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What to Pay the Babysitter

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This weekend, I tried a new approach to the guessing game of paying the babysitter. I told them how much I was willing to pay for her help ahead of time, and I outlined what I expected to happen while I was gone. It was a Take It or Leave It approach, and it worked. But there was a little bit of eye-rolling when I stated that my price for three hours with two kids was $15. Apparently I am way below the curve of what people are paying in our neighborhood.

My position is that it is not a terribly hard job: I don't expect them to be the mom, I expect them to watch a movie with my kids and feed them a little pre-made dinner. Probably almost exactly what they would be doing at home for free. If I could afford to pay them more, I would expect them to do more, like clean my house, make the dinner and do the dishes. But I know my budget, so I tell them that I don't expect much extra and pray that it will go smoothly for them. If I had a new baby, I would pay extra for the inevitable emotional drain and possible sore muscles from carrying the baby. If I had really intense or difficult kids, I would pay them more because they would have earned more (and just to make sure they are willing to come back).

After the babysitter took my offer, because we are friends and I was interested, she and her brother started talking about what they get paid for other jobs. He said that he usually earns $30-40 each time he mows someone's lawn. He was bewildered when a man in the neighborhood said $20 was too much to pay for just mowing his lawn. Then he said that some people pay $50 per time that he mows their lawn! FIFTY DOLLARS. I believe my brother charged $50 for a summer-long commitment of lawn mowing for each house on his route.

So the kids are saying, "This is so great! I am making so much money!" And the adults are saying, "Well, I guess if that is what people are paying, I had better stay competitive with what I pay too." And the price keeps inflating higher and higher. But what are the consequences?

First, I get a babysitter twice a year. I can't afford it otherwise. Other moms feel the same way. So the teenagers are potentially losing out on steady work and the commitment of holding a regular babysitting job because the going rate is more than many families can afford. My friends and I get around that by simply swapping kids with each other, which is fantastic and cheap. So we aren't the ones missing out in the situation -- it's the teenager who could have some money more often, rather than lots of money occasionally.

And second, we are creating an unrealistic expectation for kids in what their time and energy is actually worth to the working world. When I was a kid, babysitting was a low-paying, under-age job, but at least we earned something until we were 16 and we could go out and get a grocery store or restaurant job and really start earning money. Now, we are inflating teenager's wages for babysitting and yard work and the minimum wage job at the grocery store down the street is not enticing at all. They don't want to get a formal job for less money than they they are used to getting around the neighborhood. I had one teen tell me that he hated his pizza place job because "they treat me like a trained monkey. I think they want to work me to death." Yes, real jobs are hard and often crummy. But they are stepping stones to greater things. Experience is important when are applying for a better job than the one you currently have. If they don't want to work at the pizza place in high school, and then they don't want to work at a college job (because they don't pay enough or they don't like cleaning bathrooms), how are they going to get a job out of college with absolutely no experience? We complain about paying the mechanic or the plumber for their labor and yet we freely overpay these unskilled teenagers to their own detriment. And it is not just teenagers that have this inflated self-conception. Everyone does.

A recent article stated that only 28 percent of teenagers (16-18 years old) have their drivers licenses, down from 46 percent of licensed teens in 1983. Their unemployment rate is 24 percent -- fully three times the national average. Yes, it is getting more expensive to do things, but also many kids just don't seem to be very motivated to chase after things. Many of them are content to be carted around by their parents, have things paid for by their parents, and take their time reaching adulthood. Maybe this is the same argument that has been made in every generation (starting with the words, "In my day..."), but from my perspective teenagers have never before been so impressive or so useless. There are some really stellar kids out there making their way. And there are some severely pathetic ones. Their potential spans a great chasm, and we should all be anxious to help them climb from mediocrity to impressiveness.

The Value of Hard Work and Desperation

In my day, my siblings and I would do anything to earn a little extra money. We were desperate. Lemonade stands, selling fruit from our orchard door to door. I even remember setting up a restaurant in our gazebo in the yard, making sandwiches with the food from our kitchen, and then expecting my mom to come and buy the food from me (so she had to buy the same stuff twice -- at the grocery store, then the gazebo. She refused, but in exchange for a free sandwich, she let us keep selling her food to other people). If I could scrape together enough money to go to the movie, I was set. That creative ability to solve my money problems has led me all over the work-world -- to Taiwan, a mountain summer camp, cleaning college buildings, working nights in a cherry factory, doing "handyman projects" that I (and my boss) were totally unqualified to do, crocheting afghans, cleaning houses, even writing a couple of articles for a local food magazine. Never mind my college degree and legitimate, steady jobs. I was willing to work almost anywhere and I have patchworked my 31 years with adventure, travel, crummy jobs, boredom and new skills.

And my level of ambition is put to shame by the previous generation's. My father-in-law is a remarkably tenacious worker. When he was ten, he decided that he wanted a horse. Period. His parents said, "No, we don't have any place to put it, you can't have a horse." But he was undeterred. He got on his bike and made some inquiries. He found a stable that he could board a horse and a place to buy hay. Now, he just needed a horse, and money to buy it. He first saved up his money so that he could buy a lawnmower, then he mowed lawns, saved his lunch money every day instead of buying lunch, turned in pop bottles for about a dollar a day, saved his birthday money -- in short, he didn't spend a thing. (Keep in mind: he was 10). When he was 11, he had finally saved up about $300 in 1970 dollars (equivalent to about $1,775 today).

He saw an ad in the paper for an Appaloosa for sale in LaVerkin, Utah that he thought would be a good fit. $200. So he called up his bishop, who had a horse trailer, and they went down to buy the horse. He got Callie (named for her Calico coat) all set up in her stall and then went home and told his mom, "I bought a horse." "You did not!" "I did. I'll show you if you want." So they drove down there together and she was blown away. He would ride his bike across town each day after school to feed and ride Callie. He kept working to earn the money for her hay and board.

Desperation begets creativity. Creatively solving problems gives kids confidence to do more. Confidence in doing more leads to success. Overpaying kids upends the whole cycle.

Guidelines

So I propose a unified approach to the question of What Do You Pay The Babysitter:

  • If you aren't already sure of what you want to pay, try setting your price relative to the price of a movie ticket. Everyone's cost of living is different, so it isn't reasonable to say $5-an-hour across the world. But if it takes about two hours to earn the money to go to a two-hour movie, that seems fair. Movies here are $10 a ticket, I think, so I would pay $5 an hour for kids under the age of 16.
  • Lay out your proposal from the beginning so you can avoid the awkward car ride conversation when you are dropping them off. "Is that enough? Is that okay?" "Yeah, it's fine. Whatever is fine." This also lets the teenager refuse the job if they feel it isn't worth their time. I remember the agony of wondering what they were going to pay me -- sometimes even if they were going to remember to pay me. It gives them more confidence when they are agreeing to the job.
  • Point out exactly what you would like to have them do while you are gone. "I need you to feed them all, and then clear up the table and put the dishes in the sink. If you do the dishes, I will pay you $2 extra. Then put the kids to bed, make sure they have their pajamas on and their teeth brushed. After the kids are in bed, if you want an extra $5, feel free to clean up the house." Think of hiring a teenage babysitter as a training opportunity for their upcoming "real job."
  • If kids decide that they really want to develop their babysitting skills by taking CPR courses, or making a babysitting kit to bring with them, then we ought to respect their improving skills and pay them more. I have a friend who saved up all of her money for college by babysitting kids in the DC area, even holding summer camps in her home for groups of kids. I'm not saying that we should underpay anyone. I'm saying that these kids should earn their money. So if it is an easy job, they have earned $5 an hour, if my kids are difficult, then they have earned $10 an hour by putting up with them. If they save them from a house fire, they get a bonus! If they have developed themselves professionally to a point where they are actively engaging with my kids, taking care of the house, feeding them healthy foods and getting them to bed on time, they are earning more than $5. But to sit and and watch a show, leave the house a mess and put the baby to bed with a saggy diaper -- they haven't earned much. We need to require responsible, accountable employees, and they will learn skills that will make them employable out in the world.

Paying the "going rate" blindly or proudly isn't doing our babysitters any favors. If this resonates with you, please share the article with your neighborhood friends and ward members. It will be more effective if all of the parents in your circle are on the same page. Let's do what little we can to reinforce responsibility and healthy ambition in these kids!

Jan Francisco is a mother and blogger who writes regularly at indefenseofwomen.wordpress.com.