another I talked to didn’t have younger brothers or sisters, or much experience with kids. Nope and nope. I felt like I couldn’t trust the first to make good choices, and I couldn’t trust that my boys wouldn’t run all over the second.
But babysitting is a great gig for teenagers. They earn valuable experience having responsibility while being part of their community. Teens are moving into the wider world in baby steps, and as members of that community it’s important that we facilitate that transition. A lot of teens have a heavy school load and simply can’t sustain a permanent job. Babysitting offers much-needed work experience and the chance to earn money. And because teens are younger, they can serve as great role models for your kids.
Some teens may need a little more hand-holding. I always leave food out for teen sitters and some suggestions for activities, but in the end they’re worth it. In many cultures, even elementary-aged aged kids care of babies. And we’re flipping out about 15-year-olds who are capable, energetic, and eager to learn? And not only that, teens are eager to do a good job, too, because they want to be hired back.
We need to get over our teenage sitter phobia. Sure, they’re younger. But so were Kristi, Claudia, Mary Anne, and Stacey, who were all of 12 when they started The Baby-Sitters Club — a series we all read, loved, and thought was totally reasonable.
As parents and members of our communities, we have an opportunity to help teens learn to negotiate the wider world, problem-solve, gain confidence, and exercise responsibility.
So maybe it’s time to rethink the pearl-clutching. Remember the kids you babysat at 14 or 16? Think about how meticulous and careful you were. I happen to think teenage babysitters deserve a chance to show us all what they’re made of.