The history of babysitting might seem like a straightforward topic: parents needed someone to take care of their children, so they paid someone to do it.
But there’s a surprising story to be told about the history of babysitting, including where the term comes from, when people started hiring babysitters, and how far back babysitters go.
Table of Contents
- 1 We First Started Saying “Babysitter” in the 1930s
- 2 Modern Babysitting Began in the Suburbs
- 3 Why Didn’t We Have Babysitters Before 1950s America?
- 4 We Say “House-Sitter” and “Pet-Sitter” Because of Babysitter
- 5 The History of the Word “Babysitter” – Why Do We Say the Word “Sit”
- 6 The History of Babysitting is the History of the Teenage Girl
- 7 Babysitting Around the World
- 8 What’s the Difference Between Babysitters, Nurses, and Nannies?
- 9 The Rise of Babysitting Training Programs
- 10 The Craziest Babysitter Stories Throughout History
- 11 Conclusion: The History of Babysitters
We First Started Saying “Babysitter” in the 1930s
The Oxford English Dictionary is a good gauge of when a word enters the public lexicon. In the case of “babysitter”, the OED published the word in its 1937 edition.
One of the most unique things about adding the noun “babysitter” to the dictionary was that it came before the verb. Typically, in the English language, the verb comes first, and then the noun. In the case of babysitting, the verb “to babysit” wasn’t used until years later.
While people starting saying the word “babysitter” in the 1930s, babysitting was one of the oldest professions in the world. We just didn’t always call it babysitting. Instead, we used terms like “childrearing”. Instead of calling them babysitters we’d use words like “nurse” or “nanny” – although there were obviously differences in the specific job roles.
Modern Babysitting Began in the Suburbs
When you think of babysitting, you probably think of a young person – like a neighbor – coming by to look after your child.
That’s what modern babysitting is like. For that babysitting system, we owe it all to the 1950s suburbs of America. You already know the general story of the history of post-World War II America. It’s the age when Baby Boomers were born. It’s the age when suburbs and vehicles exploded with growth across America. The country’s population was booming.
In the suburbs, parents were raising kids. We’ve established that. There were two reasons this contributed to the history of babysitting:
- There were parents who needed someone to look after their kids
- There were teenage girls (and some boys) looking for employment in the suburbs
Babysitting, according to Babysitters.net, “became the main form of employment for teenage girls in the postwar surge of suburban living”.
Why Didn’t We Have Babysitters Before 1950s America?
You may be wondering: why didn’t your great-great grandma babysit people? Why don’t you hear about babysitters in the 1800s or early 1900s?
The truth is: prior to the 1950s, parents who were wealthy enough to enjoy an evening out on the town didn’t need a babysitter because they were already able to afford live-in servants or maids.
On the other hand, parents who didn’t have servants would typically live close to (or even with) their extended family. If you wanted to leave the house as a couple, you would just leave your kid with an aunt, grandma, or cousin.
America’s suburban development directly contributed to the rise of babysitting. Parents were no longer wealthy enough to have live-in servants. And, since they were living in the suburbs, they often lived far away from family and friends.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the suburbs were the place where the middle-class family lived. Middle-class families with children needed someone to look after their kids from time-to-time, and teenage girls in the suburbs needed a form of local employment. It’s easy to see how the two sides came together to create a new profession.
We Say “House-Sitter” and “Pet-Sitter” Because of Babysitter
Today, we take it for granted that we know the meaning of words like “house-sit” and “pet-sit”. But these words are relatively new inventions. They only really came into use at the end of the 20th century. We don’t have a good origin story for these words, but it’s easy to see how people could extend “babysitting” (a word for looking after children) into words that meant looking after houses or pets.
In any case, babysitter was the first of the “sit” words. Prior to babysitter, people didn’t say words like “house-sit” or “pet-sit”.
The History of the Word “Babysitter” – Why Do We Say the Word “Sit”
At this point, you may be wondering why it’s called “babysitting” at all. You’ve probably figured out the baby part, which refers to the kid. But what about the “sit” part of the word?
The origin of the word babysit is shrouded in a bit of mystery. We don’t know for sure why people started saying “babysitting” instead of saying something like “babycaring” or “childcaring”.
Some etymologists believe that the word comes from the fact that mother hens and other animals “sit” on their eggs to ensure their warmth and safety. A babysitter’s job is to keep kids safe and comfortable until the parents come home.
The History of Babysitting is the History of the Teenage Girl
There aren’t that many books on the history of babysitting. However, the books that do exist typically connect the history of babysitting with the history of being a teenage girl.
Miriam Forman-Brunell, for example, wrote a book called “Babysitter: An American History”, during which she talked about how the rise of the babysitter coincided with the rise of the teenage girl as a cultural phenomenon (in this case, she actually dates babysitting back to the 1920s, which admittedly, is when some parts of suburban America started to emerge).
What do babysitting and being a teenage girl have in common?
Babysitting was seen as a compromise between “teenage girls’ desire for personal freedom and adults’ expectations that they stay close to home.” Babysitting jobs came with responsibilities and a bit of spending money, but Forman-Brunell argues that it also kept teenage girls close to home.
In other words, babysitting was a way for teenage girls to have independence – something that girls had rarely had in the millennia before – while still keeping them close by.
Here’s how book reviewer Lindsay Baltus explained it in a blog post from 2011:
“…the crux of Forman-Brunell’s argument is that even though a babysitting job was seen by parents and the culture as this compromise enabling them to keep girls in their place, because it meant leaving girls alone to look after the children and themselves[,] the anxiety would never cease.”
The book goes on to describe how babysitting also coincided with the rise of female sexuality throughout the 1960s. During this time, babysitters were increasingly portrayed in the media as sex objects, or as irresponsible guardians of children.
The idea is that babysitters were rarely viewed as professional, competent guardians of children.
Of course the main criticism of Forman-Brunell’s book is easy to spot: she relies on this assumption that babysitters were always white, middle-class, teenage girls. It ignores the fact that some babysitters didn’t live in white suburbs, or that (gasp!) some babysitters were male. It also seems to portray the history of babysitting as some misogynist plot to keep women in the home – which is something that you may or may not agree with.
The book was published in 2009. It’s a popular text in gender and women’s studies classes around the world.
Babysitting Around the World
So far, we’ve only talked about babysitting in reference to American history and culture.
America, obviously, wasn’t the only country responsible for inventing babysitting. Post-World War II booms were seen in countries all over the world. In Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland, the UK, and other first world nations, there was an abundance of young children who needed to be looked after, as well as independent teenage girls who needed a job.
There are some international variants to babysitting that need to be mentioned. When you talk about “babysitting” in the UK, it exclusively refers to caring for a child for just a few hours – or on an informal basis. It typically means looking after the child at night, when the child is asleep for most of the time.
If you’re looking after a child for the full day, or performing a more diverse range of childcare activities, then it’s more accurately described as “childminding”.
What’s the Difference Between Babysitters, Nurses, and Nannies?
Up above, we mentioned that babysitters were a relatively new phenomenon, although we’ve always had other names for a similar job role.
Nanny, nurse, and governess have all been used throughout history to mean essentially the same thing: someone who looks after a child in some way or another. However, there are crucial differences between all of these words (and other similar professions):
- A nanny is defined as a person (almost always a woman) employed to take care of a child in its own home.
- A governess is a woman employed to teach children in a private household
- An au pair is a young foreign person (again, typically a woman) who helps with housework and/or child care in exchange for room and board
- A nurse (in regards to childcaring) doesn’t have a same set definition, although it could refer to a wet nurse (a woman employed to suckle another woman’s child) or to any of the professions listed above
The Rise of Babysitting Training Programs
Babysitting has evolved into a full-blown profession over the years. just like other professions, there are courses you can take to get better at that profession. Starting in the 1960s to the present day, organizations like the Red Cross and YMCA have offered all different types of babysitting courses.
The Red Cross
The Red Cross’s babysitter training program varies between countries. Typically, however, it’s a training course for youth ages 11 to 15.
During the course, participants will learn how to care for younger children across a variety of age groups. They’ll learn how to respond to emergencies, and how to care for themselves when home alone. The final part of the course involves teaching youth how to promote their services as a babysitter.
The Red Cross babysitter course lasts 8 hours (split across multiple sessions) and adequately prepares youth for a future in babysitting.
The YMCA offers babysitting courses at many of its locations. These babysitting courses are often free. They’re similar in structure to the training program offered by the Red Cross.
Just like with the Red Cross, the YMCA offers babysitting courses that teach youth the basics about caring for a child. The course is actually available to people of all ages, although it’s only free for youth between ages 12 and 17.
Like the Red Cross, the YMCA sends youth home with a training manual explaining the latest childcare tactics and theories. You can register online or walk into any YMCA location.
Private Babysitting Courses
In cities around the world, some private businesses now offer babysitting courses. Sometimes, this is just one individual teaching children the basics of childcare, although there are some professional organizations offering services as well.
Based on our research, typical course fees are $30 to $70 for one full day of instruction. Some of these courses are catered towards youth, while others are catered towards adults wising to pursue a career in childcare.
The Craziest Babysitter Stories Throughout History
Since babysitting became “a thing” in the 1950s, the media has been obsessed with babysitting in some way or another. We’ve seen babysitters portrayed frequently in horror films or even pornography. We’ve read through book series like The Babysitters Club.
However, this article deals with the real history of babysitters, so here are some real babysitter stories that took place at various points in history.
The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs
Just the title of this story is enough to send chills up most spines. It’s a classic urban legend with all different variations.
The most common variation is that the babysitter is watching TV at night after putting the children in bed. She receives a phone call from a man who tells her to check the children. She ignores him and hangs up. The man calls again, laughing and asking her to check on the children once more. She asks who it is, and the caller hangs up. Finally after the third call, the babysitter calls the police and asks them to trace the call. The man calls a fourth time, and the police call back and say the call is coming from inside the house, and that the babysitter needs to leave immediately. Later, it’s discovered that the man called the babysitter after killing the children.
This urban legend isn’t exactly a legend: it’s thought to be based on the events of March 18, 1950, in Columbia, Missouri. 13-year old Janett Christman was babysitting a 3 year old boy. Christman put the boy to bed in the evening. Then, sometime before the parents returned at 1:30am, an intruder entered the home. The parents returned home later that evening to find the babysitter dead on the living room floor.
The Disappearance of Heather Kullorn
In another incident of babysitters falling into tragic circumstances, 12-year old Heather Kullorn went missing after babysitting a family friend’s 2 month old daughter on the evening of July 14, 1999 (awkwardly enough, this story also takes place in Missouri).
In this story, the two parents, Dana Madden and Christopher Herbert, came home at 4am the following morning to find Heather – and their two month old daughter – gone.
Two hours earlier, neighbors had reportedly seen an unknown man exit the apartment with what appeared to be a child wrapped in a blanket. DNA testing on blood on the couch in the apartment later showed that it belonged to Heather.
The full story of Heather’s disappearance was never discovered, but it was likely linked to drugs. Parents Dana Madden and Christopher Herbert allegedly had ties to a methamphetamine ring.
Conclusion: The History of Babysitters
Babysitters are an interesting – and relatively new – cultural phenomenon that can be traced back to the suburbs of the 1950s after World War II. Today, they remain a cultural fixture in movies and TV shows – and a popular job for pre-teens around the world.