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Adventures In Babysitting

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Charles Greene--"Baby, Oh, Baby" (mp3)

In a touching but chilling scene from last year's excellent Winter's Bone, a 17-year-old girl left to care for her much younger brother and sister shows them how to cook and how to fire a gun so that they can feed and protect themselves. Though set in the modern day in the meth-addled back country of Missouri, these scenes play as if they were set on the prairie in 1870, so foreign are they to our current childrearing practices.

I have a friend who often faces the more modern dilemna of finding a decent babysitter. Half teasing, half not, I like to tell him that his older daughter is perfectly capable of taking care of his younger daughter. But is she?

Is today's 12 or 13 year old girl equipped to take on the standard babysitting job? What preparation has she had? Or he (boys babysit, too)? My questions are not in any way a comment on my friend's daughter. She is smart and mature and calm. It is a comment on today's children.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal called "What's Wrong With The Teenage Mind?" examines the latest research and concludes that the "wrongness," such as it is, is the result of children reaching puberty earlier and earlier, which also causes the overactive teenage sense of "reward" to kick in earlier as well. Teenagers, studies show, a) see rewards as being greater rewards than we do and b) are more likely to seek those "rewards," i.e. take risks, to gain peer acceptance. Teens who know better, as part of a rational discussion, are far less likely to act responsibly in real situations.

Add to that the realities that, unlike those children in Winter's Bone, most of our own children know very little about such personal care activities as cooking, cleaning, and washing clothes, let alone treating cuts and bruises or knowing how to manage the many systems involved in running a house.

So the old assumptions that we may have made about the teen who would babysit our children, or even about our older children watching our younger children may need a deeper investigation. The idea that the near-adult who will manage the house while we are out on the town knows what to do in the types of situations that may arise and will do what needs to be done is simply not a given. In the circumstance where it seems like an even better idea to allow a couple of friends to babysit together or for a boyfriend or girlfriend to come over, even less so. To assume that they know how to give a child a bath, how to make a grilled cheese, or who to call if the power goes out is probably quite a leap.

In a recent meeting of a cooking club at school, I brought a bowl of eggs and milk for the students to dip bread into to make french toast. Before they started dipping, one of them asked me, "What's in that, sir?" Um, eggs and milk, I thought, doesn't everyone know how to make french toast? Now I don't want to make too much of that, and they were, indeed, all boys, but the fact remains that with their own parents likely cooking less, today's teens have little idea about the basics of putting together simple food. I've seen that verified in other cooking projects we've done with the club. And, if they don't know that, what else don't they know?

The situation is not irreversible. The Wall Street Journal article suggests that "apprenticeships" and presenting these children with real-world situations that have a safety net will go a long way towards shoring up their developing brains. While the examples in the article deal with everything from learning how to drive (raising the driving age limit a few years has little effect of driving safety; working into graduated, expanded driving privileges over time does) to learning, in primitive cultures with mentors, to use dangerous tools, it may well be that babysitters need to be trained. Otherwise, we will rely on an increasingly-odd assumption that when a child reaches a certain magical age, he or she is suddenly qualified to provide extended care for children who are very important to us.

Our children may well be "digital natives" (I have yet to be fully convinced of that), but they don't seem any longer to be native natives, as in, they have not been equipped with many of the mundane skills necessary to care for each other or the mindset that gives them the best chance of making that happen.

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