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Q&A: Babysitter: An American History

Why the sitter scares the parents Add to ...

You'll need her if you want that sanity-saving night on the town. But are you sure you want to leave your kids alone with "that girl?" She'll probably raid your refrigerator and invite boys over for make-out sessions on the couch. Heck, if you believe the most ridiculous urban myths, she may even pop some LSD and mistakenly put the baby in the oven.

But before we assume such nasty things about the babysitter, maybe we should take a long, hard look at ourselves, writes Miriam Forman-Brunell in her new book Babysitter: An American History , the first tome to analyze the ubiquitous, yet misunderstood teenaged caretaker.

Deserved or not, the University of Missouri-Kansas City professor tells The Globe and Mail, the babysitter's got a bad rap. And it hasn't changed much with time.

From reading your book, it seems like babysitters are a beaten-down bunch.

There's this tension that is implicit to the babysitter: On the one hand, she is imagined ideally as this archetypal girl next door, and yet the flipside of that is that she's demonized as this unpredictable teenager who represents all the kinds of hazards of female empowerment. The babysitter itself is just fraught with all kinds of these contested meanings, and so for many parents, what do they desire? They desire this surrogate mother, and yet their fantasies are that she's in fact very powerful in a destructive kind of way.

Why do these fantasies persist? What's so scary about teenage girls?

Three forces are all colliding: One is just the vulnerabilities that parents feel when they leave their house and they leave their children in the care of someone else. [Two is that]popular culture reflects a lot of these anxieties and also realizes them. They make them more prevalent and pervasive than they actually are. Third, I think there is a perception that when girls have power and when girls are independent, both parents and the culture are not comfortable with that. There's a fear of how far they will take it.

Do you think these perceptions about babysitters are fair?

Like all stereotypes, there's a little kernel of something that's true. There have certainly been some terrible babysitters who have done horrendous things. On the other hand, when you look at it in context, what you find out is that babysitters, especially female adolescent babysitters, are committing way, way fewer crimes against children than parents themselves are. And also, in fairness to babysitters, they're very often put into positions that are really untenable.

For a while, boys were actually the preferred sitters. Why?

In the popular culture, [boys]emerge as this counterpoint to bad girls. In the 1950s, there was a 45 record that came out about Donald Duck the Babysitter. In that, he's reliable and responsible and competent and respectable and everything that the female adolescent babysitter is not.

And then pre-pubescent girls came into the picture.

Demographically, there was no other place to go so [parents]went down. But also, during the 1980s, there was a push for this as a real investment in girls, socializing them to feel good about themselves, to feel competent and basically helping to generate a fairly plucky, spirited generation. The Babysitter's Club books really helped to solidify that. It was very ideologically driven on the part of feminists, but it was also something that paid off for parents because they would get these can-do girls.

Isn't that taking advantage of them?

I'll say. They get convinced that this is girl power, this is feminism, and not realizing 'Hey, wait a second. I'm just really fulfilling the needs of the society for someone to take care of children.'

If there's such a babysitter shortage, why are we perpetuating these negative stereotypes? Can't we just get over it?

It would be nice if we could get over it, but the thing is parents need to first make conscious what their fears are, what their expectations are and need to see them in a much broader context. I think it would really help if they understood that when they open that door to the babysitter, that they're opening the door onto much larger expectations, specifically about teenage girls.

Is it time the babysitter had her day?

Absolutely. There she is, really propping up families, making it possible for parents to live their lives. If you listen to, as I have, the stories that people tell about babysitters they've had [you'll hear]how incredibly important they were to them as role models. They have been so enormously important socially, culturally and economically. Hopefully in the future they will play a larger role.

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