Recently my thirteen year old told me he’d like to start babysitting. We began brainstorming all the ways to keep little kids busy; simple games and activities, etc. I signed him up for a local 4-H babysitting course. I offered him out to some friends as a “mother’s helper” to learn some skills before offering himself out for official hire.
It reminded me of all the babysitting jobs I had when I was younger. I did none of the above things before my first job. Or after my first job. Or during any of the jobs, for that matter. Babysitting in the 1980’s was more like Baptism By Fire. You either figured it out quickly, or you didn’t. There weren’t a lot of prerequisites for babysitting jobs then; the family knows your family, you have a pulse, you’re not abusive, you’re not likely to fall asleep while the kids are still awake…
My first job was for a neighbor family a few houses down from us. Beth, the mom, hired me when I was eleven. I remember this age because I was at an awkward tween cross-roads. I’d once taken a nasty spill off a homemade bike jump right in front of her house, blood and gravel all over my knees and hands. Beth heard me screaming and carried me to my house. I was young enough for her to do this for me. I look back on that now, and wonder, What was she thinking? Eleven?? I must have presented myself well for her to trust me with her four year old and six year old.
Although truthfully, she didn’t have me do anything really hard, mostly just play with them. If it was an evening out for the parents, Beth would feed the kids an early dinner and then we would just play games until it was time for bed. I don’t remember having any trouble putting them to bed. She must have either bribed them heartily or put the fear of God into them.
Then I’d watch TV in the den until they came home. I distinctly remember that feeling of power that came with being in charge and having that TV remote all to myself: I could watch whatever I wanted. This was a complete rarity in my house. Actually it was a nonexistent privilege. I never had this much freedom with the TV. Oh how I loved babysitting.
It was a pretty good gig- until a spot of trouble one evening. I was in the backyard playing with the four year old, and the six year old had gone into the house for something. Next thing I know, I hear his voice calling me- from above my head. I looked up to see him grinning impishly at me from the roof over the kitchen. He’d gone into his sister’s room, opened the screen and climbed out onto the roof. I don’t think my eleven year old self had ever been so scared in my life. I immediately thought this would be the last time the family would ask me to sit for them—because who wants a sitter who can’t keep a kid from falling off the roof? I honestly thought he was going to do something crazy like jump off and I was going to have to explain why their kid was so broken. I’d never once had to use the emergency phone numbers they’d left for me. That was a point of pride.
I must have used a demon voice when I yelled at him to get off the roof because he did. And that was that.
But I did have a huge knot in my stomach for the rest of the night because I knew I’d have to tell the parents what happened. I was so scared they’d somehow think it was my fault. I could barely enjoy my private TV time that night.
There was another family in the neighborhood that also thought I was old enough to babysit their kids. I remember sometimes making excuses for why I couldn’t babysit for these two boys… they were wild. I felt like I had no skills, no control over them. At least their house was all one floor though, so I didn’t have to worry about them climbing onto the roof.
An added layer of stress for this job was the mom would usually ask me to feed the boys dinner. I didn’t even cook for myself (does toast count?) so I hadn’t reached the level of understanding of what happens when you put a hotdog in a microwave. (We didn’t even have a microwave at this point in my youth.) The boys thought the exploding hotdog trick was hilarious, maybe that I’d even done it on purpose. I was not laughing, you see, because there weren’t that many hotdogs left so I really couldn’t afford a lot of mistakes here. Plus my stomach was in knots (again) over what I might eat. I didn’t like hotdogs.
These brothers tended to be pretty rambunctious; it was a neighborhood legend how their mom yelled at them and chased them around the yard when they’d misbehaved, which was often. Even knowing this, it wasn’t impossible to get them to bed. They also had cats, which for some reason freaked me out a little. I was more of a dog person; cats to me were unpredictable as well as rather unfriendly. And I was never entirely sure what they (the cats) were allowed to do or if I was supposed to do anything with them.
Again- I was only eleven.
One night while getting the kids to bed, one of them told me the cat had fleas. And to watch out. I didn’t exactly know what this meant, but now I was more freaked out. I happened to look down at my white socks and see black flecks jumping about.
I was no longer hungry for… anything. Somehow I knew it wasn’t a good idea to sit on anything with cushions or pillows. I pulled a wooden chair from the kitchen over to the TV and sat stiff-backed in that chair, with my feet off the carpet, until they came home.
I couldn’t get out of that house fast enough.
I once had a regular babysitting job for my mom’s friend- she lived in an apartment close to my house. She had one daughter who was exceptionally easy to sit for, and the mom always ordered Domino’s pizza for us. Which was amazing, because my family hated Domino’s and never ordered it. Despite the anxiety of opening the apartment door to a complete stranger (the delivery kid), this was probably my favorite sitting job.
This mom referred me to a friend of hers, and I babysat quite a few times for her little girl too. Sometimes that mom’s boyfriend would drive me home. Actually, I’m amazed that my own mom allowed me to be alone in the car with a man who was essentially a complete stranger.
My grandparents had this young family as neighbors, they had a boy who was about three years old and a newborn girl, maybe a few months old. The trusted me to babysit too, although I was probably about 12 or 13 by this time.
But. I was literally terrified of babies. And I was terrified of the parents knowing this. Babies cried loudly and would vomit for no apparent reason. They pooped and I didn’t know how to change a diaper. They were fragile and messy and I had no idea how to handle them.
Luckily this family would put their newborn to bed before I came over and it would be just me and their sweet little boy. We’d play games and read books and watch TV until bedtime. He never fussed or fought me about bedtime. EVER. And that baby never once woke up when I was over there. I would find myself at the bottom of the stairs holding my breath, listening and praying that it wasn’t a crying infant I’d heard over the TV show I was watching. I cannot emphasize enough how terrified I was of that baby waking up while I was there. What would I do with her?
I was a pretty anxious kid. How in the world did I effectively mask this?
Looking back on this, it seems to me terribly unusual that she never ever ever woke up. Either my own babies were the worst sleepers on the planet by comparison, or they put Bourbon or Benadryl in her bottle before I came over.
When I graduated from college, I got a temporary job as a nanny for two kids. The family had hired an au-pere but she wasn’t due to arrive right away, so I was filling in for a few weeks. They offered me the empty au-pere’s bedroom, which was a nice offer, considering their house was an hour away from where I was. I thanked them anyway, but just wanted to be able to sleep in my own bed.
I was with these kids more hours in each day than any other babysitting job I’d had. I drove their mini van to take them to ballet and karate class. I made them lunch and dinner each day, and I arrived while they were eating breakfast.
One of the first days I was there, the mom left instructions for dinner- preheat the grill and cook the chicken that was marinating in the fridge. Very simple, basic directions.
Except that I’d never turned on a grill before and I was very unsure of how exactly to cook the chicken… I was afraid to admit that at twenty-two years old I’d not cooked like this for myself or anyone and I didn’t want to serve undercooked chicken. I stood outside on the deck and stared at the grill for a solid five minutes before touching anything.
I kept hoping that if I stalled long enough one of the parents would arrive home and take over dinner duty. I don’t exactly remember how I figured things out that night (no one had cell phones at this time), but the grill got turned on, the chicken got cooked and no one got salmonella.
That’s a Win.
My lack of cooking knowledge as a young adult could be an entire blog piece by itself. I think one of the take-away lessons here is to teach your kids to cook, early and often. Or at least to be sort of proficient and comfortable in the kitchen…
I cannot guarantee my son will babysit kids that are easy to put to bed, but I feel like he will have more “tools” than I did at that age. He has a cell phone, and I’m only a quick text away if anything goes sideways. He can cook for himself, and does quite often. He’s talked extensively with his older sister who used to babysit a lot. I probably cannot accurately prepare him for how to deal with kids who might climb out of windows onto the roof, or with cats who have fleas. But those things build character right? And don’t we want our kids to learn valuable problem solving skills?
At the very least, my stories can serve as parables or just comedic fodder.