Television

The Baby-Sitters Club Is Back to Teach a New Generation of Tweens About the Meaning of Work

Locked-down parents will need an army of tween child-minders. Let the Baby-Sitters Club show them the way.

The Baby-Sitters Club
The Baby-Sitters Club. Kailey Schwerman/Netflix

The new Baby-Sitters Club series hits Netflix this weekend, and it’s getting rave reviews from critics, many of whom loved the original series of books in the 1980s and 1990s, or the many spinoffs that have come out in the intervening years. The new show is indeed adorable—the multiracial group of suburban middle schoolers earnestly booking gigs from their perch in Claudia Kishi’s colorful bedroom is just as plucky and kind as ever. I watched the whole thing in a gulp, just like I used to read the books, after I wheedled my older sister (who got first crack) to hand over each installment.

Binging the show, I remembered how much I loved the girls’ entrepreneurial spirit when I collected the books as a young teenager, and how much I wished I had friends like that—that I was like that. Now that I’m older, I can see how very “Girl Power!” the whole idea of the BSC was, in a way that makes me cringe. The new show has gotten plaudits for its diverse cast and plotlines, but in many important ways, the whole idea is a pure fantasy: of suburban community, of gentle coming-of-age, of meaningful work that teaches responsibility and pays just enough for fancy new paintbrushes.

Netflix’s Baby-Sitters Club comes at an interesting time for teenage babysitting, a very 20th-century cultural practice that seems to be less and less common. The show itself cleverly nods to this perception, giving Kristy Thomas’ mom, played by Alicia Silverstone, the dilemma that sparks Kristy’s idea for the club. As she’s trying to land a sitter for her youngest, Ms. Thomas groans, “When I was a kid, my mother would just call some girl in the neighborhood, on a landline, and she would answer, because it was part of the social contract!” Kristy’s idea is partly based on a reversion to these older times; as she tells her friends, her mom doesn’t want to “pay $80 to a website that would sell her information to the Russians.”

The fictional BSC’s selling point to its clientele, much like the intellectual property’s appeal to its new Netflix audience, is fundamentally nostalgic. These are neighborhood girls, using the kind of see-through candy-colored phone you now must source on Etsy, just trying to make an honest dollar. But the idea that “teenagers don’t babysit anymore” is older than the original Baby-Sitters Club books. In fact, as historian Miriam Forman-Brunnell writes in her book Babysitter: An American History, it dates at least to the 1940s.

Forman-Brunell found ample evidence of shortages of teenage babysitters in postwar suburbs, full of young families churning out baby boomers, with very few teens in sight. The problem was so chronic that parents made a weary joke of RSVPing to invitations with the acronym “I.W.C.G.A.S.” (“If We Can Get a Sitter”). In the 1990s, just as author Ann M. Martin was flooding my local bookstore with BSC installments and deluding me into thinking I might be good at child care, parental demand for teenage babysitters spiked again. “Baby Boomers in a Baby-sitter Bind,” was the headline of a USA Today article published on Jan. 18, 1996. That September, the Wall Street Journal reported on “Why Teenage Sitters Have So Much Power,” including interviews with high-powered New Yorkers who stocked their fridges and pantries with chocolate and cookies to win babysitters’ loyalty.

Although the problem in the 1990s seemed to be demographic, just as it was in the ‘40s, you can find similar headlines throughout the 2000s. 2004, CBS News: “The Baby Sitter Shortage.” 2011, the National Post: “No More Adventures in Babysitting: Today’s Texting Teens Aren’t Interested in Looking After Other People’s Kids.” According to the multiple academics who study child care that I asked to refer me to possible literature on the topic, it’s hard to nail down data that show rates of teenage babysitting over time—this kind of care is so informally arranged, and so taken for granted, that it’s not much studied. The recurrent idea that teenagers don’t “want” to babysit feels more like a generational moral panic than an empirical phenomenon. (The disapproving reference to texting in the last headline is a dead giveaway.)

But if teenagers are turning away from babysitting, they might be more rational than parents would like to admit. Forman-Brunell found a lot of evidence that teenagers, over the years, have consciously recognized that some adults exploited their youth and the informality of the babysitting arrangement, paying them less for a really hard job than they deserved. In 1982, an 18-year-old Ontarian named Jennifer Wood wrote a piece for Seventeen arguing “Babysitters should get a fair wage!” Wood described a babysitting gig that lasted 11 hours and paid $10, and vented her rage at finding out that her own parents had paid “the boy down the block” “three dollars to shovel snow off our front walk—a task that takes fifteen minutes!”

Like Jennifer Wood, many teenage babysitters in the 20th century found their working conditions to be fundamentally untenable: payments agreed upon in advance then withheld without explanation; parents arriving home hours late. Some babysitters in the postwar period even created babysitter unions, drawing up contracts and manifestoes detailing what they would and would not do, and the working conditions they expected. Fifteen cents extra for doing the dinner dishes in West Branch, Michigan; requirements to provide “adequate heat” in Leonia, New Jersey, where parents turned down the thermostat when a babysitter was coming over.

“Society has a tradition of paying more to people whose jobs require thinking and decision-making skills than to those involved in strictly manual labor,” Wood mused in Seventeen. “But this distinction doesn’t always hold for traditionally female professions. And child care is undervalued most, it seems, because women have never received salaries for child-rearing and housekeeping.” Babysitting, traditionally seen as a way for teenage girls to learn responsibility in caregiving (the implication being that it would serve them well in their domestic futures), turned out for some to be a radicalizing experience. Looking back at a few harried days in my 13th summer, when I was at the height of my BSC fandom and, flush with love for the very concept of babysitting, accepted a job taking care of two kids under the age of 5 for $2 an hour, I think it was for me, too—even if I didn’t realize it at the time.

Rather than meet those teenagers’ eminently reasonable demands, Forman-Brunell argues, some parents began recruiting younger sitters, like the fictional Kristy Thomas and her eager-beaver friends, in the 1980s and 1990s. While some midcentury experts didn’t think parents should hire anyone under 14, because tweens weren’t able to handle the responsibility of child care, that began to change around the time the BSC books were published. “The vilification of teenagers occurred in tandem with the valorization of preadolescents,” is how Forman-Brunell put it. Younger kids, with less going on, were easier to nail down for a Saturday night, more amenable to employers’ demands, and less intent upon standing up for themselves.

In other words, the preteen babysitter was kind of a scab, even within the BSC universe. In the book (and, now, the episode) The Truth About Stacey, a rival group of older babysitters tries to steal Kristy’s idea and start a “Baby Sitters Agency.” “We have cars, and no curfews,” their ringleader sniffs during a confrontation with the BSC—making, from a parent’s point of view, a very fine point. But the BSA are high schoolers, and so they are irresponsible. Book readers will remember how this conflict resolves: A preschooler gets left to play on his own in front of his house, while a BSA sitter canoodles on the couch with a boy. In the end, the BSC vanquishes the BSA by, essentially, tattling on them to the town’s parents. These are our own bright little businesswomen, so we cheer for them, of course. But the episode shows just how firmly the BSC is on the parents’ side—the perfect workers.

But do today’s parents want to hire teenagers or preteens to take care of their kids? Considering the aforementioned dearth of real data, I asked for reports from the Slate Parenting Facebook group. Many respondents used teenage sitters, and the idea that teenagers were less available now than in the past was news to them; others immediately said, “Teenagers are too busy now, with school and activities, to sit.” Even arranging a sitting appointment with an overscheduled teen, they said, was too much work to be worth it.

Others—citing a lack of church or neighborhood networks to find teen sitters, their lower trust in young caregivers, or a need for a sitter who has transportation—reported using college students, or caregivers who are even older than that. Some thought teenagers charged too much, and argued that they might as well hire a college student or an adult for that rate. One factor in the aging-up of babysitters may be the use of gig-economy job websites like Care.com—which, a spokesperson confirmed to me, hasn’t allowed minors to advertise services since last year, when they implemented enhanced caregiver screenings. Another may simply be the financial needs of older caregivers, who, in this bad economy, will take the babysitting jobs they can get.

But this bright new incarnation of the Baby-Sitters Club comes at an interesting (desperate, awful, terrible, impossible) time in the world of child care. During the Great Depression and World War II, teenage babysitting, Forman-Brunell found, seems to have expanded greatly, as formal employment for that age group became less available, families needed added income, and parents took on new jobs and required flexible care. Will the new BSC, with its friendly feeling and easy binge-ability, coincide with the conditions of the coronavirus pandemic to inspire a resurgence in young people’s interest in babysitting?

One thing that the Slate Parenting Facebook group confirmed, that I have also observed in my area: There seems to be an uptick in teenagers and tweenagers advertising babysitting services this summer. People across the country said that they had seen more such posts in Facebook and Nextdoor groups from teenagers whose typical summer pursuits—camp, enrichment activities, service jobs—had been canceled. Parents, who with schooling unlikely to return in its pre-pandemic form, may need care not only for this summer but for the fall, may end up taking them up on the offer. For my part, I received an adorable flyer in my mailbox earlier this month from a teenage neighbor, who advertised his services as a babysitter or mother’s helper—willing to watch kids outdoors, and wear a mask while doing so. If I hire him—I swear to you, Jennifer Wood—I’ll make sure to pay him well, and to get home on time.