I was born on a crisp January day in 1971. Well, it wasn’t exactly crisp out since my dad was stationed in the Philippines at the time, but you get my point. I am, without a doubt, a child of the ’70s.
Flared pants and the Brady Bunch. Fish fingers, banana seat bikes, and heading home by dark. Bologna sandwiches on white bread and Kool-Aid, with Twinkies as a treat.
The ’70s weren’t just another decade; it was more like another world.
People had an entirely different philosophy back then. Children weren’t considered nearly as breakable so parenting was more (ahem) hands off. Kids were sent out to wile the hours away around the neighborhood, trusted to let themselves in after school, and happily sustained themselves on lemonade and Ho-Hos.
Which probably had a great deal to do with how I landed my first babysitting job at the ripe old age of eleven.
I don’t consider myself a helicopter parent, but I read that sentence now and shudder. What on earth made any responsible adult think they could trust me with their small children when I was barely out of elementary school myself? I mean, I know I looked responsible, but still. We’re talking about their offspring.
Welcome to the early ’80s, where the bar for babysitters was set pretty low: don’t drink, don’t smoke, and make sure the kids don’t burn the house down. Got those three areas covered? Bing, bang, boom – you’re in.
My first babysitting job was in New Jersey, for a family conveniently located right next door seeing as I was (way) too young to drive and couldn’t ride my bike after dark. They had two children, a preschooler and a baby, and the most incredible window seat that was perfect for reading after their kids were in bed. But I suppose that’s beside the point.
Now, I was a good kid. Responsible, trustworthy, with a healthy respect for other people’s property. (What’s up with babysitters leaving dirty dishes piled in the sink these days, anyway?) Even so, I was only eleven. At the time eleven was considered old enough to cook, clean, and be left home alone. But as we know now, eleven also comes before several critical areas of brain development.
I was watching the kids one sunny afternoon while their mom ran errands. The baby had gone down for a nap, and I’d taken the 3-year-old into the backyard to play on the swing set. To this day I’m still not quite sure what happened. You know what toddlers are like (though an 11-year-old sure didn’t) – look away for five seconds and you’ll turn back to find them scaling the fence.
I guess this one wasn’t a climber, though, because I turned around to find he’d shoved his head between bars in the play set. You know how some of them have that seesaw swing? Made for two kids, one on each side, where they sit facing each other? The fulcrum piece (see, science-y people, I did remember something from class) was made of two metal bars with about three to four inches between them. Well, Lord knows how but little Timmy had managed to cram his head through that space – head on one side, body on the other, wailing away because he was beyond stuck.
My 11-year-old self froze for a split second. This was bad. This was very, very bad. No mama wants to come home to find their kid stuck in the play set. This had to get fixed. Fast.
I rushed over to him and tried to pull the bars apart, just a little bit, just enough for the kid to slide his head back out. I pulled until my arms ached but those bars didn’t budge. I was ratcheting up toward panic mode, and just as I turned toward the house to run and call for help the boy’s mother appeared at the back door.
My heart flew into my throat as I watched her sprint across the yard, throwing her purse aside and grabbing the bars. It was the first time I witnessed a mother’s adrenaline, because when she pulled hard little Timmy popped his head out and collapsed against her in tears. I was horrified, convinced I’d failed despite following the three sitter standards above.
But the mom? She knew all about toddlers and their five second, what the hell are you DOING behaviors. Something an 11-year-old babysitter was completely unprepared for.