Ann Martin, author of the famed “Baby-Sitters Club” book series, explained her decision to keep the girls in her series the same age after the ninth book this way: “With so many books in the series, and with the series being published over many years … I realized that the characters would have to be frozen in time.”

Truthfully, though, the series, which was launched 30 years ago this month, would have seemed more realistic if the girls had gotten older. It’s hard to imagine many families trusting 12-year-olds to baby-sit their toddlers today.

For those of us who grew up in the ’70s and started baby-sitting in the ’80s, The Baby-Sitters Club — a group of friends who made a business out of watching neighborhood children — was perfectly realistic. I remember the day I understood the financial possibilities of living in a neighborhood with 12 houses and 29 children. The other two 11-year-olds (a boy and a girl) and I didn’t start a business, but we did divide up the families into regulars.

At some point, I took a baby-sitting course offered by the Red Cross, but in truth, the job didn’t require many credentials. Running around after toddlers is the perfect job for adolescents and teens because it takes a lot of energy but not a lot of skill.

Things have apparently gotten much more complicated.

A Web site about baby-sitting sponsored by the University of Michigan’s medical school has a list of no fewer than 25 sets of instructions to give a baby-sitter, including contact information not only for you, the pediatrician and poison control but also several close relatives and neighbors. Do you want your sitter going through all this in case of emergency? How about 911?

It’s not surprising that many parents believe younger kids aren’t up to the job of baby-sitting given the way we’ve been taught to see children’s independence. According to the New York State Department of Child and Family Services, “Some children are responsible, intelligent, and independent enough to be left alone at 12 or 13 years of age.” Meaning that some are definitely not.

Even among those who are, the government will only allow that “a child of 12 might be fine alone for two hours in an afternoon.” Before you leave your seventh-grader unsupervised after school, though, the city says you should consider: “Are there hazards to the child in the environment such as accessible knives, power tools, a stove or oven?”

If we have to put knives onto high shelves before we leave our adolescents home alone, one can only imagine how ill-equipped they are to handle other children.

The dearth of younger sitters isn’t just the result of parents who don’t trust teenagers. It’s also that most middle-class teens have an after-school schedule that hardly permits spare time for such menial tasks. If you’re trying to get into college, it’s much better to focus on grades and sports and community service than cajoling a 3-year-old into bed.

But there are great benefits to letting adolescents babysit. First, obviously it teaches them to work hard in an era when we treat young people as delicate flowers in danger of wilting at the slightest demand. It provides them with a source of income in a world where there are precious few entry-level jobs. (Thanks again, minimum-wage hikers!)

Baby-sitting gives parents a less-expensive form of child care in an era where it can cost hundreds of dollars to get out the door on a Saturday night. And it provides teenagers with a way to be comfortable with small children — which will serve them well as parents some day.

Kids who grow up in large families taking care of younger siblings or who baby-sit regularly as teens are, in my experience, much better able to know what a crying baby wants or how to handle the demands of multiple children at the same time and how to remain calm in the midst of child-induced chaos.

When Martin was asked about what books she enjoyed as a child, she cited the Nancy Drew series. “One thing I found appealing about Nancy Drew was that although she was just 18, she had an enormous amount of independence and responsibility. She could drive a car, travel on her own, and best of all, adults called on her for help.”
Whether it’s solving mysteries or watching our children, fewer teens are being called on to help. It’s hurting them. And it’s hurting us.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.