Why babysitting isn't what it used to be

Publish Date
Saturday, 25 November 2017, 9:50AM
Photo / Getty

Photo / Getty

Molly is gluten-free. Tom is not allowed screen time and contemporary childcare is a whole lot more complicated than heating a frozen pizza. Kim Knight on babysitting angst.

He was a freckle-faced charmer with a grin made for Disney movies. Also, a rambunctious little bastard who refused to go to sleep.

Was it a toy car?

A Lego brick? I don't remember. But I took it off him and shut it in the top drawer of a tall white dresser with gold handles, then closed the door on his screams.

He screamed and he screamed and he screamed. Then the pitch of his screaming changed, so I opened the bedroom door. He was on the floor, there was blood on the dresser and a lot more blood streaming from his nose.

I was 14 and cell phones had not been invented. The demon's parents (and my own) were a 20-minute drive away, drinking at a country pub. I wiped his freckled face, put him back to bed and lit a cigarette. Inside.

There is a famous poem by Philip Larkin that starts, "They f*** you up, your mum and dad." To which, it might once have been pertinent to add, "and so can your babysitter".

New Zealand law does not "set" a legal age for babysitting. But it does make it an offence for a parent or guardian to leave a child under the age of 14 without making reasonable provision for their supervision or care. Police advise a babysitter must be "at least 14 years old" and "somebody you trust and your children feel happy with".

Two years before you can legally have sex or get your ears pierced without written parental consent, you can be left alone to look after a child. It will be another four years before you can have a glass of chardonnay with dinner but, at 14, someone may pay you to bathe, change and feed a person who is not yet old enough to walk or talk. And if all of that seems completely normal to anyone who remembers black and white television, then consider how the child-minding playing field has changed in the past few decades. (Hint: they've taken away the monkey bars.)

Cate Owen is 35. Once, when she was 14 and growing up in Gisborne, she let the children she was babysitting chop the hair off their Barbie doll. Their mother rang her mother and "it wasn't pleasant". In September, Owen (now an Auckland-based digital consultant) played her Twitter account for laughs: "Friend has left me in charge of her three under 6 tonight. Four pages of notes. Heheh."

Zoom in on the photo she posted. A nachos dinner must be measured precisely — one spoon of mince, 6-7 corn chips and four cherry tomatoes. There are instructions for sleeping (pink duvet, brown blankie) and what to do and for exactly how many minutes, if someone wakes up "crying or screaming or yelling" (or starts throwing mince).

Owen is mortified when Canvas tracks her down. She's a regular bedtime story reader to the three children she was minding, but this was her first sole-charge experience. Owen says those notes were more about the babysitter than the babies (she admits the truth would not have read so hilariously on social media).

"I don't know that the baby's head has to touch the top of the crib to feel secure. A mother knows that. So she wrote those little things to make it super-easy for me, so that I could go, 'oh, this is how it works' ... the fact is, mums have that intimate relationship that a babysitter doesn't.

"I just didn't want to have a screaming baby on one of the few times they get out to have this amazing date. I didn't want Aunty Cate ringing them at 7 o'clock going 'by the way I've dropped your baby on its head, and I gave the wrong amount of nachos to the child who is not going to sleep'. That was my fear.

"She knows her kids and their responses down to every nuance and kids need routine. So I did feel much better knowing that she'd taken that time to look after me that way."

And while plenty of Owen's followers responded with jokes ("I dare you to give them 8 chips and 3 tomatoes") more than one sent a note of support: "That's really sweet. Good on them for venturing out and yay you for stepping in."

Owen: "There's so much judgment on parents. If she hadn't have left the notes, people would have said she didn't care. So she does leave the notes, and people say she's over-the-top."

The tweet confirmed a truism. Parenting is not what it used to be — but neither is babysitting.

In the past decade the number of New Zealanders who identify as stay-at-home parents has almost halved, down from 21 per cent in 1996, to 13.9 per cent in 2016. In that environment, outsourced childcare is a given. Parents employ nannies and au pairs and book their kids into educational after-school care programmes. The 14-year-old from next door can't compare to a police-checked professional minder who can also fold washing and prepare a nutritious My Gluten Free Food Bag family dinner.

"Mothers are working," notes child psychologist Rebecca Daly-Peoples. "But lots of mothers have worked. In pre-industrial societies, while the mother might not be at home, there would be a grandmother or an aunt."

The modern grandparent may be a busy volunteer or still in paid employment. They may not live in the same town, or even country, as their offspring. Perversely, their offspring have never needed babysitters more.

"This generation of parents had a really extended youth compared to previous generations," says Daly-Peoples. "They're used to having social lives and independence. Going to a restaurant, for example, was a thing you did on very special occasions. Now, people will go out at least one night a week."

The modern mother and father are "helicopters" and "lawnmowers" (hovering and smoothing). They breed "cottonwool kids" who are members of the "bubble-wrap" generation. They know they are anxious and they have read the studies that show they are making their children anxious. So they vow to become "free-range" parents who let their kids roam solo — but only on Smug Street, where it's unlikely strangers will be handing out candy containing tartrazine e102.

To be a parent in 2017 is to have a label that spawns a best-selling self-help book and several million well-meaning headlines about how you're not brushing your children's teeth-hair-pony correctly. And it's inevitable some of that will be off-loaded onto the babysitter.

Daly-Peoples: "One of the themes that underlies helicopter parenting is guilt. 'I'm not there and so I want it to be as good as if I was'. There is this constant comparison and judgment and expectation, and the perils of getting it wrong seem so bad. It's information overload, it's parents being stretched too thin. I see it over and over again."

She says the prevalence of au pairs and nannies has raised the bar for babysitting. There is an expectation of professionalism that just wasn't there 30 or 40 years ago.

"When we were 14, the kids were asleep and you hung out and watched TV. Now there's a lot more actually getting the babysitter to do all of that stuff."

Is 14 too young to babysit?

"It depends. There are 14-year-olds that are perfectly capable. In previous generations, kids looked after themselves and, mostly, no terrible things happened. Today's 14-year-olds might be less capable of looking after children because they've never been given the opportunity to build independence and responsibility. We're in an age where it's just easier for parents to do things for kids than it is to get them to do it themselves."

Kane Welsh, 21, says the modern babysitter does as much chauffeuring as child-minding. He looks after an 11-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy between 3pm-6pm every week night.

"It's having someone in the house if anything goes wrong, and running them to and from after school activities. It's very, very planned out. It's quite different from my childhood."

He supervises no more than an hour on the X-box or screen-based activity, "to decompress — that's the buzzword that gets thrown around. All these young children have had such stressful days that they need to decompress."

He's taught his charges to unpack their lunchboxes. "Essentially, they were used to just dumping it on the bench and the nanny would do it."

Who's the king of the castle? The 9-year-old who has, effectively, become the chief executive of their own after-school domain, where the adult who is looking after them is neither a grandparent nor an older sibling, but a paid employee.

Georgia Meek, 24, established her business, The Babysitter's Club, while she was training to become a primary school teacher. She has 270 sitters on her books and, to date, more than 700 families in Auckland, Tauranga and Wellington have used her service. Costs start at $22 an hour, plus a $10 service fee.

She differentiates herself from the likes of recent Auckland start-up Sitterzen (where sitters are listed based on recommendations from parents they have previously worked for) offering childminders aged 18-and-over who have been police-checked and personally interviewed.

"It's all about having really interactive babysitters who are there to make a difference in children's lives. It's not actually just babysitting, it's having someone who is there to inspire and enhance that child's passion of interest.

"That is the huge change in babysitting. We don't have babysitters who just sit on the couch and ignore your children."

Meek remembers growing up in Raglan, "running around on the streets at night 
between my parents' house and their friend a couple of doors down and there weren't too many rules or regulations".

Today? "Quite often there are two working parents. Women are a lot more career-driven, so we are having children a lot later than back in the day. Maybe we are a little bit more world-wise ... once you step out into that big, wide world, you do realise, 'Oh my gosh, there are lots of things you need to be aware of,' and you do develop a lot more fear when you realise what is out there."

What are parents looking for in a babysitter? I emailed an impromptu survey to my colleagues. Their sitters ranged in age from 16 to 70. They were all female. They were paid between $10-$20 an hour and up to $100 for an overnight stay. Instructions were generally verbal or short notes. Most said they would only use someone they knew.

Biggest concerns:

"They have to love animals, given the menagerie we have."

"None. This is the woman who sat in the dark in a power cut and didn't even text us about where to find a torch."

"Are they mean? I did have a nanny and my son told me the other day he hated her. I felt dreadful he'd never said anything at the time."

"That they want to go home too early!"

Remember when Mum and Dad went to the pub and you sat in the car with a packet of chips and a raspberry-and-Coke? Today, the pub features a bouncy castle, face paint and pizza-making workshops.

Mark Jackson owns Auckland Sweat Shop Brew Kitchen. On the second Sunday afternoon of every month it hosts the "not your usual babysitters club".

The impetus? "The fact that I have a 2-year-old child now! And, to be honest, we know there's a market. I lived in the UK for 10 years and Sundays are a big family day at the pub."

The 30-something first-time parent takes time to adjust to the idea that their life as they knew it is over, agrees Jackson.

"They want to socialise with friends who are in a very similar position, and you don't want them to come round to your house, because all you want to do is get out of the house."

In September 2009, when the last New Zealand Childcare Survey was conducted, there were an estimated 520,900 children aged 5-13 years attending school.

It found that while 7.1 per cent of those were enrolled in formal after-school care programmes (and 1 per cent in before-school programmes), informal arrangements were more usual. Grandparents were the most common choice of babysitter (18.2 per cent), followed by other family members (12.4 per cent) and neighbours or friends (7.7 per cent).

And the friend's 14-year-old daughter? Sophie Magasiva, 17, says plenty of parents still employ teen sitters. She has recently raised her rate to $15 an hour and says she knows other teens who charge $20. But she agrees the modern parent has high expectations.

"No sweets, no chips — they have to sneak them in behind me. They always say 'please don't tell Mum'. I'm asked to make sure they go outside, or to take them to the park."

She enjoys looking after slightly older children. "I just play with them really. We go out into the pool, or I interact with what they're interested in. The big thing at the moment is Minecraft. I get quite interested in what they know, and they can teach me."

If the kids get pizza, so does the babysitter. She's used to parents checking in via text throughout the night and says she's had plenty of tears, "I'm quite strict!"

The most crucial piece of information for the modern teenage sitter? "I'm always asking for the Wi-Fi password!"

This article was first published on nzherald.co.nz and is reproduced here with permission.