Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Theories of Babysitting

When I was 19 years old I thought I had mastered a skill usually reserved for 16-year-old girls.

I thought I was the state-of-the-art babysitter.

Now, I didn't do it for a living, or even for money. I did it out of the kindness of my heart and as a mandatory part of the bargain for continued residence in my parents' house. My three youngest siblings were still in need of adult-ish supervision whenever mom and dad couldn't be around, and I was as close as they could get in my price range ... that being free.

Eddie was nine, and kind of a quiet dude, but with a little mischief in his eyes. Two things to know about Eddie: He didn't care to be told what to do, and he could probably drive a car better at nine than I can today.

Jayne was eight, a non-stop talker and already a person to be taken seriously. Two things to know about Jayne: She could convince you that she was the victim in almost any situation, and she was the instigator of almost every situation.

Patti was six, and the sweetest, most innocent-looking little girl you have ever seen. Two things to know about Patti: She always appeared to want to be the peacemaker in any conflict, and no one could be as innocent as she looked.

Even though I was more or less thrust into the position, I had a definite, well thought through philosophy on the art of babysitting. That philosophy consisted mainly of the idea that my three charges should sit perfectly quiet in their assigned chairs the entire time, while I lay on the floor eating peanut M&Ms and watching TV.

The longest that scenario ever lasted in actual practice was four minutes.

First there would be muffled giggles. I'd grunt a threat, my eyes never leaving the TV screen. Next, just as I was already annoyed (having gotten one of those sour peanuts in my M&M) I'd hear “Stop it!” or “I'm telling” from one of them. They're testing me. So according to my babysitting philosophy, I need to show that there will be consequences to their misbehavior. I should mention here that I lacked the authority to hit the little angels, a fact of which they were all well aware.

Years later police forces around the world would confront this dilemma and come up with humane solutions like bean-bag guns, pepper spray or Tasers, but I was on my own here.

So I put Eddie and Jayne in separate rooms (keeping Patti with me in the TV room since she was obviously never to blame). This just turned the muffled giggling into louder chuckling and requests to leave their assigned places to go to the bathroom, get a cookie they need for their homework (really?) or go to the emergency room because someone is almost positive they have a tumor. Patti looked at me with an “I deal with these two every day of my life, so good luck” expression.

I should have realized then that I was in over my head.

The civil disobedience escalated to debates on the extent of my parent-given authority, threats to “tell daddy” on me and blatant non-compliance with my clearly stated orders. I felt like the Nixon Administration dealing with Abbie Hoffman, Jane Fonda and Joan Baez. And like that poor, put-upon, soon-to-be-ex-president I was prepared to resign my duties. But no such luck. At least I knew when I was beaten.

If you have never been out-argued, with calm, sensible logic by a 8-year-old, I'm here to tell you it's an experience you never forget.

However, there is more to the story than the failure of the Jack Doctrine of Babysitting.

It seems there was a rival philosophy at work.

When I was unavailable for duty, the task fell to my 17-year-old brother, Dan. Whether it was because he was a little closer in age to the troublesome trio, because of his naturally playful nature or because he was just an overall nicer person than me, Dan's idea was to engage the youngsters.

And engage them he did.

There were little quizzes, made-up games, heart-felt questions about their likes and dislikes … and most famously, pillow fights. Dan put a lot of thought into his obligation, and I think the kids preferred his supervision to mine with very little debate about the subject … at first. But as time went on, and Dan's babysitting sessions became more frequent, the interactions tended to be less and less talk and more and more contests.

Keeping these contests fair (at least in theory) meant that Dan would stay on his knees and, for instance, pillow fight one, two, or sometimes all three at once. Anyone who has ever been in a pillow fight knows that in certain types of pillows (mainly those containing feathers), the weight of the pillow tends to gravitate into one end. Grabbing the lighter end and smacking with the heavy end increases the impact by … oh, approximately fifty times.

And so down they went. Over and over. Individually and in well planned but doomed alliances. No matter what you may have heard, the truth is that Goliath almost always wins. I believe that Dan has retired undefeated in the pillow fighting portion of the Dan Games.

Today, Eddie, Jayne and Patti are in their forties. They have all turned out to be amazing individuals, great friends as well as brother and sisters to each other and ... against all odds ... to Dan and me, too.

I can never get a definitive answer from any of them when I ask which turned out in the end to be the better babysitting philosophy. I have a feeling that probably means they're waiting for me to offer a “none of the above” option.

One last thing. Over the years Eddie and Jayne each have told me that Patti was absolutely responsible for her share of the chaos of my babysitting career, using that innocent reputation to her best advantage.

For some reason, knowing that makes me feel better about the whole thing.


  1. You were a better babysitter than I was.

  2. All I can say is I feel sorry for your poor charges, Lori.