According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest use of the term baby-sitter was in a 1937 publication that described "two high-school girls in the neighborhood who hire out for twenty-five cents an evening as baby-sitters when the family wants to go to the movies." Up until the 1940s, however, the phrase minding the children was more widely used to describe the temporary care of children, which was principally done by family, kin, neighbors, and friends. Generations of American parents–especially those with few resources–often relied on their older children to care for younger SIBLINGS, despite attempts by reformers' to decrease child labor and increase school attendance. Typical of Depression-era child-care arrangements (in which children of both sexes played a principle part) is a 1935 episode of the Little Rascals in which Spanky is expected to "mind the baby" while his mother goes out. Declining birth rates, however, began to limit this option.
The disruptions caused by conscription, migration, and female employment during World War II challenged these traditional child-care patterns. As mothers and teenage girls worked for wages in the defense industries, retail trades, and the service sector, grandmothers, in addition to landladies and unrelated children, often baby-sat. At 25 cents a night, they were often burdened with housekeeping responsibilities along with caring for all the children of several families. With mothers at work and domestic servants scarce, home-front girls of all ages were expected to "keep house" as well as baby-sit. For all the work they did, wages were low–and sometimes paid only in part, or not at all.
Postwar prosperity, a gender ideology that promoted maternity and domesticity, sharply rising birth rates (with children being born closer together), and a new leisure culture all contributed to a surging demand for baby-sitters in the years following World War II. War-weary couples disrupted long-standing family and kin networks when they relocated to developing suburban communities largely populated by young parents like themselves. Parents–especially housewives and mothers eager for a "day off" and a "night out"– looked to teenage girls to baby-sit. By 1947, baby-sitting had become the principal form of part-time employment and the nearly exclusive domain (called the "petticoat monopoly") of teenage girls who had been both forced out of the economy and stimulated to consume by a burgeoning commercial teen culture. Empowered by their wartime autonomy, however, teenage girls protested poor working conditions (e.g., housekeeping, low wages), issued manifestos, devised labor codes, and organized baby-sitter unions in communities in the Northeast and Midwest.
During the 1950s, the politicization of baby-sitters gave way to their professionalization when "experts" established baby-sitter courses in schools and communities. The aim of these courses was to contain the subversive girls' culture that inspired baby-sitters to contest the working conditions they disliked. While it would not be until the early 1950s that dictionaries would include the term baby-sitter, teenage girls of the period often referred to this occupation as "bratting," a reference to the sometimes unruly children who were raised according to DR. SPOCK'S permissive methods of child rearing.
That there were too few reliable and responsible teenage girls in the population generally, and in the suburbs in particular, led experts to promote (and parents to employ) teenage boys as baby-sitters. While most boys in the 1950s delivered newspapers, mowed lawns, or did odd jobs, Life magazine reported in 1957 that nearly one-quarter of all boys worked as baby-sitters. Lionized in popular magazines, educational journals, and etiquette manuals by adults anxious about "momism," boy baby-sitters were widely praised for their professionalism and masculinity. In the absence of breadwinning fathers during the day, boy sitters were believed to instill virile virtues critical to the healthy development of little boys' gender identity.
The representation of the pleasure-seeking baby-sitter of the 1950s yielded to a highly sexualized one in the 1960s. The eroticized baby-sitter in high culture, folk culture, popular culture, and pornography was shaped by the sexual revolution, women's liberation, and the counterculture. Although baby-sitting largely continued as a mundane exchange of patience for pennies (about 75 cents per hour), teenage temptresses easily aroused husband-employers disenchanted with postwar suburban life. In MOVIES, TELEVISION sitcoms, and urban legends, the often vulnerable (yet implicitly voluptuous) teenage baby-sitter expressed the fears and fantasies of adults anxious about rapidly changing gender roles, girls' culture, the breakdown of the family, and community instability.
By the mid-1980s, when there were fewer teenagers in the population once again (and in the midst of a backlash against feminism), demonized baby-sitters in popular and made-for-TV movies threatened children, destabilized marriages, and destroyed families. At the same time, increasing employment opportunities for teens enabled many girls and boys to seek out jobs where they could make more money and meet people. The expanding retail trade and service industries provided greater remuneration, status, and sociability than did the often solitary job of "sitting." Beset by last-minute calls, cancellations, bounced checks, uncertain hours (generally later than expected), drunk drivers, and sexual harassment, teenage girls increasingly relinquished babysitting jobs to inexperienced preadolescent girls.
Though postwar parents had been warned by experts not to hire a baby-sitter who was younger than her mid-teens, preadolescent girls began to be hired in the mid-1980s by new parents whose increased rates of childbirth were reversing a fifteen-year demographic trend. Often educated in "safe sitting" training courses offered by local schools and hospitals, preadolescent girls have since been acculturated by The Baby-sitters Club book series (written by Ann M. Martin) and movie spin-offs that idealize the preadolescent "Super Sitter" and an emergent "girl power" ideology that: (1) reinforces the belief that determination, ambition, individual achievement, competence, and hard work enables girls to realize their dreams; (2) encourages girls' economic role in the consumer market; and (3) fosters empowerment through pleasure, style, FASHION (e.g., makeup), and attitude.
Forman-Brunell, Miriam. Forthcoming. Get a Sitter! Fears and Fantasies about Babysitters. New York: Routledge.
Margolin, Leslie. 1990. "Child Abuse by Baby-Sitters: An Ecological-Interactional Interpretation." Journal of Family Violence 5, no. 2 (June): 95-105.
Neus, Margaret. 1990. "The Insider's Guide to Babysitting: Anecdotes and Advice from Babysitters for Babysitters." Master's thesis, Emerson College, Boston.