New Grail: Sitter For Friday Night

There's a crisis spreading across the land.

It's not an energy crisis, a crisis of confidence, or even an economic crisis of global proportions. It's a crisis in baby sitters.

As parents desperate for a night out can attest, there just aren't enough people willing to look after America's children. Causes range from a demographic dip in the number of teens to a boom in the number of girls playing sports - which leaves them less time to baby-sit.

OK, so the shortage isn't cause to call out the National Guard. But for anyone who has missed an important PTA meeting or cancelled a china-and-crystal dinner party because all the guests had to bring kids who still needed tippy-cups, it's clear the sitter crisis is altering the social rhythms of families and neighborhoods.

Robin Schwartz-Kreger knows all about it. This mother of a tow-headed, Barney-loving toddler has learned that in today's spandex-tight baby-sitter market, it takes tenacity - and then some - to secure a sitter.

Last summer at the pool in her suburban Maryland neighborhood, for instance, as her son Eli frolicked in the kiddie area, Ms. Schwartz-Kreger spotted a bright-eyed teenager. Striking up a conversation, she quickly cut to the chase - and the girl, it turned out, was willing to be a sitter. Kimberly has since become one of Schwartz-Kreger's favorite Eli watchers.

"Fifteen years ago I was trying to meet guys at the pool," she says, chuckling. "Now I'm trying to meet baby sitters."

Why they're so elusive

So are the rest of America's parents. The sitter shortage, it turns out, is driven by a number of trends.

* In 1980, there were 16 million 14- to 17-year-olds. By 1990, there were just 13 million. The number is starting to jump back up, but in the teen group, America is in between the baby boom and its echo.

* Today 80 to 90 percent of suburban 12-year-old girls are on athletic teams, according to Northeastern University's Center for Sport and Society. That's double the number in decades past.

* The plenteous "now hiring" signs in store windows also draw in teens seeking extra cash - teens who might otherwise baby-sit.

There is a host of other, more subtle factors too, says Judith Lederman, author of "Searching for Mary Poppins" and the child-care expert for America Online's moms' chat group. These range from kids being more scheduled than ever - with ballet classes, music lessons, and sports - to kids starting to date at a younger age.

"Trying to get time with a sitter is more like scheduling a corporate executive than a kid," Ms. Lederman says.

That's certainly true for Melissa Butterfield, a high school junior in Holliston, Mass. Her easy rapport with kids and parents makes her a much-sought-after sitter.

But her packed sports schedule - soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter, and managing softball in the spring, along with the fact that she studies hard - makes her tough to snag.

When she does find time to baby-sit, she usually gets paid $5 to $6 an hour - "plus time-and-a-half after midnight," she says in a business-like tone.

Like a star athlete with contracts piling up at her feet, Melissa, and many sitters today, can afford to be choosy.

There's one family in particular that this aspiring teacher tries to squeeze in. "The kids are awesome," she says. "And the parents say, 'Eat whatever you want. Make yourself at home. Go to sleep if you want.' "

If these parents call on short notice - even on a Friday night when she's got tentative plans with friends - Melissa will likely try to accommodate them. (Although, like any socially active high-schooler, she says it depends on whom her plans are with.) With other families, however, she's not quite as willing.

Secrets of success

But lest parents begin to feel like the mythical Sisyphus, there are some who have reached the pinnacle of baby-sitting security.

Wendy Burchard is a single mom in Richland, Wash., with a Lego-loving son named Ashton. Because she works six days a week as a steak-house waitress, she needs sitters constantly for the time when Ashton isn't in school.

Her secret to success: classified ads. She puts them in the local paper, in the nearby college's paper, even on the Internet. And although she hires only about 1 in 15 respondents, the steady stream of callers to her house lets her pick and choose.

In Holliston, Mass., meanwhile, 10 mothers have started a baby-sitting cooperative. When one mom baby-sits for another, she gets one point per child per hour. She can then cash in those points later when she needs a sitter.

"When I really need someone, it's never failed me," says co-op leader Kristin Foster. "And the best thing is that it's free."

Keeping them happy

Finally, for those who do have sitters, Robin Schwartz-Kreger has a bit of advice for keeping them around in the harsh reality of today's market. "Bribery always works," she laughs.

Indeed, before Kimberly comes to her house, Schwartz-Kreger rushes to the video store and then stops by the supermarket to get Kimberly's favorite potato chips.

"These aren't just regular chips," she says. "They're the funky, flavored, gourmet kind that go for $3 a bag."

But, alas, even stellar chips won't keep Kimberly from going away to college next year.

Still, Schwartz-Kreger remains optimistic. "Summer's coming," she says. "Maybe I'll meet more baby sitters at the pool."

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