Calling All Babysitters

Shortage Has Parents Trying Every Name --and Trick -

-in the Book

By Eric L. Wee

Washington Post Staff Writer

Monday, September 22, 1997

 

They're in short supply. They're hard to find. And Mark McFadden

knows he's got to be fast and ruthless if he's going to snag one.

A cocktail party invitation means a race to the phone to book one

before his neighbors do. Early November means it's time to lock

them in for those Christmas parties. And he's always on the prowl for

naive parents who will give up the goods and reveal the ones they

use --something he never does. You've got to do whatever it takes,

McFadden will tell you, to find and keep that babysitter.

"If it's someone really reliable, I'm not going to give their name out

to someone else," he said. "When we all work so hard, we want to

play hard once in a while. You can't play if you can't find ade'quate

coverage for your kids."

 

The Washington area is struggling with a shortage of teenage baby-

sitters, and parents say they just stay home many nights because

they can't find one. Among the reasons: A decline in the population of older teenagers

has come just as a baby boomlet has-yielded more children who need,

watching. And parents say teenagers are busier now with after-

school activities. Girls, for example, have more opportunities to play

organized sports.

 

Although it seemed that practically every block had eager child-

minding girls in decades past, parents now say they hoard phone

numbers of their best sitters and keep them even from their friends.

They book sitters sometimes months in advance and practically bribe

them with food and other perks. It's a seller's market, with prices

hitting $7.50 to $10 an hour in some neighborhoods.

 

John McFadden, of Alexandria, entices teenagers to look after his 7- and 9-

year-old sons by trying to make the job sound like a mini-vacation.

He'll tell them that he's got a Blockbuster movie and that all they

have to do is watch it with the children. You want to surf the Net? No

problem. He's got America Online. Still, about 15 times a year, he

and his wife come up empty and have to cancel plans.

"You've got to make it really attractive for the babysitter ," McFadden

said. "It's a competition to get them. These kids have a lot of

choices."

 

Busy professionals even have been rearranging work schedules

around their sitters' plans. Jean McGillen, the executive director of a

group that fixes up apartment buildings for low- and moderate-

income people in Arlington, frequently has difficulty finding someone

to watch the children so she can attend evening meetings with her

board of directors. Her solution: first find out when her sitter is free,

then call her board to change the meeting to that night.

 

Demographic change explains part of the scramble, says Harold

Hodgkinson, director of the Center for Demographic Policy in

Washington. Low birth numbers in the late 1970ís and early 1980ís mean there are relatively fewer older teenagers. Couple that with a

large number of children from a recent birth surge and the result is

an increased baby-sitting demand and a decreased supply.

In 1980, there were 33 million people younger than 10, while those

ages 15 to 19 --prime baby-sitting ages --numbered 21 million.. By

1996, the population younger than 10 had climbed to 38 million,

while the number of older teenagers had dropped to 18.6 million,

according to U.S. Census data.

 

In addition, parents and others involved with babysitters throughout

the area say teenage girls start baby-sitting sooner and quit much

earlier than in past generations. High school students now cram in

more activities after school and have more job alternatives, meaning

there's less time for a teenager to baby-sit. .

 

Joanne Steller, of Chevy Chase, says that's the case for Katie, her

13-year-old daughter, who plays soccer, swims and takes piano

lessons. This summer, Katie baby-sat almost every weekend and

could have "baby-sat every day of her life" if she took all the offers

that came her way. But Steller is going to have Katie scale back her

child-watching duties.

 

"More kids do sports, and if you've got a kid involved in soccer with

practices two to three times week, that makes them unavailable for

baby-sitting," said Steller, who baby-sat all through high school in

the 1960s, "When I was in school, girls were not involved in sports. If

you have an athletic daughter, you want them to take advantage of the increased opportunities.

 

One bright spot is that some boys have joined the pool of babysitters.

But they, too, have scheduling problems because of sports and after-

school jobs. And in any case, many parents prefer to hire girls.

Because baby-sitting is such a localized enterprise, the overall

shortage hasn't hit all neighborhoods equally. Some tight knit

communities with lots of teenagers haven't felt the pinch. But the

problem is at its worst in many town house communities where

young parents and small children dominate.

 

The crunch has prompted schools and other institutions to adapt.

Patrick Henry Elementary School in Arlington began offering baby-

sitting several years ago at parent-teacher association meetings and

other evening events for adults because parents were showing up

with children and complaining that they couldn't find anyone to mind

them.

 

The Birchmere music club in Alexandria has moved show times

progressively earlier in the last few years, from 9 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Michael Jaworek, the club's promoter, figures parents will have an

easier time finding sitters if they're getting home earlier from a show.

Patricia Keener, a pediatrician in Indianapolis who founded a nationwide training program for babysitters in 1980, remembers when it wasn't like that.

"It used to be that the mother would call up the day she wanted a

sitter, and the sitter came over," Keener said. "Now, there are all

these elaborate plans. ...And pity the poor mother who doesn't

have a sitter by Wednesday for a Friday ." Her nonprofit program,

Safe Sitter, offers classes at Washington area hospitals from

Leesburg to Bethesda.

 

For some families, finding a sitter is complicated further because

parents are getting pickier. And in today's more mobile society,

parents say they worry that they don't know the local teenagers well

enough.

Kathy Hedrick, who lives in western Prince William County, hires a

day-care worker who looks after her 2- and 5-year-old daughters to

baby-sit on evenings and weekends --something her day-care center

says has become common. When she heard that a teenager in her

neighborhood looked after children, she couldn't bring herself to

leave her children with her. She said she would have worried too

much.

 

All that means the relatively few experienced teenagers who baby-sit

are hot commodities. Kerry Ross, 16, of Arlington, says for every

Friday and Saturday night, she has 10 to 15 parents pleading with

her to come over. If parents want to ensure a spot on her calendar,

they need to reserve her three to four weeks in advance, especially

for big local events such as back-to-school nights.

 

I work on a first-come, first-served basis. I don't double-book, said

the seasoned business operator, who tells parents they can try her

on short notice --in case she gets a cancellation. Regularly rejecting

adults can be hard, she says. It's very uncomfortable sometimes.

You feel downright bad telling them that you are already booked.

Amber Earp, 16, of Woodbridge, gets really busy in the fall and

winter. That's when all the military families in her neighborhood start

heading out to the Army Ball and other holiday parties. A client once

asked her in September to baby-sit on New Year's Eve. And one day

after Christmas last year, she did four baby-sitting jobs, a day that

started at 7 a.m. and ended at 1 a.m.

 

The fortunate parents who are able to land a sitter also have been hit

with sticker shock. Forget the days when you could find one for 50

cents an hour and expect them to clean the house. Today's teenagers

routinely charge $4 to $5 an hour and expect to be fed. In more affluent areas such as Bethesda and Alexandria, some

parents are paying $7.50 to $10 an hour, and they say it's still hard

to get sitter? The reason: They don't really need the

money .David Gordon says that in moments of desperation he's -called 15-year-olds who

usually charge $6 an hour and offered more.Overall, it has been a very sticky situation.

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