From the beginnings of babysitting to the fall of babysitting, Miriam Forman-Brunell has produced a sweeping history of the practice not chronicled elsewhere. Babysitter: An American History gives us a welcome look at the subculture of babysitting in the United States. When you peruse the extensive notes and bibliography, it's not surprising that the book has taken nearly two decades to complete (Forman-Brunell began her project in the early 1990's). While the book covers the 20th century, with emphasis on the 1950s through the 1980s, we are reminded of previous generations (including Puritans, enslaved African Americans, and urban working-class children) charged with babysitting as their duty without the benefit of payment.
Readers will find the book full of curious bits of observations and facts about American popular culture as it relates to babysitting. For instance, poet, Sylvia Plath, at age fourteen, wrote about her first experience babysitting in a paper for an English class. The two boys demanded she read aloud story after story, jumped on top of her, playing "kill the bear," and the popcorn she was making caught fire. Plath concluded that "little children are bothersome beings...all in all, a nuisance."
The narrative moves from the 1920s through the 1940s as girls begin to challenge older generations with their new conduct and confidence. As the United States marched off to war, births fell, then rose; and mothers took on jobs, then gave them up to be homemakers and move to the suburbs.
The second half of the 20th century brought significant changes as society experienced more war, the sexual revolution, increasing divorce rates and mothers going back to work once again. The impact of movies, television, music, books, magazines, soft porn, and urban myths altered perceptions of babysitters. For teenagers themselves, babysitting became unattractive when social and school activities increased giving them less time for jobs. Those who wished to work could earn more money elsewhere. For a time, mothers turned to middle school-age children, many as young as ten, to fill the gap. But by the end of the century, as Forman-Brunell relates, "girls with greater self-esteem, growing individualism, higher aspirations, more extracurricular activities, and new job options abandoned the field of babysitting that had been the leading form of female adolescent employment for generations."
As a babysitter myself I was struck by what I remembered and what I never knew. Many women (and men) of several generations will find Babysitter a worthwhile read. There is much to absorb, recall in our own lives, laugh at, and react to with horror.
Miriam Forman-Brunell is a Professor of History on the faculty at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She is the author of numerous articles and book reviews as well as "Made to Play House," and General Editor of ABC-CLIO's "Girlhood in America." She co-directs "Children and Youth in History," an educational website.
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