Babysitting as Parenting Trial?

July 7th, 2022
Julia recently posted an interview with Kat Woods on how Kat has thought through decisions around having kids. In her 20s she started strongly wanting to:

I didn't want kids when I was younger, and then when I was about 20 I was in the park, minding my own business and a little toddler toddled up to me and he gave me this bent daisy. And my brain exploded! I was like, "Oh my God, I need babies now."

I just became absolutely obsessed. EA was my number one priority, and the next one was kids. I actually had a blog about parenting. I was reading all these books about it, reading studies and figuring out exactly how to deal with pregnancy and everything. I'd sit out outside of playgrounds and do my homework next to the playground so I could watch the kids play, just be around them.

Then she spent some time trying to understand her motivations better, and decided to try babysitting as a way to get practical experience with more aspects of taking care of kids:

Oh man, I get to spend time with the kids and develop this relationship with them. But also I get paid for it. Amazing!

I babysat three separate sets of kids, and they were all perfectly ordinary kids. They were not kids with behavior problems or anything like that. But that was enough for me to realize: oh, I do not want to be a parent. I do not want children at all.

Her advice to others based on this experience is to try babysitting before having kids:

I think the lesson from this that I took away is that before you have kids, it's really good to get some babysitting experience. It's a really good way to cheaply test being as close to being a parent as you can be without actually being a parent, that's pretty available to most people. ... I just want people to be informed, and do some quick, easy tests before they commit their lives to new beings.

In many ways this makes a lot of sense: the decision to have kids is a serious one with lifelong effects, and you want to make it with lots of information about yourself and how it's likely to go. Your responsibilities in the moment as a babysitter pretty similar to as a parent: taking care of the kid, and dealing with whatever comes up. And yet, I like parenting a lot and didn't enjoy babysitting. If I had used this method to decide whether to become a parent, I think I would have decided against it, and that would've been the wrong choice for me. I'm not completely sure, because, not liking babysitting, I didn't do very much of it, but I wanted to think through a bit where this difference is coming from.

Imagine you're considering whether to start a band. You decide to try it out by taking some gigs subbing in with other groups. You were initially excited about the idea, but when you're actually playing with them it's not much fun: the group is not gelling, you wouldn't have picked these songs, and this isn't really your kind of music anyway.

Parenting is made up of many small interactions, and when things are going well many of those interactions are individually fun or rewarding, but it's also a long-term project. You're helping this person who starts off completely incompetent and utterly dependent grow into the kind of person they want to become. When I'm interacting with someone else's child, as a friend, sitter, or even relative, I don't have that level of involvement.

In my experience (n=2, replication forthcoming) if you're thoughtful about those individual interactions, paying attention to what's working and what isn't, being predictable and consistent, and listening to your kids, you have fewer of the kinds of disappointing interactions Kat talks about in the interview. Which isn't to say that I don't ever have rough betimes with the kids or realize partway through an explanation that they've lost interest, but these are easily outweighed by other interactions that go well in part because of systems and patterns that we've developed together. Because we're doing this long-term I have time to learn from the times things don't go well, and figure out how to make things go a bit better next time.

A separate reason that babysitting is not that predictive is that many people start feeling very differently about children, both their own and others, when they become a parent. Much like Kat, I liked playing with kids and not other aspects, but now that I'm a parent they're just much more interesting throughout. I've broken this off into a separate post because it's philosophically strange, and also risky to count on since it's not guaranteed to happen to any specific person.

So if I don't think babysitting makes a very good parenting trial, how can people figure out whether parenting would suit them? Unfortunately, I don't have much to offer here. The main thing I would recommend is talking to parents of various ages to understand what they like(ed) and didn't, how it compares to what they expected, and whether they're glad they did it. Keep in mind that there's typically a lot of social pressure to say that you like parenting and are glad you had your kids. I also like Julia's survey, though I'd love to see something similar with more responses.

Comment via: facebook, lesswrong

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