Calling All Babysitters
Shortage Has Parents Trying Every Name --and Trick -
-in the Book
By Eric L. Wee
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.