KATE EMERY: Don’t tell me the (teenage) babysitter’s dead. It’s time to bring them back

Kate Emery
The Nightly
5 Min Read
The Baby-Sitters Club reminded me how old the original characters were from the books, writes Kate Emery. And I was shocked.
The Baby-Sitters Club reminded me how old the original characters were from the books, writes Kate Emery. And I was shocked. Credit: Netflix

If you grew up reading The Baby-Sitters Club books and are now a parent yourself, prepare to be shocked.

Because, while you surely remember that the books were about a group of friends who babysat local kids, while learning important life lessons, like how racism is bad and ghosts probably don’t exist, I bet you don’t remember how old those kids were.

Twelve — that was the age of the club’s founding member. The youngest was 11.

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If you, like me, struggle to imagine a world in which mum or dad blithely hands off their child to another literal child then you, like me, are part of the problem.

The problem is that we might have killed the teenage babysitter.

Not literally.

But that’s the premise of an essay published in The Atlantic, Don’t Tell America The Babysitter’s Dead, which argues that what was once a rite of passage for American teenage girls has largely disappeared.

I can’t speak to the US experience — my exposure to American babysitters being confined to their starring role as potential murder victims/inappropriate objects of lust for Bad Dads in too many B-grade films.

What I can say, is that the landscape for teenage babysitters in Australia is vastly different from the 1990s, when I routinely babysat young children.

Back then my primary role was to make sure the kids brushed their teeth (sort of), went to bed (mostly) and didn’t burn down the house (completely). My secondary role was to hunt down all the empty-calorie foods I didn’t get at home and eat them while gorging on all the empty-calorie TV I wasn’t allowed at home to fuel the nightmares I could never explain to my parents.

I had no first-aid certificate. I had no police clearance. All I had was a remote control, a landline and a list of emergency telephone numbers stuck to the fridge.

In 2024, there is no legal age to babysit in Australia. But an unscientific survey of fellow parents suggests most aren’t sure a 12-year-old should be left home alone, much less charged with keeping another child alive.

There are a few things going on here.

Are you tired of helicopter parents being society’s favourite punching bag? Too bad because they (we?) deserve a bit of a whack on this one.

Changing parental expectations isn’t all bad: It’s not a tragedy that we no longer, say, let kids doze in the backseat of the car while their parents get on the lash at the pub. But the rise of anxious parenting means a growing number of them (us?) now expect babysitters to come with CPR skills and years of experience, not a mouth full of metal and a bag full of homework.

The solution to bringing the teenage babysitter off life support is trust.

It’s not just the little kids that parents worry about more: it’s the teenagers themselves. If parents aren’t too busy shielding their kids from the perceived threat of lecherous dads, they’re busy loading them up with after-school activities, either to keep them busy while both parents work or because they’ve been socially conditioned to believe that a failure to provide piano lessons and soccer skills by the age of ten is a form of child abuse.

Then there’s the fact that smaller families mean older siblings are less likely to be schooled in the art of babysitting from a young age.

If you haven’t grown up sticking bandaids on knees and plastic spoons in gaping maws, young kids can be more terrifying than any of those B-grade horror flicks.

Contrary to what Ramsay Street would have you believe, Aussies are not as connected to their neighbours as they once were, not least because the trend towards having two working parents means less time to chat over the fence.

Only about half of us in the metro area know our neighbours (that jumps up to 70 per cent in the regions). And if you don’t know your neighbours you’re less likely to ask one of them to babysit your kids — or trust your kid to babysit for them.

If all this sounds like I want to live inside a Norman Rockwell painting, you’ve missed the point.

There aren’t many historical traditions I’d like to resurrect. Bring back duelling as a way to resolve disputes? No thanks. Return to the days when virgins were sacrificed for a better harvest? Hard pass.

But the teenage babysitter is a tradition that deserves to become normalised again.

Not just because it’s good for both the kids being babysat and those doing the babysitting: Young children generally love hanging out with older children and older children flourish when they’re given a taste of independence (while knowing help is a phone call away).

It’s also — and this is important — cheap.

Teenage babysitters don’t have mortgages to pay. They just want a bit of extra cash to save for... OK I have no idea what teenagers are into these days but that’s what they’re saving for. That thing.

Qualified adult babysitters, by comparison, can easily run to $30 an hour. It’s hard to enjoy a night out watching King Kong x Godzilla: The New Empire, when you know those two hours of watching a giant gorilla experience existential ennui is costing you $60 even before you buy the movie tickets.

The solution to bringing the teenage babysitter off life support is trust.

To trust young people. To trust our own kids.

To trust that teenagers haven’t actually changed all that much in the past 30 years. They’re still likely to let your kids stay up slightly too late. They’re still perfectly capable of calling for help in an emergency. And they’re still just as capable of discovering — and consuming — your entire chocolate supply over the course of an evening, however well you imagine you’ve hidden it.

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