Don't Fear the Male Babysitter

For decades, boys, not girls, were seen as the ideal people to be taking care of children. Why did that change?
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Twentieth Century Fox

The very thought of a male babysitter is enough to make some parents anxious.

Every online parenting forum seems to have a thread on the issue of male babysitters, such as "Hiring a Male Babysitter (or Manny)" on the site Park Slope Parents. In a satire on The Onion titled, "Desperate Mom Okays Male Babysitter," the mom normally wouldn't hire a male babysitter and knew it wasn't ideal, but she really needed the night off.

In an article for the Washington Post earlier this year, author Petula Dvorak hires a male babysitter and realizes it "is apparently something few parents would do." She said she received raised eyebrows from other parents at the playground when she introduced the new sitter and felt compelled to explain how long she's known him and how much she likes him to anyone who would listen. "When it comes to kids, we are pretty close to being a society that has demonized men," Dvorak writes, noting that a government study found that in 96 percent of sexual assaults on children the offenders were male.

This anxiety about male babysitters is remarkable when you look at the history of babysitting.

Throughout the twentieth century, boys were not only as accepted as babysitters, they were often preferred over girls. The reason is twofold: Teenage girls were dismissed as flighty and self-absorbed; and young boys needed male role models as their fathers were unemployed during the Great Depression or gone all week at work in the latter half of the century.

According to Miriam Forman-Brunell, a history professor and the author of Babysitter: An American History, babysitting in its modern incarnation came about in the 1920s, with "the expansion of suburbs for the first time." Parents were more likely to be separated from extended family members that once were relied on to watch children. Coincidentally, the 1920s also gave rise to the notion of a modern teenage girl who cared more about boys, movies and makeup than taking care of kids. To adults, the rise of the teenage girl signaled disorder and fueled anxieties.

As Forman-Brunell writes, because adolescent girls "attended sports events and flirted with men on the street corners, especially in front of the innocent babies they trundled about," the authors of a popular mid-1920s child-rearing manual disparaged adolescent girls and dismissed them as acceptable child-care providers.

Although babysitting first appeared in the 1920s, it didn't flourish as a cultural phenomenon until after World War II. The baby boom created ample jobs for babysitters. Still, though women had enjoyed greater employment opportunities during World War II, parents were hesitant to use a female babysitter. During this period, "parents were very anxious about hiring the girl next door, as has always been the case. It just has so much to do with their perception of teenage girls," says Forman-Brunell.

Even as teenage girls were provoking anxiety in parents, male babysitters were idealized as the perfect solution. During the Great Depression, Forman-Brunell says, unemployed adolescent boys became "saviors to distraught mothers and weary housewives unsatisfied with neighborhood girls."

In glowing descriptions in Parents Magazine from the 1930s, it seemed as if there was nothing boy helpers couldn't do. Some child-rearing experts during the Great Depression believed that male babysitters could go so far as to "restore boyhood" for their young charges. While husbands became depressed due to unemployment or deserted their families, Parents Magazine reassured readers that boys were up to the task of babysitting.

"It's surprising that you would find the entrepreneurial, perfect male babysitter in popular culture, but he's everywhere," says Forman-Brunell, "and he's not burdened by the same expectations that girls are." Being smart, competitive, and business-oriented were all considered positive characteristics of a male babysitter.

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Julia Plevin is a writer in San Francisco.

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