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Babysitting Siblings: You Get What You Pay For

When our oldest son Sam turned 15, I breathed a sigh of relief. Here was our new babysitter, already in-house and delightfully available to watch his 9- and 11-year-old brothers.

The days of coughing up $12 to $15 an hour were finally behind me. It also meant I no longer had to rely on my mom to cover when those pricey sitters were otherwise occupied. While beloved Grammy takes excellent care of her grandsons, she arrives bearing enough sugary treats to kill your average diabetic—and when we return, there’s always her well-intentioned FBI-style interrogation. What did you eat? Who did you see? What were they wearing?

Imagine my excitement at the thought of coming home to kiss sleeping children on the tops of their heads and collapse into bed. No cash exchanged, no questions asked.

The first time we went out and left our boys home alone, at 10:15 p.m., as we were paying the bill at a local restaurant, the text came from Sam.

“I’m tired. I’m going to bed.”

“Okay! Thanks for taking good care of your brothers!” I responded, including a string of thumbs-up and smiley-face emojis. I was feeling a smug exuberance as I envisioned all our future nights out—concerts, the theater, and more dinners that didn’t involve spilled chocolate milk or arguments over who was getting that last piece of fried calamari.

But as my husband and I approached our home, we were surprised to see all the lights on and Ben, our 11-year-old, sitting alone on the couch looking out the window for us.

When I questioned the “sitter” the next day, he said, “I told you I was going to bed; I never said anyone else was.”

We waited a few weeks and tried again. All seemed to go smoothly.

The following morning, I asked Ben, “So how did your brother do last night?”

“Oh, Sam is an amazing babysitter, and I do mean amazing!” Ben responded. “He was able to jump over the entire coffee table.”

When he saw my confusion, he immediately explained. “I don’t mean this way,” he gestured, indicating a 2-foot width. “I mean this way,” he continued, stretching his arms to their maximum wingspan.

My heart sank as I realized that each time we went out, we’d now have to worry that the same kid who refused to join winter and spring track was possibly leaping a solid 8 feet through the living room and had the very real potential to end up face-first in the fireplace.

Of course, I’d assumed that in our absence the boys would serve themselves mountains of ice cream and perhaps binge-watch all the television shows I’d banned.

I hadn’t anticipated that they’d transform our combined kitchen and family room into a makeshift Wimbledon as they played a spirited game of tennis after fashioning a net out of two chairs and an afghan—which is how we found the house when we returned another evening.

Was I being overly critical? Should I simply focus on the fact that everyone was alive and happy? Our home still standing? I refused to believe my dream of having a babysitter at the ready could come to an end this quickly.

And so I persisted. When I recently told Sam we’d be going out Friday and would require his services, he looked exasperated.

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“I don’t understand why you and Dad want to go out together, you know, like, at the same time,” he said. “I mean it’s nice that you like each other. But still, I guess what I’m asking is: Is this really necessary?”

I pointed out that we are a family and we help each other when we’re asked. I tried not to rant about the interminable hours I’ve spent inside a Chuck E. Cheese for him, the thousands of cupcakes I’ve baked on his behalf, the fortune I’ve wasted on products that claim to remove even the toughest stains from his baseball pants.

After much trial and error, Sam is growing into a more reliable sitter. The coffee table has remained in place. The boys have stopped pretending they are the indoor versions of Venus and Serena Williams.

When I enter our silent home after an evening out and tiptoe up to bed, I open the boys’ doors and smile as I breathe in the heavenly stillness.

But just as I’m drifting off to sleep, thinking this may actually work out at long last, Ben, a bubbly night owl and just as inquisitive as his Grammy, alights on the edge of our bed.

“So, what did you have? Appetizer? Dessert? Did you bring me any leftovers? Tell me everything!”

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People say there is no such thing as a free lunch. I’d argue that there’s no such thing as free babysitting.

Liz Alterman’s work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and more. She’s also the author of a young adult thriller, He’ll Be Waiting.

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