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How Much Do You Pay the Babysitter?

How much do you pay your babysitter? My voodoo math starts with a base rate of $8 per hour for a high schooler and goes up depending on how late we get home, the number of kids she is watching, and the amount of wine I have at dinner. Then I round up again. The time I got a call from the sitter because my daughter wouldn't stop crying? I think I paid a $10 bonus for a three-hour date. Yes, my viewing of Invictus was interruptus, but I felt worse for the sitter than I did for myself. Truth be told, I was afraid she wouldn't want to come back.

I love summer, because babysitters, like strawberries and corn, are readily available. College gals, who start at $10 per hour, turn up about mid-May, high schoolers are available by late June until Labor Day. I can get out with my husband, and we don't have to compete with AP calculus, ski club and orchestra practice.

It's a strange employer-employee relationship, to be sure. Parents want the good sitters to be happy. But the terms of payment for them are rarely set out beforehand. My niece, who is 21 and has been babysitting for at least nine years around the Philadelphia suburbs, still usually accepts a handful of wadded-up cash at the end of the night. The what's-your-rate conversation feels awkward to her, even after all these years. When pressed by new employers, she usually gives them a range - "Most people pay me between A and B" - and then the parents usually pay her closer to B than A. She's savvy, my niece.

Maybe we should encourage our sitters, and our daughters who are sitters, to be upfront and establish a firm rate. That's practice for the real world, right? But I suspect they do better from softies like me, who are so appreciative of a night out that we tack on extra - yielding the sitter more than if we stuck to a negotiated amount.

I did some polling, of sitters and moms. Every mom has her own math. (Dads are rarely involved, as I griped last week.) One woman pays $10 for the first hour, $8 for every additional hour. Another says she adds a dollar per hour per additional kid. The rate calculator at strikes us as high, especially for rural areas, but that site assumes your sitter is at least 18.

What else affects the pay scale? Well, if you're starting with a freshman in high school, you want to give her room to get raises as she gets older. Or, if it's the younger sister of an established babysitter, it feels like the older sister should get more. Nights pay a premium, even though it seems like days are harder, because the sitter has to entertain the kids the entire time. At night, all she has to do is watch TV and text her friends. If you have a sitter who can drive herself to your house and back? That's pure gold, so be sure to tack on a gas allowance.

We're paying for the kids to be, first, safe during our absence, and second, happy during our absence. But every once in awhile, a rare babysitting marvel occurs: The kids are safe and happy and the dishwasher is loaded and the toys are picked up. That babysitter moves straight to the top of the list.

The biggest babysitter no-no? Failure to enforce bedtime. My brother-in-law once walked into his house at 8 p.m., anticipating a peaceful evening. He found the infant awake in the stroller in the center of the living room, and his two-year-old running laps around her.

If that were me, there would be no rounding up for the babysitter on that night. But most times, as a parent, you want to feel like you're paying on the high end of the scale, so your house is a preferred destination. Good babysitting is a rare commodity.

Save your small bills, though. A four-hour date, with a 14-year-old watching the kids, would cost about $32 in this area of the country. If you round up to $35, that's fine. But if you look in your wallet and find only twenties? Problem. Pay the sitter $40, and she'll expect that every time. That's why you keep a stash of singles, fives and tens around the house, much like you do for the Tooth Fairy. Or stop for ice cream on the way home to break the larger bill. And make date night last a little longer.

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