Don't Call Me a Babysitter


Greg Smalley challenges us not to dismiss fathers as mere babysitters even when we don't intentionally do so.

Several years ago, something happened that caused me to realize how much I hate the word “babysitter.” It’s not that I despise the term in and of itself. Instead, I only have an adverse reaction when it’s used in conjunction with me and my children.

One day, when my oldest daughter, Taylor, was 18 months old, we went to the grand opening of a massive bookstore. Once inside, Taylor and I discovered the biggest children's book section we'd ever seen. There were mountains of books, and an enormous stage where the kids could play. It was the "Disneyland" of children's bookstores. Instantly, Taylor situated herself in the middle of the stage and began reading a book. After a few minutes, I noticed that Taylor was playing with finger paint.

"Brown finger paint?" I wondered. "Where did she get that?"

Then it dawned on me. That wasn't paint!

Earlier that day, Taylor had developed a rash on her bottom. Consequently, the combination of her rash and a messy diaper resulted in very itchy toddler. As a result of her scratching, Taylor "painted" some of the stage and several books with the contents of her diaper. As I scrambled to clean the stage and keep Taylor from painting me, a nearby mother jokingly said something that has had a profound effect upon my role as a dad. As a matter of fact, what she said has become a huge pet peeve for me. She said, “Isn’t babysitting fun?”

It took a while before I realized why her comment bothered me. It was the fact that she used the term “babysitting.” She didn’t say, “Isn’t parenting difficult?” Instead she saw me as a father who was merely babysitting his daughter. I’ve often wished I’d responded, “No… I’m fathering!”

Since that day I’ve become very sensitive to the word “babysitter.” Sadly, I’ve heard it used many times to describe my relationship with my son and three daughters. To make matters worse, I’ve never heard anyone say that to my wife.

Some people might think, “Come on, Smalley, it’s just a word. You’re making too big of a deal… Lighten up!” But the more I think about this subtle message, the more I’m convinced that it has an effect upon fathers.

There is a psychological phenomenon called confirmation bias: Experts say that people tend to see what they expect to see in others and in situations. In other words, we look for evidence that confirms what we already think is true about a person or situation. We can be wrong in our assumptions, but we all have pre-formed beliefs and expectations about why people behave the way they do.

What does this have to do with dads being called babysitters? Plenty. If people view a dad as a babysitter, his behavior might simply reinforce the perception that he is like a babysitter.

The problem with this perception is that there are three major differences between parents and babysitters. First, a babysitter has no long-term responsibility. In other words, they have authority for a brief time, and have a way out when things get difficult—call the parents to come home. Second, they have a limited role. Their job is to entertain kids and maintain the rules of the house, but it is not to “parent” the children. Finally, a babysitter has brief, intense interactions. They forgo all other responsibilities outside the home in order to focus exclusively on the children. Therefore, they do not need to balance other aspects of life.

Written by Greg Smalley

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