Marketing plans? Competitive pricing? Diversity training? No kidding. Today’s babysitting classes teach would-be sitrepreneurs much more than how to properly cradle an infant
Kylee Brahma is 11 years old with a long brunette braid down her back and a rubber bracelet on her wrist that reads, “RESPECT.” She’s quick to pop out of her chair at the conference room table and shoot a hand into the air: I know the answer! I got this! Call on me!
We’re at an all-day babysitting class at the Red Cross of Southern Nevada on a Saturday, learning the basics of child care that, it turns out, are not so basic anymore. Suffice it to say, I’m not jumping out of my chair with the answers. When I babysat eons ago, it went something like this: The neighbor called and I went over to her house to watch her kids jump on the furniture while I talked on the phone and ate everything in the fridge. Five hours later, I got a ten-spot and a ride home.
Today’s babysitting students are working their way through a 180-page manual that includes information on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, respecting religious, gender and income diversity, recognizing child abuse, and building a resumé.
“It’s a good way to learn about business,” Kylee pops out of her chair again to tell me. “Education is everything.”
Her can-do attitude fits perfectly into the precocious entrepreneurial business spirit right now, and her current field — babysitting — is an old-but-hot-again commodity. To wit: a 15-year-old Manhattan girl recently made headlines for earning six figures per year hooking up nannies with families through her start-up, Nannies by Noa, and websites like Care.com, Sittercity.com and Urbansitter.com are pumping out ads and, in some cases, stock shares. Babysitting, it turns out, is big business.
That’s why Red Cross instructor Barbara Morgan, who’s been teaching babysitting for 27 years, spends a good chunk of the morning telling a table of 11- and 12-year-olds about marketing, business cards, the power of a good handshake, price negotiation, and “how to close the deal.” Before we get to minor bailiwicks like learning how to change a diaper, we’re brainstorming about where to place fliers (churches, parents’ offices), analyzing the power of babysitter clubs (crowdsourcing) and designing apprenticeships (learning on the job as a paid “mother’s helper”).
“I grew up babysitting a zillion kids in my family for free,” Morgan says. She’s got the gray hair and authoritative, matter-of-fact tone to prove it. “I said, ‘Next time, I’m getting paid for this.’” Morgan also raised a son.
“Babysitting is not a chore you can just assign to kids,” she continues. “This is a job and they should be paid the same as you would pay an adult.” She advises her students that the minimum rate should be $10 an hour for the first two children, plus $1 per each additional child. A quick glance through local sitters on Care.com shows $10-$15 an hour is a common rate.
But what these students will have that many others don’t is a paragraph on their resumé that shows they took the Red Cross Babysitting Class — a monthly class that has evolved dramatically over 30 years. The local chapter charges $75 for the full-day class, which about 200 students a year take. And while everyone wants to learn how to compete in the babysitting market, this class has been around for three decades because it teaches the most important skill: how to take care of babies.
“It means a lot to see that they’ve taken the Red Cross class,” says Morgan. “That gets respect.”
‘This thing scares me’
The babies are rubber and lifelike, and they’re wearing diapers and onesies. They’re racially diverse: white, black, brown; and eerily sexless: no genitals here. Each student walks across the room and picks a baby of his or her own — Morgan doesn’t want to refer to them as “dolls” because for the remainder of the day, we’re assuming they’re real.
Upbeat market confidence gives way to palpable fear. Oscar Green, a sharp 11-year-old with glasses who described himself to the group as someone who “likes to tell stories and make people laugh,” silently carries his rubber baby waaay out in front of him like a tray full of fragile stemware. When he sits down, he’s still holding it above the table in front him.
Kylee — whose joie de vivre has been bubbling over for hours, sits down next to me with her rubber baby and says quietly, “Oh jeez.” She takes a look at the baby’s vacant eyes and permanently puckered mouth and quickly turns away. “This thing scares me. Oh my gosh.”
Morgan selects a baby named Clara (for Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross) and gives us our first lesson: how to hold an infant. Of utmost importance, Morgan emphasizes, is supporting the baby’s neck and being careful with its head. Student Amelia Cuomo, 12, is hanging on Morgan’s words when Morgan purposely lets her baby’s head thump on the table. Amelia jumps — but instinctively pulls her baby into her chest.
“Did you hear that?” Morgan says. “I don’t ever want to hear the sound of a baby’s head thumping on the table for the rest of the day. Everybody clear?” Yes, yes, yes. Gone are the hard-nosed discussions of cost negotiations, of business cards and fliers. We’re talking about fragile baby skulls here.
So we watch a short video about scooping the baby up, supporting its neck and head, and bringing it against our chests. We learn to lift the baby’s inside arm so that it won’t be trapped under its body. Then, we practice. Everybody’s doing pretty well — an arm lock here or there, a wobbly head or two, and an unclaimed head thump.
“It’s okay, this is what we practice for,” Morgan says. “That’s why we’re here. That’s why we don’t start with real babies.” She helps each student get it right.
What strikes me as I look around the group is how genuine these future babysitters are — they’re good kids, they’re really listening, really taking it all in. I can’t peg a fridge-excavator or a phone-chatter in the group.
Morgan moves on. We watch a video about bottle-feeding and burping. We’re taught that the parents usually will have pre-made the bottles and given instructions. In fact, the Red Cross provides students with a form they can use to write special instructions on when they meet the parents. Students also get a handbook and a DVD — plenty of resources for at-home study, and I can imagine some students poring over the material at home for hours to hone their competitive edge in the marketplace.
Next, she shows us how an infant takes a spoon into its mouth — “You don’t need to force it in there, just get it over the lip. The baby is going to push the food back out with his or her tongue, and then you scoop it back in.”
To the surprise and fascination of all, particularly me, she demonstrates on herself: She pretends to be an infant, and when she gets the spoon to her lips, she pushes it out with her tongue, then re-scoops. “It’s just the way they do it. So practice.” Soon, everybody’s practicing the lip-scoop on their vacant-eyed babies, and everything seems all right. Amelia stands up with her baby on her hip. Kylee has her burping cloth ready, and Oscar is carefully tucking his baby’s arm in as he cradles it.
Hungry faces, fragile heads
Everything’s fine, that is, until it’s time for a bathroom break, and they decide to leave their babies with me to babysit. I’m not too happy about it — did I mention I haven’t raised children? — and suddenly I’m sitting in a big empty room with a bevy of babies who have permanently hungry faces and fragile heads.
Despite everything I’ve just learned, my flight-or-flight mechanism triggers a flood of babysitting flashbacks. Should I make scrambled eggs? That used to work for both me and whimpering children, and it was the only thing I knew how to cook. (One of my babysittees grew up to be a chef.) Or maybe I should call a friend. Or a few friends. That got me in whole lot of trouble once, because my friends showed up at the window wearing pantyhose over their heads in an attempt to scare me, but instead thoroughly traumatized the small children. (I made scrambled eggs immediately!) Or maybe I should check out the selection of Betamax and VHS tapes. Or eat some Flintstones vitamins. Or ramble through the parents’ dresser drawers?
I snap out of my delinquent fog when Morgan and the students return. A quick survey of the zombie babies shows everybody’s stable, if still not breathing. But how is it that kids today, I wonder, handle the responsibility of babysitting when they have a million times more diversions in their cell phones and laptops than I ever did?
“Sure, there are a lot of distractions — smartphones and TVs and iPads and every imaginable device, but these kids are learning not only how to care for smaller children, but how to be responsible,” Morgan says, eyeing me skeptically. I think she has me pinned: easily distracted vitamin-chomper.
“They’re learning how to be leaders, how to communicate with parents and get information down on paper for reference, how to listen to directions and, maybe most importantly, how to stay focused on the children at all times.” (I’m listening, but realize I’m also Googling “long-term effects of Flintstones overdose” on my phone. I put the phone away. Focus.)
Plus, she says, cell phones are a good thing — in the right hands. “The Red Cross teaches them not to use them for socializing or zooming around on the Internet, but to keep the phone where they could easily call for help.”
Wipe that baby clean
“I need help,” Oscar says. A onesie is basically a really cute straitjacket, and his baby is really stuck inside a tight one when it’s time for diaper-changing.
“Bend his knees,” Kylee advises, her once-scary baby laid in front of her in full diaper-changing mode. But Oscar’s rubber baby’s knees don’t bend so well, and Oscar is being careful not to hurt it. With encouragement, he manages to free it from the onesie.
“A baby can go through 10 to 12 diapers a day,” Morgan tells them. Amelia’s eyes grow huge — 12? — and she looks at her baby, whom she’s named Oliver, with some amazement. “I’ve never even changed a diaper,” she says quietly.
The babies are already wearing diapers, and so the kids begin the meticulous un-diapering process, with Red Cross-recommended latex gloves on. Morgan teaches them how to wipe a baby clean, put the baby-wipe inside the dirty diaper, and diaper the baby in a fresh diaper, careful to make the diaper tight enough but not too tight, and then wrap their gloves and trash in a sanitary manner. She checks every baby one by one, telling some that the diaper needs to be higher, and others that the leg holes need to be pulled tighter. Everyone does another round of un-diapering and diapering.
“Good job,” Morgan says to the group. “We’re getting more comfortable and confident.”
Case in point: Kylee. By the end of the class, she’s come to terms with the rubber baby with the zombie eyes that initially freaked her out. She’s named it Piper, and she’s not only not afraid of it, she’s cradling it like a true pro.
She leans over to me and says again, “Education is everything.”