BY CINDY KRANZ
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Jo Ann Wheat's Bridgetown neighborhood is populated with teen-agers, but there's not a baby sitter in sight.
"None of them want to baby-sit," the mother of three said. "When I was a kid, a friend of mine and I made up fliers and put them in people's mailboxes. We went home and couldn't wait for the phone to ring. We would have done it for free just for something to do. Now, you've got to beg them."
Ms. Wheat's dilemma is typical. For many teens and preteens, baby-sitting has taken a back seat to better-paying jobs, sports and hanging out with friends.
Call it the babysitter blues.
Experts have long advised couples to take periodic excursions away from the kids to keep their marriages vibrant. But an increasing shortage of sitters today makes it harder to get away for a night on the town.
As a result, more parents resort to professional baby-sitting services or strike unique deals to lure their teen-age sitters. Susan Segal and her husband, Keith Crumpton of Mason have their sitter on retainer every Saturday night to baby-sit their 2-year-old son.
Their sitter, Leighan Short, 14, of Mason gets paid $10, sometimes even if they don't use her. If they notify her by Thursday that they won't need her, enabling her to take another job, they don't pay the retainer fee. When they use her, they pay $3-$4 an hour. Sometimes, they sweeten the deal with Beanie Babies.
Ms. Segal got the retainer idea from friends in Boston, where they lived before moving here three years ago.
"I got so sick and tired of not finding someone on a Saturday," she said. "I was using one girl, but then she hit 15 and started driver's ed. Now, she doesn't want anything to do with baby-sitting, not on the weekends, anyway."
Leighan says she stays busy with two to three sitter jobs a week in her 30-family subdivision. She's uncertain about taking a job when she turns 16. For now, she'd rather baby-sit.
Doug and Judy Schwarz of Mason have three children, ages 2 1/2, 18 months and 4 months. They have found that baby-sitting can't compete with other activities that lure teen-agers' time.
"There's a lot more interesting things to do than baby-sit," Mrs. Schwarz said. "The 14-year-old of today has more money than I ever had as a kid. I think that's the fundamental problem. They don't have to be dependable because they don't need the money." Two years ago, the Mason couple contracted with Sitters for YourStars Inc., a Colerain Township-based referral agency that sends sitters to clients. The Schwarzes had been frustrated trying to find quality sitters, estimating they had cancellations 20 percent of the time.
"I got tired of their lack of dependability," Mrs. Schwarz said of teen-age sitters. "It was easily costing me $7 to $8 (an hour) just to get them to show up."
Sitters for YourStars, on the other hand, has been 100 percent reliable, Mrs. Schwarz said.
"There has not been a single time when they have not provided a quality sitter to take care of my kids," she said, adding that the company tries to get the same sitter so children become familiar with that person.
Sitters For Your Stars is a member - non-member service. The trialmembership fee is $70 for three months or $100 for six months, with membership fees decreasing every six months upon renewal. Members are entitled to reduced rates, sitters of choice, first choice for holidays and discounts on overnights.
Hourly prices range from $7.50 an hour for members to $8.75 an hour for non-members, plus a $6.25 set-up fee each time for non-members. There are additional charges for twins, triplets and multiple children in diapers.
Parents' night out
Businesses and non-profit organizations are offering parents opportunities to spend time alone.
Some YMCAs offer evening getaways for parents while their kids stay at the Y for swimming, crafts and dinner.
For example, M.E. Lyons YMCA in Anderson Township offered Holiday Help last year so parents could go shopping or to a holiday party. The Y sponsored five nights in December when kids in grades K-5 were dropped off for 3 1/2 hours. The program drew up to 23 children each night. Members paid $10 (non-members $15) a night.
"We did it both as a fund-raiser and as a service to families that might enjoy shopping time at the holidays," said Carol Carraway, associate executive director at M.E. Lyons.
Robin Kurlas and her husband, Dennis, take advantage of the monthly Parents' Night Out offered by Rainbow Rascals Learning Center in Blue Ash. Their 2 1/2-year-old daughter attends the center, which offers the program for parents whose children are enrolled there.
"The staff at Rainbow Rascals volunteer their time each month, and the proceeds go toward purchasing things for the school," Mrs. Kurlas said. "It gives us time to get dinner or a movie without trying to get a sitter."
For $10, the children spend a Friday evening, 6:30-10, doing themed activities, such as karaoke night or Big Bird's Birthday with a special dinner, snacks, birthday cake and Sesame Street videos.
"We make it a lot of fun so children don't feel it's an extended day at day care," said Stephanie Allan, center director.
Mrs. Allan implemented the program last August, a month after she became director. Ten children attended the first time. Now, about 30 children attend each month.
Mrs. Kurlas likes the Parents' Night Out because it's hard to find sitters. "It's very difficult because the younger girls who are inexperienced, they're the ones willing to baby-sit," she said. "Once the girls get to high school, that's it. They're just so busy."
Her experience is common. Often parents are forced to hire inexperienced sitters, some as young as age 10, even though other parents hire sitters for children that age and older.
Amy Klebanow Marks of Loveland owns Better Baby Sitters, which trains 10- to 13-year-old sitters. It's up to parents to decide if their children are mature enough to handle the responsibility of baby-sitting, she said.
"We have some 10-year-olds who are so excited about doing it," Mrs. Klebanow Marks said. "Some of them are responsible, and some of the 12-year-olds are not."
In some neighborhoods, competition for sitters is fierce.
The teen-age sitters Mary Youtsey uses have a lot of jobs in her Southgate neighborhood, so she tries to ensure they have good experiences at her house.
"I try to pay them well so they want to come back. I have two kids, 8 and 6, so they don't need a lot of intense watching."
Mrs. Youtsey pays $3-$4 an hour, but she's heard people in her neighborhood with smaller kids pay more than that.
"I always keep my cabinet stocked with snacks and my refrigerator stocked with soft drinks," she said.
"I always make sure I have enough for them to munch on. If I'm going to be gone over the dinner hour, I leave enough money so they can order from LaRosa's."
While frantic parents try to lure sitters with more money, pizza and videos, those perks don't always seal the deal.
If offered two jobs simultaneously, 14-year-old Ben Lemmon of Milford will take the job where the children are best behaved. "It's probably whatever kids go to bed easier, because that's normally a hassle."
Some sitters, however, have relinquished their baby-sitting jobs for other activities.
Emily Day, 14, of Delhi Township, gave up baby-sitting a year ago because of her involvement in extracurricular activities at Seton High School. She began baby-sitting at age 11 and had at least two sitting jobs a week.
"I pretty much stopped when I got to high school," said Emily, who will be a sophomore this fall. "I played three different sports for Seton. That took up most of my time."
Kendra McMullen, 16, of Lawrenceburg, started sitting for her two younger sisters when she was 11 and for other families at age 12.
She stopped baby-sitting in January when she got a waitressing job, plus her schedule was full with school work, extra-curricular activities and spending time with friends. With waitressing, she can plan her schedule. She knows when she works and knows her days off.
Baby-sitting, Kendra said, was not the best job for her.
"It's not that I don't like kids, but I don't really have the patience to be with them for that long of time. It just wasn't the money maker that having a "real' job is."