Sunday, August 9, 2015

Babysitters: Are your kids safe?

This article began after a few strangers asked my daughter to babysit, she was unavailable and suggested her more experienced older brother, and they declined. So I intended to focus on the "boy problem" - in other words, the challenges boys face in finding work as babysitters. I have two babysitters: One ten-year-old girl who could easily be employed most days of the week if she accepted all the requests, and one thirteen-year-old boy who, despite absolutely glowing references and advertising his services, rarely manages to find work more than once a month. Why?!

So I decided to do some research. I put together a casual poll, asking parents about their experiences, fears, and preferences for hiring babysitters, and asking teen babysitters about their experiences on the job. Here's what I learned:

Parents were generally at least twice as likely to hire female babysitters as to have no preference, and not a single parent claimed to be more likely to hire a boy. Among the most common reasons for preferring female babysitters to male were:

It's easier to find qualified female babysitters in my area.33.33%
I have personal connections with female babysitters.13.61%
My child(ren) are female and I feel they will relate better to a girl.17.69%
Girls are generally more responsible than boys.20.41%
Boys are more likely to neglect my children.2.04%
Boys are more likely to physically or psychologically harm my children.2.72%
Boys are more likely to sexually harm my children.10.20%

I also asked about the problems people actually encountered with their babysitters, and the highest ranking issues were female babysitters arriving late and not being attentive. Only two people reported that a female babysitter had harmed their children, and none reported that their children were harmed by a male (which is unsurprising considering the infrequency of boys being hired).

So why don't people feel safe hiring boys? A quick Google led me to this Oh The Joys post, the comment section of which is quite enlightening. So then I went to find the statistics (albeit 20 years old). Yeah. Just click that link. You might cry like I did.

"Overall, among babysitters, male offenders outnumbered female offenders (63 to 37 percent) in police reports. However, this percentage masks the true disproportion in the risk of male offending, in that most children are exposed to more female than male babysitters, both in terms of numbers and the amount of time spent in their care. No reliable information is available about the overall gender ratio of babysitters, but one teen survey found that females were twice as likely as males to have had babysitting experience (Kourany, Martin, and LaBarbera, 1980). Among adult babysitters, the ratio is considerably higher (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2001). Therefore, the true risk of a male babysitter offending is likely much greater than the two-to-one ratio of male to female offenders found in the data.

"Males were disproportionately involved in sex offenses (77 percent of offenders known to police). Females committed the majority of the physical assaults (64 per-cent of offenders)."

Those numbers are distressing. So cold. So heartless. So not what I think of when I look at my beautiful son who rescues insects from our feet and escaped rose bushes from high-traffic areas to plant in his own little garden. This is the boy who took a job of looking after two young children he'd never met before for seven hours, and without any time to meet them or get instructions from their parents. His biggest concern was that they were arguing over whether or not they were allowed to eat the yogurt, and that he might not be strong enough to push the stroller. This male babysitter is my child. And I have a daughter too. I am afraid for their safety when they're out and about, and I can't blame any parent for being afraid of my son's maleness, when even the statistics seem to shun him.

But where does he turn, then? Does he just turn away from the job he studied and trained for, and accept that he's not trustworthy enough to be with children? How will he learn to trust himself; to feel trustworthy and good if we can't trust him already just because of his gender? There is some hope for boys, according to this article and my experience in our community. But I feel like it's not happening fast enough. My son wants to be trustworthy. He wants to have children one day, and I want to support him in those nurturing feelings. This is my child I'm talking about.

Which brings me to the other part of the survey. I was a babysitter, too, and while I had a successful career, I also had some run-ins, including being hurt by children I looked after, carrying people's endlessly growing tabs which never seemed to be paid off, and being driven home by drunk parents. Those were rare, but they happened. Once I called my parents from a babysitting job to describe a ghost who was haunting me. I was in tears. And once, I almost hit a child. I was probably thirteen or fourteen, and that day has haunted me ever since. Yes, that's me: the statistic that says girls are more likely to physically assault children. I would like to give excuses about how awful I felt; how young and helpless I felt, and how difficult those children were; I'd like to also say that of course nobody has an excuse to even pretend to hit a child, no matter how difficult they are... but all of that seems so meaningless. That was a child and so was I. I was a child, left to look after other children.

So in my survey I asked what kinds of problems babysitters encountered. While 18% stated they'd never had a problem with a babysitting job, another 18% had had issues with the parents returning later than expected, and 15% had not been paid according to their agreements. Among the many other issues were parents returning home drunk, being harmed by the children and by another person or animal, being blamed for things they felt were not their fault, and not having instructions or resources they needed to do their jobs. Of those two babysitters who reported being harmed, only one had reported the event.

To drive this point home, I encourage you to do a Google image search for the word "babysitters". Actually no - don't. Especially not with your kids around. Because you will find porn - peppered in among the images of very young children. Apparently for some people, the word "babysitter" equates to "teenaged girl available for sex".

Babysitters are children. At some point this year, my ten-year-old daughter called me in tears from a babysitting job, because the parents were forty minutes late and she was scared. Scared in the dramatic way that a ten-year-old can be, that maybe something happened and the parents were never coming home (!!). It's such a simple thing to us adults, but maybe we forget that the prepubescent human giving their all to look after our dearest treasures for less than minimum wage is in fact a child her (or him!) self. Maybe we forget that the maturity they appear to show is a sign of them reaching for adulthood but that they're not quite adults yet; they may be taller, their voices changing, their disposition maturing daily... but they're still children. They come home after babysitting sometimes shaken and frightened, sometimes realizing they forgot to offer a snack to the children, or they forgot their money on the seat of someone's car, or they weren't sure whether the parents were drunk or not, or whether they would be rude if they called and asked their own parents to come pick them up. These problems are HUGE to children. The babysitters, as much as the children they care for, need to feel safe and supported.

Once, at a babysitting job, I opened the bathroom door too fast and a mirror on the back of the door fell off and a corner of its plastic frame broke. In my horror, I apologized sincerely to the parents, and they told me not to worry about it. So I put it behind me. The next time I was babysitting there, I opened the bathroom door too fast again, and the mirror fell, this time breaking into multiple shards of plastic and glass. I cleaned it up and pulled it together for the girls, one of whom explained just how much trouble I was going to be in when her parents came home. And then they were home. And I had to tell them. I cried, and offered to pay for the mirror, which would surely be worth many babysitting jobs. They told me it couldn't possibly be worth the value of me looking after their daughters, insisted that I take my full payment anyway, and the mother gave me a hug. These were family friends, and they understood my needs in that moment.

Some babysitting jobs are great - some babysitters are great. But obviously, any time we're allowing our children to go out and work for strangers, for very low pay, in a situation where they are often driven home by impaired drivers, it's not OK. I love that my children enjoy babysitting. I love that it gives them the independence both to feel responsible and to make their own money. I love that they are learning about childcare and entrepreneurship. I love that they feel proud when they're out in the community and young kids come running to say hello to their babysitters. I love when it all goes well, and the children on both sides of the equation feel enriched and happy. But I now understand where the fear comes from, and while I try not to instil fear in my own children, I now insist that I know where they are babysitting, that I meet the parents, and that I know what time to expect them home. I always ask them about their work, how it went and how they felt about it. And I always make sure someone is home, should they need to call for help.

We can keep our children safe by insulating them, or we can keep our children safe by communicating and by consciously developing our own communities.

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