Desperately seeking baby sitters Parents' pre-party panic: finding someone who will watch over the children

December 27, 1991|By Mary Corey

Priscilla Ireys will loan friends money. She'll rescue them when their cars break down. Heck, she'll even feed their pets when they're away. Just don't ask her for her baby sitter's phone number -- especially around New Year's Eve.

"You love your friends, but you won't give that up," says the 40-year-old mother of three.

And with good reason. Dec. 31 is considered prime time for baby sitters, an evening when they get to call the shots and party-going parents respond by promising everything from doubled salaries to gourmet snacks. The one hitch: The taker must ring in the new year with people whose idea of a good time is playing Candyland.

"It's always the same dilemma: What do you do with children on New Year's?" says Ms. Ireys, who lives in Oakenshawe. "Who do you give them to -- what boring person -- who doesn't want to party, too? When we lived in New York, we looked for the homeliest, most unpopular preteen. For money, she was ours."

Cruel as that may sound, it didn't always work. She and her husband never made it to one party several years ago because the sitter canceled only days before. They called 10 others before finally giving up.

"It was baby-sitting purgatory," she says.

Sixteen-year-old sitter Megan Cavanaugh can always tell when parents have a big holiday event planned. It's in the sound of their voices when they call.

"They're real hesitant, and they're sort of backward when they ask you to watch their kids. It's sort of like puhleeze," says the Woodlawn teen.

On those rare occasions when she's declined, Megan has learned that adults don't always take no for an answer.

"They'll offer to pay more, and they'll say things like, 'We'll rent you a movie. We'll get soda and chips if you'll come,' " she says.

But Diet Coke and Doritos seem like meager compensation for what sitters endure. In addition to the screaming, crying, kicking and biting that come with the turf, baby sitters must cope with children whose schedules are thrown out of whack by the holidays.

"I was chased with a golf club one night," Megan says. "It was by a 4-year-old. He got mad and started chasing me around the living room."

Partying without the children does have its price -- and around this time of year it can be a steep one.

Many nanny services witness an increase in calls in December and find that parents are often willing to pay a premium for their services. "One family sent a limousine for their sitter and paid her $150," says Tamara Brown, founder of Nanny's Kids Referral Services in Randallstown.

While such treatment represents the extreme, most sitters expect between $2 and $10 an hour, with parents often adding a few extra dollars for the holiday.

"Most kids are going to make at least $25, and I know of some who are going to make a flat fee of $100," says Dr. Patricia Keener, founder and medical director of Safe Sitter, an Indianapolis-based program in 39 states that teaches adolescents responsible baby-sitting.

Yet damage to parents' pocketbooks doesn't concern her nearly as much as the risks posed when they relax their standards for sitters. "Many times parents will hire someone who's never been to their home, someone you may not have even seen before," she says. "Then there are all the seasonal risks in the home -- everything from dry Christmas trees and space heaters to the liquid in bubble lights."

To make sure everyone begins the new year right, Dr. Keener recommends having a sitter over at least once before the big night, limiting the number of children to three per sitter, and double-checking that the house is child-proofed before leaving. It's also wise to call during the evening and check how things are going.

Gigi Wirtz learned a valuable lesson last year when she and her husband left their children, then 2 and 4, with a new, inexperienced baby-sitter. They ended up racing home at midnight because the Harborplace fireworks frightened their youngest.

"We don't go out on New Year's Eve anymore. It's not worth it," the 37-year-old says.

Chris Sniffen is also pessimistic about her chances of leaving her Loch Raven home for a New Year's Eve party.

"It's impossible," says the 30-year-old mother of two. "Around this time, you have to call a month to six weeks in advance. We've already missed tickets to the symphony and another party."

She envisions spending the holiday the way she and her husband did several years ago: commiserating in their home with friends who also couldn't find sitters.

Parents should be forewarned that there are some sitters whose services can't be bought at any price on New Year's Eve.

Sitters like Ginger Campbell.

Ask the 25-year-old Perry Hall teacher if she'll be celebrating 1992 with little ones, and she replies: "No way! The night just doesn't seem real festive when you're sitting at someone else's house watching their kids."

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