When I was a kid, I hated babysitting. First of all, you have to hang out in someone else's house, touching someone else's filth, in fear of clogging someone else's toilet, for HOURS. For an awkward shy kid like me, that is fucking terrifying. It's just endless low-grade "what if I'm pooping in the special-occasion toilet" anxiety punctuated by the screams of a small kamikaze alien who's clearly trying to frame you for involuntary manslaughter. Which brings me to my second of all, which is hanging out with children. Strange children! Other people's children! What was I supposed to talk to children about!?!? Crayons? Pretzels? Uuuuuuuuugh, it's like the worst blind date ever.
I mean, of course I got to know certain families well enough, eventually, to have an awesome time babysitting their kids. But it certainly wasn't natural for me—despite persistent gender mythology to the contrary. Even in 2013, conventional wisdom holds that girls make naturally better babysitters than boys. A lot of parents with expressly progressive views in other areas still just prefer—instinctually—to hire girls rather than boys to care for their children. And you can't blame them, exactly, because in a culture where boys are so pervasively thought of as inferior caregivers, why would you expect boys to seek out and absorb exceptional caregiving skills?
Broadly speaking, we don't teach boys to care for children. We don't give them baby dolls to feed and diaper throughout their most pliable, formative years. We don't send them to babysitting courses at the local Children's Hospital when they turn 12, so they can learn how to relate (and give CPR) to small plastic babies. But that's conditioning born of this exact same stereotype—it's not nature. There's nothing stopping boys from being great babysitters, except for the fact that we don't hire boys to sit babies.
Charlotte Alter in the WSJ takes a look at the myth of the "natural" female babysitter:
SmartSitting.com, an agency that matches highly educated sitters with New York families, reports that 87% of its sitters are female, while another site, Sittercity.com, is 94% women. Lauren Kay, founder and chief executive of SmartSitting, says that the preference for female sitters comes from the parents, usually the mother, who wants her kids to be with someone who is "nurturing."
Zach Hughes is a 23-year-old Harvard graduate who loves working as a part-time baby sitter for two girls, ages 5 and 6. But he sometimes gets strange looks when he's with them. "It feels like I'm going to get asked by any adult I pass what I'm doing with this little kid," Mr. Hughes says. "I don't see a lot of people like me walking around with 6-year-olds in the middle of the day."
Ms. Kay says that men who want to baby-sit through SmartSitting are often faced with a catch-22: They "can't get hired because they don't have any experience, and they don't have any experience because they can't get hired."
Can you imagine how profoundly it could change the landscape of gender in this country if we did something as simple as normalizing male babysitters? (That's much more complex than it sounds, but it's an appealing idea.) The notion that women are natural caregivers—that childcare is a "women's issue"—is at the root of so many gender issues that circumscribe and limit women's careers and lives. And what a debilitating message to telegraph to men too: that you are neither qualified nor naturally suited to care for your own children, or to even be alone in the room with the children of others. What a bunch of bullshit. I don't have a baby right now, but if I ever get one I'm tossing it to the first teenage boy I see. FOR FREEDOM.