What does babysitting mean to girls? It's complicated.
Two different guests linger at the Talk Back table at the end of the exhibition Girlhood (It’s complicated). Each one picks up a pen to answer the same question: did you or anyone in your family work as a child?
“I babysit and I like doing it,” one writes, and draws a heart.
“I was never paid for it, but I often was left to watch the kids,” writes the other. “My siblings often yelled at me, ‘Stop acting like our mom!’ which I always wanted to yell back ‘Then why am I doing everything a mom is expected to do?’”
What do these two stories have in common? What sets them apart from each other? The Talk Back section of Girlhood provides a forum for visitors to share candid reactions and personal stories. One common theme that emerged was babysitting. Many girls’ first experiences of work involve caring for younger children. Some girls take on this job for other families, while some assume responsibility for siblings or cousins in their own households. It can be a choice or an obligation; a fond memory or a painful one—or sometimes both at once.
Unlike the rest of the exhibition, the Talk Back cards are not curated as a streamlined story. Visitors arrange their response cards in no particular order. The stories they share agree with each other and contradict each other. So, what can we learn from all these different babysitting stories?
A Rite of Passage
For girls on the cusp of adolescence, taking care of another child can be a meaningful step towards growing up. It’s a big responsibility for a young person. These cards show that girls often start babysitting when they are as young as 10 or 11. Some visitors recounted experiences of babysitting that taught them lasting lessons. “It builds character [and] helps to understand the value of money, [and] to take pride in accomplishing things to achieve goals,” one wrote. Babysitting is difficult work. When girls choose to take it on, the challenge can be empowering and rewarding.
Others expressed gratitude for the personal relationships they developed through their babysitting job. “My mother babysat before me,” wrote one visitor. “Working was part of who we were and who we are.” Babysitting is often considered a solo activity—sitters don’t usually work in groups. But by connecting to friends, family, and clients, girls found solidarity and community.
Working At Home
Not all families can hire a babysitter from outside the family. When time and money are tight, girls are often required to care for younger siblings and family members in their own households. Visitors spoke up about the effort that goes into childcare and the lack of respect that girls receive in exchange for this type of underpaid labor. One visitor laid out the extent of their responsibilities around the house, describing the job as being “a live-in caretaker.” Looking after a household of children can involve housework like cooking and cleaning, which further burdens girls. Another visitor described the life and duties of their great aunt, saying simply, “She had no choice in her life.” The concept of choice—and lack thereof—emerges as a theme.
In many of these accounts, the word “babysitting” does not appear. Instead, visitors talk about raising younger siblings or taking care of them. This nuance in language reveals a difference in experience. This wasn’t always a part-time job, and these girls did not always choose to work.
When children are pressed into work at a young age, they lose some of the freedom associated with youth. Child labor challenges the stereotype of parents who work and children who play. In many families, everybody is expected to pitch in.
For some, babysitting and childcare serve as starter jobs—ways that girls can contribute to the household when they may not be legally able to secure paid work. It’s seen as something girls can do even when they’re not ready for the “real” workforce. But childcare is still essential labor. The Work section of the Girlhood exhibit proclaims, “Girls built America.” In many families, girls help build households, too.
Who Gets a Girlhood?
Sometimes babysitting can be empowering. Other times it’s discouraging and alienating. This contrast speaks to a central tension explored in Girlhood. Class, culture, age, gender, and family structure all impact girls’ experiences of work. For the oldest or only girl in a family, this burden could be especially pronounced. One visitor shared a story of their aunt who worked long hours as a child to take care of her family. “She did not get a childhood,” they wrote. But the concept of childhood can look different for different people: another visitor described their mother as the “definition of a ‘girl child’ who was denied an education to raise her siblings.” As one young guest wrote, “People consider work different things but as a child sometimes we are forced to grow up faster.”
Work: It’s Complicated
Two more guests approach the table. They pick up two more turquoise cards to answer the same question.
“Why is it so common & accepted for 10-16 y/o to babysit younger children,” one writes, “when they themselves are so young?!”
“Taught me a lot about hard work + motivation,” writes the other. “Also, when you get to adulthood and having that experience helps you with decisions and LIFE!”
Our visitors reveal that babysitting takes on a multitude of meanings. Historian Miriam Forman-Brunell writes in her book Babysitter: An American History that babysitting is a complex part of modern family structure in the United States, yet most scholars don’t examine the topic with the nuance it deserves. Babysitting stories like the ones on these Talk Back cards inspire questions about gender, age, and labor history.
These stories don’t have to form neat patterns to be worth studying. If visitors disagree with each other, that’s a testament to diversity. “It’s complicated” is not the end of the conversation. It’s the beginning. As Girlhood begins its national tour in 2023, we hope that more girls and women across the country will be inspired to speak up and add their own voices to the conversation.
Nina Wattenberg is an intern in the Division of Work and Industry and an undergraduate student at Smith College. She is an American Studies major and specializes in the study of women, work, and popular culture.