“Melissa, stop beating your brother THIS INSTANT! If he goes to school with a black eye again, the state will take you kids away for good.”
“Joseph, if you ask to play video games one more time, I’m going to smash your PlayStation with your father’s custom designed baseball bat and chuck the both of them out the attic window!”
It’s an intimidating mess of grimy tennis sneakers, wrinkled laundry, nude and bald Barbie dolls, and three-wheeled Matchbox cars, made worse only by piercing screams of “Get OFF of me!” and “But I WANNA!” And since when is American Horror Story four-year-old appropriate?
You slowly start to turn away, hoping to slip out unnoticed. You must have arrived at the wrong house, because any sane or even slightly compassionate adult would not dare impose such chaos on an unsuspecting teenager for three hours, which will undoubtedly end up being five to six hours.
But just as you take your first step to safety, the woman with violent aspirations toward PlayStations and baseball bats says with a warm and anguished smile, “Welcome to our home. You have no idea what a relief it is that you’ve arrived!” and follows it up with, “Kids, the babysitter’s here and SO HELP ME IF YOU DON’T COME HERE RIGHT NOW…”
Yep, it’s gonna be a long night.
Because, quite frankly, today’s parents have set us babysitters up for complete and total failure in caring for their “angelic” youngsters.
After careful observation of today’s generation of mothers and fathers both through my own babysitting business and in public (I confess, I have a tendency to, shall we say, gather intelligence on families in movie theaters, grocery stores, restaurants…you name it, I’m staring and pondering whether the kid will be behind bars in 10 years), I’ve deduced that dysfunctional parenting can be broken down into three major categories: tyranny, anarchy, and a distinctive and frightening blend of the two.
These are the moms and dads that make you want to dial Child Protective Services in Hy-Vee. They scream and threaten their children for the minutest misbehaviors. And just when you think they’re finished screaming, they scream some more.
Perhaps the most haunting is when, in public, they grab their children by the shirt collars and whisper-yell through clenched teeth, “So. Help Me. Just wait until we get home…” What ungodly form of punishment do they have in store for their hapless offspring, whose only crime is their birth to such an irrational parent?!
These parents give their little angels everything they could ever hope for and then some.
Discipline? How could anyone be so cruel! When little Austin throws a big tantrum in the grocery store, “It’s fine because he’s two.” When six-year-old Abigail screams, “I’m hungry!” during the last five minutes of her grandfather’s memorial service, God forbid her father shouldn’t jump up to provide his darling daughter some candy.
For more information on anarchical parenting and its startling long-term effects, please see Veruca Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
A Distinctive and Frightening Blend of Tyranny and Anarchy
As ugly as it sounds. Anarchy and then tyranny. It looks something like this.
Kid: “Mommy, I need that doll. Buy me that doll.”
Mom: “Ok, sweetie.”
Kid: “Buy me ice cream.”
Mom: “But it’s almost dinner…ok, I guess.”
Kid: “You have to buy me that game too, because I want it.”
Mom: “I WILL NOT TAKE ANY MORE OF YOUR BRATTY BEGGING! GET OVER HERE THIS INSTANT FOR A GOOD SPANKING!”
Now I’m not saying my own upbringing was a charming, Brady Bunch-esque venture complete with ice cream trucks and an adorable Labrador dispensing a constant supply of wet kisses. Don’t get me wrong: I love my devoted parents, but even my mom and dad, who in their day read just about every 90’s parenting book on the market, have had some disquieting child rearing moments. To wit, my mother scalded me with an iron, because she calculated that my need for comfort outweighed the risk of simultaneously clenching a searing metal device while holding a two-year-old.
As a community service, allow me to dive into some hour-by-hour trends I’ve noted on the typical Friday night babysit, with a few tips for dealing with those trends. Granted, you are occasionally blessed with the distinct privilege of watching some adorable and uncannily self-sufficient 8-year-old angel who requires only a short bedtime story before drifting off into a peaceful slumber.
But typically the whole scenario looks something more like this:
You arrive to a scene reminiscent of the final ten minutes of Twister and deem the proverbial, “They can sometimes be a little bit of a handful” the understatement of the year. Then mom and dad tell you the second most common lie babysitters hear worldwide (“We won’t be out too late”), which is followed by the most common lie, this time on the part of the children (“You’ll be good, won’t you?” “Yes, daddy”). After the parents scurry out (what could they possibly be running from?), you face the kiddos, who all seem to be glaring at you with a mixture of curiosity and pity.
Probably the best thing you can do is remain calm. It’s go time.
Johnny, Junior, and Julie insist upon playing outdoors. Johnny has his three unruly neighbor friends over, so the number of children you are responsible for has multiplied, and yet somehow your salary hasn’t multiplied with it.
As Johnny and his friends tussle over the soccer ball, you chase after Junior, who whizzes helmetless through the streets on an unsteady skateboard. Meanwhile, Julie sobs on the pavement, begging for mommy and daddy (which is actually okay because I am equipped to handle a child with separation anxiety — I once was one. To any teen who had the misfortune of babysitting me between the ages of six months and six years, my most sincere apologies).
In addition to providing brief reassurance that mommy and daddy will return in a few short hours, involving the child in fun activities typically remedies even the most heartbreaking bouts of sobbing.
Here’s a fun fact: there exists a limitless variety of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. You’d be shocked. There’s creamy peanut butter and jelly, crunchy peanut butter and jelly, just creamy peanut butter, just crunchy peanut butter, and just jelly. And sometimes the family houses a wide variety of jellies, from grape to apple cinnamon. I’m proud to say I’ve served every one of these varieties in the course of just one night.
And don’t start judging me for not preparing a gourmet meal. Peanut butter and jelly were the mother’s exact words. Suggestion: Don’t serve the food until everyone’s actually seated at the table. Because no one likes to find peanut butter on the couch-it’s hard to identify out of context.
It’s a repeat of before dinner play, made worse by sugar highs and punch drunkenness. Hopefully you brought a few fun games (whose boards can survive some sore loser temper tantrums, of course) since the thought of returning outdoors and watching Junior skateboard recklessly in the now pitch-dark street makes you cringe.
Bedtime: the final battle. It’s typically a whirlwind of toothpaste and hair crusted toothbrushes (which look so gross you can hardly blame Julie for refusing to stick hers in her mouth), mismatched PJ’s, and award worthy stall tactics.
What about dental floss, facial soap, and hairbrushes? Forget it. By the time you’ve physically forced their jellied hands into the sink for a cursory wash, you begin to wish for a role reversal in which you can crawl into a twin sized unmade bed instead of Johnny.
The kiddos are finally unconscious and you’re ready to accept a Nobel Peace Prize. Relaxation awaits. Sort of.
First, you place the scuffed tennis sneakers scattered across the house in a neat pile and throw out that random soggy Band-Aid lying on the kitchen counter. (No matter how hopeless it may seem, a little bit of tidying up gives you an edge the next time the parents choose a babysitter. Plus, it makes the night appear to have gone smoothly no matter how many near shatterings of mom’s favorite vase occurred.)
And then, of course, Junior comes down the stairs screaming about some horrific nightmare he allegedly had. But once you tuck him in fifteen minutes later, you are finally done. Success!
You begin questioning the entire situation. Where are these people? Have they abandoned their unruly children?
“Gee hon, we really messed those kids up. Think the babysitter would be willing to adopt them?”
“Probably not. They’re pretty bad. But if we leave now we could be halfway to Canada by the morning, and she wouldn’t have any choice but to take them in!”
You’ve not eaten a substantial meal in six hours; mom and dad offered for you to snack on their food but really, who’s going to do that considering the incessant nose picking you’ve observed throughout the night?
Note to self: throw a protein bar in your bag next time.
Just when you’ve started to accept the idea of life as a teenage parent of three unruly children, you hear the garage door begin to open and perform a small victory dance.
Once a rejuvenated mom and dad bounce through the door, they’ll speak the classic, “I hope they weren’t too bad,” to which you appropriately respond, “Nope, we had a fun night!” You may then wish to throw in a few details of Julie’s precious dinnertime comments or Junior’s athletic potential or of the intellectual stimulation you provided during playtime. Everyone knows the elephant in the room; no need to explicitly state it.
Graciously accept your payment (which rarely seems sufficient, but inevitably the parents will incur some hefty pediatric hospital bills in the ensuing months) and drive swiftly away.
* * *
Parenting might just be one of the world’s toughest jobs. I admire anyone who even attempts the art. Perfection is simply unattainable, and maybe the flaws in parents actually help to create happy and hardy kids. And hey, talk to me in 15 years. Who knows, I could be a tyrannical-anarchical parent ready to head to Canada with my hubby and hope the babysitter is open to adoption.
As for us babysitters, we can’t fix a broken home or reverse the effects of cringe-worthy parenting in just a few hours a couple of times each month. But maybe we can insert a little joy into the lives of the children we watch, teach them something they remember, whether an important life lesson or how to tie their shoes, or create some happy childhood memory that they relive for years to come. If nothing else, we can at least provide a well-deserved break for overworked parents.
At the end of the day, my ultimate criteria for babysitting success entail the following: no broken bones, no concussions, and no one dead. Because keeping children alive and intact is the perfect way to keep your job and therefore be afforded the luxury of reliving the entire experience over and over again…