- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 11, 2009

Katie Schaefer and Barrie Davies met several years ago at a speed-dating seminar, chatting for five minutes before furiously scribbling notes about what they liked — and didn’t — about each other.

So when they eventually got married and had a daughter they named Victoria 2 1/2 years ago, it seemed natural to try something new but similar to find a helper: speed baby-sitting.

“I thought, you meet a series of baby sitters for just a couple minutes? Well, there might be a good connection with your family like there was with us. Let’s give it a shot,” Miss Schaefer says.

So the three of them went to Little Locks, a combination toy store and children’s hair salon in a tony section of San Diego where busy, two-income families live in large homes perched atop rolling hills. They were there to check out Sitter Socials, one of a handful of programs that have sprung up around the country to match busy parents with available baby sitters.

For $49.99, Sitter Socials’ clients attend a neighborhood speed meeting where they spend three minutes apiece interviewing a dozen or so potential baby sitters. They also receive a book providing contact information and profiles for local sitters, who come with references and have undergone some background checks.

Sitter Socials, which offers its speed-meeting sessions throughout California, has plans to expand to several other states in 2009, including Florida, Kansas and Massachusetts. It also plans to add a database to its Web site so subscribers across the country can locate sitters in their area by ZIP code. Or, if they are traveling, they can find a sitter in an unfamiliar location.

When Victoria Muschek started the for-profit service she didn’t know speed dating from speed dialing. But as the parent of a toddler, a 5-year-old and an 8-year-old, Mrs. Muschek, who teaches advertising at San Diego State University, knew well the hassles of finding a good baby sitter.

“I was really struggling,” she recalls. “Then I walked into my class and I looked out and saw so many potential baby sitters and I had that ‘Ah ha!’ moment.”

In such a busy society, it was only a matter of time until speed baby-sitting would join speed dating as a way of meeting people, says University of Southern California sociologist Karen Sternheimer.

“It’s just another example of the kind of instant gratification we want: I’m going to interview 10 baby sitters and I have 10 minutes to do it,” Miss Sternheimer says. “But it’s kind of a strange way to find someone, in the space of three minutes, who will care for your children.”

To put people at ease, Mrs. Muschek has organized Sitter Socials meetings more like parties, providing snacks, door prizes and providing time after the initial speed-meeting interviews where parents can talk further with the sitters they like, negotiate price and maybe strike a deal.

Still, the nervousness was palpable at the beginning of a recent Saturday night session as a dozen sets of parents stood on one side of the room, facing a nearly equal number of baby sitters. The two camps were divided by a row of kid-size barber chairs built to look like race cars and off-road vehicles.

“Sort of like being at an eighth-grade dance, isn’t it?” quipped Dave Rodas, the father of boys ages 6 and 4.

Then a bell, the kind you’d find at the front desk of a motel, rang and it was down to business as each parent rushed to quiz a potential sitter on likes, dislikes, skills and other issues before their three minutes passed and the bell sounded again. Then it was off to talk to another sitter. And another.

Soon, the room became a cacophony of competing voices.

“I’ve got CPR certification for infants and adults,” Cricket Ducat, who recently earned a degree in psychology from San Diego State University, told a pair of parents.

“The only thing I ask of a sitter is that you put your dirty dishes in the dishwasher,” said Kim Mierson, a mother of a toddler.

After several rounds, Miss Schaefer thought maybe she had found a good fit.

“Do you want to meet Kim?” she asked her daughter, who until now had seemed far more interested in the snacks than the baby sitters. This time, however, she seemed to make a connection.

“This is my dolly’s bottle,” she told Kim Jacobs, a graduate student at San Diego State, showing her the miniature container. When the bell rang three minutes later, the two exchanged hugs.

At the end of the night, sitters and parents appeared to go home happy.

“Definitely, it’s a lot more convenient than interviewing 10 girls individually,” Mr. Rodas said. “Plus, the background checks are already done for you. It saves time, and time is money.”

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