Whether your neighbor has been bugging you about when your tween or teen will be ready to babysit her children, or you’ve wondered yourself when you can take advantage of some free babysitting by having your own kid watch his or her younger sibling, it’s not always so obvious as to when a kid has reached the right age.
So how do you know when your oldest is old enough to babysit a sibling or another child?
There’s no law that requires kids to be a certain age before babysitting. The minimum age that children are allowed to be left alone, however, varies from state to state — and many states don’t have any guidelines at all. For example, the minimum age for a child to be left alone in Illinois in 14, while in Colorado it’s 12, and it’s as young as 8 in Maryland and North Carolina, according to Latchkey-Kids.com.
What the Experts Say
But you can’t exclusively go by a teen’s age. “The key attributes to look for are maturity, trustworthiness, and responsibility,” child safety and health expert Debra Holtzman, author of The Safe Baby: A Do-Yourself Guide to Home Safety and Healthy Living, told Care.com.
Holtzman recommends that parents talk to the sitter’s own parents before hiring and “ask for references from past employers, teachers, camp counselors, etc., and check them out thoroughly.”
Sarah Moss, a child expert who runs an online parenting forum, agrees that age isn’t the most important factor: “It depends on the maturity of the child,” she told the Telegraph in the U.K. “Some 14-year-olds are very grownup and can cope with a crisis. Others might panic. I would say that it’s up to the parent, as he or she is the person who knows the child the best.”
Other experts argue that kids are overly protected these days and should have greater responsibilities. “Children are becoming less competent because they are being treated like carefully protected pets,” child development specialist and author of Toxic Childhood Sue Palmer told the BBC.com. “Unless you let them take on chores and take responsibility for their own behavior and learn to deal with real time, space, and people, you won’t be able to leave them in charge of another child.”
If you do decide to hire a local tween or teen sitter, KidsHealth.org recommends keeping it short — an hour or two — the first time she or he babysits. It’s also ideal if the sitter’s parents live nearby in case he or she has any problems or an emergency.
”Ultimately, the parents are the best judges, as they know both the caring child and one being cared for — and what their limits are,” Justine Roberts, the CEO of Mumsnet, a parenting website in the U.K., told the BBC.com.
What the Parents Say
“It totally depends on the kid. Some are super-responsible, but I think by the time you are in junior high it’s OK to babysit. That’s when I started babysitting newborns. I think we are doing the future generation a disservice by not trusting them with these responsibilities. If we were OK with it, then they should be too. But again, on a case-by-case basis.” — Sarah D.
“I started babysitting a 3-month-old when I was 12. I babysat multiple kids on overnights by the time I was 14. They all survived.” — Nadia G.
“I was 11 when I started babysitting. I would let a mature 11- or 12-year -old watch my kids for a short amount of time. I think 14 to 18 is better. Now that my twins are turning 10, they even stay home alone sometimes.” — Kristen K.
“I think it’s OK to leave your kids alone at 11. They should almost never babysit each other, unless they get along really well. And 14 to 15 is a good age to allow them to babysit other kids, but they should be 16 and older to babysit babies.” — Wende G.
The Bottom Line
Many parents go with the rule of thumb that the younger the child, the older a sitter should be. But in general, maturity trumps age when it comes to babysitting. If you’re not sure how mature they are, hire them first as a “mother’s helper,” shadowing you on a weekend or after work so you can see how they fare when it comes to caring for your child. If they’ve proved themselves to be mature, responsible, and trustworthy, have them babysit for a short period of time — about one to two hours. And make sure they’re prepped on your house rules and how to reach you (as well as your child’s pediatrician and Poison Control) in an emergency.