In 1946, 14-year-old Sylvia Plath secured her first baby-sitting gig in Wellesley, Mass. She looked forward to the job in “an excited state of anticipation,” she wrote soon after in a paper for her English class, but by the end of the evening she had become a cynic. “Little children are bothersome beings that have to be waited on hand and foot, who are generally around when not wanted, and who are, all in all, a nuisance,” she concluded.
Plath may not have enjoyed what she described as an exhausting evening of burned popcorn and endless storybook reading, but at least she and her charges emerged relatively unscathed. Fictional sitters aren’t always so lucky. In the new movie The Sitter, Jonah Hill plays a college student who hauls a trio of hellions to a raucous party in Manhattan. The film is a bawdy homage to the 1980s classic Adventures in Babysitting; in both films, danger ensues when sitters drag their charges away from the safety of home. Hill’s character boasts an even richer lineage, joining The Three Stooges, Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, and John Candy in the parade of bumbling fictional male baby sitters overwhelmed by their duties. But the real cultural history of American baby-sitting stars not rotund man-boys, but adolescent girls like Plath.
Older children have always cared for younger ones, but according to historian Miriam Forman-Brunell’s excellent Babysitter: An American History, released in paperback this month, the Depression created baby-sitting as a phenomenon, and World War II cemented it. The anemic economy of the 1930s barred young people from the traditional labor market, which made tending neighborhood children a natural occupation for girls. Demand increased, too, as more than 1 million women went to work for the first time over the course of the 1930s, and birth rates rose at the end of the decade. When America joined the war, better jobs became suddenly plentiful, and there was a dip in the baby-sitting market: The new minimum wage easily beat the going quarter-an-hour rate for sitting.
Meanwhile, a newly robust teen culture threw journalists and parents into a frenzy. Newsweek warned breathlessly that “[T]he moral breakdown among teen-age American girls” was “the gravest home-front tragedy of the war.” The solution was to pitch baby-sitting as a patriotic duty, which would keep teen girls busy and domesticate them along the way. Youth magazines like Calling All Girls and Recreation promoted the job as a way to contribute to the war effort, while adult publications including Parents touted the advantages of hiring a well-trained girl to help while father was at war and mother at work. Baby-sitter training programs from the Girl Scouts, the YWCA, the Children’s Aid Society, the Women’s Army Corps, and other institutions gave the pocket-money pastime a semiprofessional sheen. LIFE magazine reported that by 1957 more than half of all junior-high schools offered baby-sitting instruction. Songs like “Baby Sitter Boogie,” “Baby Sitter Rock,” and “Baby Sittin’ All the Time” took over the radio in the 1950s, too.
But even as the baby boom and a more mobile workforce made baby sitters essential, sitters provoked as much anxiety as reassurance. A typical 1952 article in Cosmopolitan, “The Baby Sitter, a New and Baffling American Problem,” relayed tales of girls who murdered or kidnapped their charges. Pulp novels wove tales of insane sitters who wind up institutionalized after violently destroying happy homes. One such book became the basis for the 1952 thriller Don’t Bother to Knock, in which Marilyn Monroe starred as a mental patient turned sitter. The Simpsons tweaked this trope in its first season with an episode in which the family sitter turns out to be a serial burglar. Sitters can be victims, too, in slasher films like John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), which was originally titled The Babysitter Murders; imitators like When a Stranger Calls (1979 and 2006); and in Robert Coover’s fragmented 1969 short story “The Babysitter.”
Sitters in pop culture are often dangerously sexual, too. The typically schlocky 2007 thriller The Babysitters followed a high-schooler who turns her small sitting business into a prostitution ring. The trailer ends with the hilariously portentous line, “This is my baby-sitting service.” And the less said about baby sitter porn, the better.
Alas, even if a baby sitter avoids seduction or violence, she’s still an embodied reminder that mother isn’t doing her job. As far back as 1924, a guidebook called Wholesome Childhood rebuked mothers who were “prone to hire young girls to take charge of their little ones, every afternoon, so that the mothers may play Ma Chiang, run into the near-by city, shop, gossip, or even sew, bake, and clean house to their hearts’ content, with no children on their minds.” Horrors! Replace Ma Chiang with Words With Friends, and you’ve got yourself an entry in the 21st-century “mommy wars.”
After a new golden age of babysitting in the 1980s—The Baby-Sitters Club! Adventures in Babysitting!—the nanny began to edge out the baby sitter in the American cultural imagination. The nanny boom has included The Nanny Diaries (book, movie, and soon, TV), Nanny McPhee, The Nanny, Nanny 911, Super-Nanny, and higher-brow entries like Lorrie Moore’s 2009 novel, A Gate at the Stairs, which followed the melancholy nanny of an adopted mixed-race toddler in Wisconsin. Other caretakers have their allure, too. A recent episode of the FX sitcom The League depicted a group of male friends in a fantasy football league together pretending to climax while uttering the words “au pair.”
But nannies and au pairs are trés 1 percent. Who can afford them? If the Great Depression created the baby sitter, perhaps the Great Recession will revive her. The supply is ready: The labor department says the teenage unemployment rate is a whopping 24 percent this month, up from 15 percent five years ago. Meanwhile, Scholastic republished the first few volumes of the Baby-Sitters Club books last year.
If the sluggish economy prompts a baby-sitting comeback, there are hints it could become a co-ed endeavor. It has a ways to go: A major government survey in 1997 found that 91 percent of 15-year-old girls who held freelance jobs worked as baby sitters, compared with just 20 percent of boys the same age. Still, the “manny” has became a pop-culture phenomenon, so why not the, er, boy-by sitter? The Sitter features a guy in charge, while its predecessor, Adventures in Babysitting, starred Elisabeth Shue. As fathers spend more time on child care, it’s less obvious that only girls should care for children. Even man’s-man Rick Perry suggested in a 2008 interview that he would welcome a Boy Scout child care merit badge on “how to change a baby’s diaper and help out moms.” First the Boy Scouts, tomorrow the rest of America’s young men.