It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Last Post on the Topic

…but it has to be said.

It’s about the infamous “babysitter” comment. When one of the two Silly Women asked Melissa,

“Would you let your babysitter drink while she was caring for your children?”

Everywhere throughout the blogosphere, mommy bloggers are uniting in indignation. “Of course not!” they shout. “And we’re NOT babysitters!”

I’m a childcare provider (NOT a ‘babysitter’, thankyouverymuch). I’m also a mother. I live on both sides of that great divide.

You know what? I thought the question was perfectly reasonable. (Though the follow-up, “Seriously. What’s the difference?” was unnecessary and insulting. It was also stupid, because it put the emphasis in entirely the wrong place. The questioner did not mean ‘what’s the difference between a mother and a babysitter?’, but that’s what just about everyone heard.)

Mothers who heard that were justifiably insulted. Caregiving is a 9 – 5 job. (Huh. I wish, but it does have start and end times.) There is not a second in the day you are not a parent, not a second in the day you are not ultimately responsible for that child in a way a caregiver is not. I understand that – I’m a mother! I know the difference between caregiver and parent. But that question…

Anyone curious to know how this Babysitter (hate that word) Mommy would have responded to it?

“Would you let your babysitter drink while she was caring for your children?”

My answer?

“Well, it would depend on the sitter.”

Because, well, wouldn’t it?

You’re okay with yourself drinking around your kids. You’re probably okay with your mother, too. Oh, and your sister — and Cousin Ron and Aunt Ida. Oh, and of course your best friend… and that lovely neighbour across the street.

You see? There’s a heightened level of trust that has to be present for you to allow this behaviour, but there are probably a reasonable number of people you trust in this manner. Why should your caregiver arbitrarily be excluded from this trust, simply by virtue of her job description? Or simply by virtue of the fact that she does it for pay? It may well be that you just don’t have that level of trust with her. Or, it may just be that you do.

The thing is, if it was wrong for the Today Show plastic people to suggest that an entire group of people be forbidden a certain behaviour simply by virtue of their ‘job description’, surely it’s also wrong when it happens to a different entire group of people.

So. Do you let your sitter drink? If it’s someone I don’t know well enough, someone I don’t know personally, no. No, I wouldn’t, because there wouldn’t be enough trust. But… If it’s my sister, my best mommy friend, or the woman I’ve had in to care for my child for the last two years, I may very well pour her drink myself.

February 4, 2007 - Posted by | controversy, individuality, parenting, parents, the dark side


  1. I think I just assumed, because the interviewer said “babysitter”, that she was referring to someone being paid to mind a child on a casual basis (the has a short-term ring to it, in my mind). I never actually thought to include family or close friends, or other childcare providers who have an almost-family bond with parents. I mean, I ask my parents to babysit, but I don’t consider them babysitters in a generic sense. Probably because, as you said, I regard them with a much higher level of trust.

    Comment by Kat | February 4, 2007

  2. I meant to say “the word has a short-term ring to it”.

    Comment by Kat | February 4, 2007

  3. The blogger who was interviewed is a SAHM who has only used non-family childcare for her children a handful of times. When she said “babysitter”, that short-term, non-family sitter is likely just what she meant.

    The interviewer, though? I’m quite sure she meant full-time caregiver. Lots of people use that unfortunate word, “babysitter” to mean people who do my job. I find the term demeaning. (So I totally, totally understand how mothers would be insulted by it.)

    But even an occasional sitter – if it was someone you knew well, would it be a problem?

    Comment by MaryP | February 4, 2007

  4. Hmm, I agree with you. I’ve been told to have anything in the fridge, cupboard except for the alcohol for years (after all, I am just barely legal now – 10 years after I began babysitting). However, I can remember one time when I was about 18-19 that a parent told me to help myself to whatever, even the alcohol. I never chose to drink, but I thought it was almost a sign of respect that they stopped excluding me from drinking, like they had finally grown to trust me/ know me enough to know that I wasn’t going to do anything that irresponsible while caring for children. Even now, K and B’s dad almost always asks if I want wine when we’re sitting down to eat together – and I take care of his children all the time!

    Comment by Angela | February 4, 2007

  5. Well, other than the 9-5 dcp (7:30-3:30 most days), I don’t use a sitter who isn’t my mother, who doesn’t drink. So it’s not an issue for me.

    And the simple fact is that the people who watch children are held to a different standard than the people who have children. We all know the drill, and we know it from the time we go on our first babysitting gig at 12 years old: No marathon phone calls. No inappropriate television. No sex in the livingroom. And no drinking.

    I agree that it was also insulting to refer to fulltime daycare providers as “babysitters.” I think the whole thing was more than a little insulting, actually.

    Comment by Kimberly | February 4, 2007

  6. I wonder if the reaction to moms drinking at play-dates has as much to do with WHEN the drinking is occurring as it does with WHO is doing the drinking. It’s like the taboo against drinking alone: it’s not that alcohol is somehow more potent when consumed outside of a social setting, but rather that drinking alone suggests a kind of desperation.

    That may be the difference between a play-date and a community barbeque: not that the women are supervised by their husbands at the BBQ, but rather that a weekend event occurs at a time when drinking is already socially sanctioned. But my play-dates tend to occur at around 10 am – so it just feels different to imagine moms (or babysitters, or caregivers, or anyone with or without children!) drinking at a time when most of the world is at work in workplaces where a wine spritzer would not be considered appropriate.

    Comment by bubandpie | February 4, 2007

  7. Kimberly: So you’re suggesting that this is not something that can be evalutated on a case-by-case basis between each parent and their particular caregiver?

    I would suggest there is a huge difference between a 12-year-old sitter and a 45-year-old daycare provider. I wasn’t allowed to drive at 12, or vote, or get married. Or drink, for that matter. And sex at that age would be statutory rape. I don’t think the comparison is appropriate at any level. In fact, it’s insulting.

    Comment by MaryP | February 4, 2007

  8. FWIW, no, I don’t drink on the job. This is a matter of principle.

    My day job, that is – I certainly have done so when babysitting of an evening for a friend: a glass drunk with the friends before they left for their evening.

    Comment by MaryP | February 4, 2007

  9. Bubandpie: Your comment appeared to me after I posted my response to Kimberly.

    Good point about the time and place taboos. I’d just assumed that the playdates were happening late afternoon – because I have a taboo (shared by many) against drinking in the morning. Same sense of desperation about it: starting too soon implies that you can’t last a few hours without.

    Thus, I agree that drinking at 10 in the morning wouldn’t feel right. Would it make a difference to your response if they were happening at 4 in the afternoon?

    Comment by MaryP | February 4, 2007

  10. I don’t think I agree with you. I think you have a point.

    I have a big “but” however. The difference is, someone is being paid to look after the children. Like Melissa said on the interview, how is that different from someone going to an office/other job and drinking on the job there? Would that be acceptable. For example, I used to lifeguard. What if you saw the lifeguard sipping a beer/glass of wine/cocktail while supervising the pool? How is that different from a paid caregiver watching kids?

    Now Darren’s company sometimes has lunches where alcohol is served. When he was first hired there, and went to one of these lunches, he was almost pressured into ordering a beer (corporate culture). Where I work, going out for a beer or a glass of wine at lunch is grounds for dismissal (corporate culture and collective agreement).

    Personally, I don’t believe in the 3 martini lunch, or any alcohol while I’m at work. Why should I hold a caregiver/babysitter to a lower standard than I would hold for myself while I’m at work?

    Comment by Nicole | February 4, 2007

  11. Kimberly:
    The simple fact is that the people who watch children are held to a different standard than the people who have children.

    If you had said double standard, I would have agreed with you.

    Comment by Stephen | February 4, 2007

  12. I nannied (full-time) for a family for several months. While I never drank during the (daytime) hours, I was offered (and accepted) a drink of wine on a few occassions when I stayed for dinner and was solely responsible for the kids after they had left. They had no problem with it, and I appreciated being treated like the reasonable adult I consider myself to be.

    Of course, this also did happen in Quebec, and taboos about alcohol are rather different here than in the US!

    Comment by parodie | February 4, 2007

  13. You know, I hadn’t given the babysitter/alcohol part of the story much thought. Just reflexively, I thought, well of course I wouldn’t want someone else watching Q to be drinking. Thinking more slowly this time, I agree that it depends on the person. My brother in law has the occasional beer, and it certainly wouldn’t bother me if he enjoyed one while kindly watching Q for us. Our new 15-year-old helper though? Not so much.

    Comment by Lady M | February 5, 2007

  14. It’s against the law for me to drink at any time when I have children in my care. I am a Family Day Care provider, in my home here in Australia.

    But I think this is a good thing. For provision of day care or any sort of care for children (whether in your home or someone else’s) to be taken seriously and treated as a professional activity should have these sorts of boundaries placed upon it.

    It’s about liability and responsibility. If something (heaven forbid) should happen, and it just happens to be on the day that I had a glass of wine with lunch, or whatever, then where does that leave me?

    Instantly drunk and deliquent in my duties in the mind of everyone I’m sure – I can see the headlines now!. My insurance would be invalid, I would be liable for criminal and more likely civil lawsuits.

    Parents are not faced with this issue. Their kids are theirs. They make the decision about whether or not they drink, and whether or not they feel they can continue to be responsible for their children…that is a decision they make and they are not bound by liability insurance or laws that say “no drinking on the job”.

    I do however think that if you are providing care for a child, and you have a drinky-poo with the parents over dinner or whatever and begin or continue to provide care I believe that in that situation the parents have implied their consent to you having a drink when you are or will be caring for their children. It’s a different issue – but a relevant one.

    I recall an incident where I was joining a group of carers and our local co-ordinators for lunch, and I accepted a glass of wine. Half way through it, I remembered that I had a young charge sitting in a high-chair next to me, enjoying his lunch with so many adoring adults (a last minute arrangement with me doing a favour for some desperate parents). Silly me said – “I shouldn’t be drinking this should I?”, and, well, let’s just say all hell broke loose.

    Comment by Karyn | February 5, 2007

  15. Stephen – That occurred to me, too. Even if it is “simple” – which is precisely what I’m arguing it’s not – that doesn’t mean it’s not “double”.

    Parodie – “Rather different than they are in the US”. Indeed. A little healthier, to my mind. It’s nice to be treated as an adult, isn’t it?

    LadyM – Well, your 15-year-old helper is under age, for one thing. Fine parental figure you’d be, helping to contribute to his/her delinquency by offering them booze! Thank you for taking the point. This, too, is a matter of parental discretion and considering the people involved.

    Karyn – For provision of day care or any sort of care for children …to be taken seriously and treated as a professional activity should have these sorts of boundaries placed upon it.

    I agree that professionality is important. I am very professional in my doings with my parents. I have a contract, I provide parenting assistance, books, and things I’ve written, I schedule off-site after-hours meetins when necessary. I never discuss the parents to each other, nor talk about them when I’m in public. I dress appropriately. I don’t swear on the job. I don’t have bunches of my friends over during working hours. I don’t spend hours on the phone (or on the internet! – none of the children have arrived as I type this). All of those (and there are more) are perfectly reasonable restrictions I put on myself, for professionality’s sake, and for the sake of doing a good job.

    But as far as having a single drink goes? I don’t think this argument holds water. Are teachers in Australia not allowed to have a drink with their lunch, if they go out? I know they are, here in Canada. And they’re looking after 30 or so kids at once, far more than a homecare provider ever has.

    “All hell broke loose”? Really? I imagine that must be because it’s against the law there, not because you were wild in your drunkenness.

    Comment by MaryP | February 5, 2007

  16. I agree with you, Mary; surprise, right? 🙂 When Melissa said she would never drink if she were watching a friend’s child, I thought, “Why not?” Pete and I cared for friends’ children over a weekend a while back and we went out to dinner with the kids and other friends (who also knew the kids we were watching). We both had a glass of wine with dinner. Would my friends have been upset? Hell, no, even though the mother is a former alcoholic! She knows that I drink responsibly, meaning that I don’t over-do it, ever. One glass of wine with dinner when I’m out, a few drinks at New Year’s, occasionally I’ll have a glass of wine with dinner at home. And yes, I have been known to have a drink during a late-day playdate. Our neighborhood used to do a Happy Hour Playdate thing all the time!

    So, yes; it’s very situational for me. I agree.

    Comment by candace | February 5, 2007

  17. Well, I’ve worked recently as a babysitter and as a caregiver. Fundamentally different jobs I would say.

    A babysitter is pretty much there to make sure the house doesn’t burn down and hopefully keep the kids in check. that’s a simplification, but my point is that a babysitter is not a professional position. If it’s appropriate for the person to have a drink, so be it. Undoubtedly it would depend on the circumstances and the individual.

    A caregiver is a professional position. When I’m doing that, I’m expected to maintain a host of obligations, some more difficult than others, but still. I don’t consider having a beer for lunch appropriate in that circumstance whatsoever, even if I think I could probably still do it. It’s compeletely unprofessional. There’s certain expectations that go along with that, and the parents have every right to expect that all the staff is un-sauced.

    When it comes to parenting, I’m not saying that it’s less difficult by any means. However a parent knows their child and their limit. Risk management, is one beer a risk? If you have a calm child who isn’t throwing knives and is unlikely to try to run away this afternoon, I’d say you’re fine. Most people still drive after one drink, they bet their lives that they’re perfectly alert and able to perform complexe tasks.

    If we were to deem alcohol innapropriate in any circumstance with children, what next? Pain killers? Sure loaded on morphine or demerol is a bit dicey, but aceteminophen dulls one’s wits a bit too. What about sleeping when a child is in the house? Goodness knows you’re not at your most alert then! oh dear oh dear, talking on the phone would have to be out, one’s response time drops like a stone. We may have to talk about the tv too, they are quite distracting. absurd.

    Comment by Joel | February 5, 2007

  18. You bring up several good points, Mary. I wouldn’t care a bit if one of Pumpkin’s grandparents or aunts/uncles was watching her and had a beer, but I wouldn’t be ok with an underage (of course!) or newish babysitter having one. Our current babysitter is of age here in Ireland, and we’ve had her watch Pumpkin occasionally throughout the last year, and I have wondered about when/if to let her know it’d be ok if she wanted to have a beer once Pumpkin was asleep. (Again, another qualifier/situational aspect – Pumpkin rarely wakes up in the night anymore and once she’s in bed, it’s not like our sitter is doing much but hanging out and reading or watching tv.)

    I think I’d be more ok with a responsible, trusted babysitter having a drink than a child care provider during his/her day on the job… and I’m trying to pinpoint exactly why. I think part of it is the number of children involved, the ‘professional job’ aspect of it as opposed to the more casual job (When I was a teacher, we never had TIME to go out for lunch, but I would never have had an alcoholic drink with lunch while teaching. Now when we’d go out for lunch on an inservice day, sure, but not on a teaching day.), and the ‘drinking during the day’ aspect. But once again, I supposed it would depend on the specific person, if there were other adults around, too, the local culture, etc. etc. etc.

    Hmm… something to think about… but now I’m also thirsty for a glass of red wine. *sigh* 🙂


    Comment by Ms. Huis Herself | February 5, 2007

  19. First, I want to thank everyone for tackling this subject with sensitivity and respect.

    Nicole – Sorry I missed your comment the first time. For some reason both this, and the one on the previous post, had been filtered out as spam.

    Your example of the lifeguard brings out another important consideration: level of risk. A lifeguard is supervising dozens of children in a potentially life-threatening venue. (If a caregiver takes her charges to a pool, I would suggest she should be similarly sober.) Three tots, asleep in their cribs? The risk level is quite different.

    Please note, I am not saying it is always all right for any caregiver to tipple during the day. All I am saying is that the issue is more nuanced than many people have admitted, and needs to be approached with that in mind.

    Candace – Situational. Case-by-case. Indeed. I also think it’s cultural, and, for all our similarities there’s a markedly different culture between the States and Canada. I just don’t see the Mommies Who Drink being an issue here at all. Other caregivers? Yes, that’d be an issue – and rightly so; it’s more complex. Is there a valid parallel between a caregiver and a parent? Yes, but it doesn’t end at the similarities. There are differences.

    Joel – I take your point that parenting and caregiving are fundamentally different. While the physical aspects of the job are identical, the long-term responsibility is all on the parents; the emotional, psychological, social weight is shared by the caregiver, but is the parents’ ultimate burden/privilege.

    To further explore the nuances, there is also a difference between a centre where there may be dozens of tots and several caregivers, and a home, where there may only be three or four tots with a single caregiver. Not that one should me more likely to be given the nod, just that there are levels and layers to the issue that are not being considered.

    I agree that parents have the right to expect their caregivers be “un-sauced”. Are you arguing that one drink taken with a meal makes one “sauced”?

    Ms Huis – You know what? I agree with you. One child with one babysitter of an evening in the family’s home rings different, somehow, than a professional during the day. But does that mean that all caregivers, everywhere, should be forbidden? That’s the assumption I’m poking at a bit.

    Everyone –

    I want you all to understand that I’m not arguing that childcare providers (a sitter or a nanny in your home, the staff of a large centre, or the home daycare lady down the street) should all be given carte blanche to have even a single drink during working hours.

    I think the right to determine whether this happens or not lies with the parents, every time. It’s not the caregiver’s call, because they’re not her children.

    I don’t indulge during working hours. Why not? For starters, I am by any standards a moderate drinker. Probably a drink a week on average during the winter, and somewhat more than that – though probably not a drink a day – during the summer.

    If I were to ask my parents if it was okay with them, however, they’d probably assume I needed to drink, and would assume it would be happening a lot more often than once every couple of weeks. Simply asking the question would give the wrong impression.

    Secondly, all the parents would all have to agree. The odds of getting eight or ten adults to all agree – because even one negative vote would veto the notion – are remote.

    So, never mind. All that fuss for a very occasional drink? Never mind! Basically, it’s a silly idea.

    BUT that’s not the point! For me, it’s a matter of principle. I am a person. I am in a position of trust with these families, who stay with me for two to four years. Never mind that I’m getting old enough to be mothering these young mothers… They are in and out of my house at least twice a day; they stay late for daycare parties (at which alcohol is indeed served); my door is unlocked during work days, and they know they can knock and enter at any time. I trust that they won’t make off with my silver; they trust that I will care wisely for their child.

    I am not some anonymous, symbolic ‘sitter’ who might get up to god-knows-what if she isn’t kept on a tight moral leash. Most of us aren’t. Let’s just allow some nuance, some evaluation, some personal touch with this issue. That’s all.

    Comment by MaryP | February 5, 2007

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