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Babysitting can be a great way for teens to get experience with childcare and learn important life skills. But what about teens babysitting their younger siblings? Is this a good idea? How do you know if they are ready? And what practical strategies can we use to make sure the arrangement works smoothly?

I know you’re here for the tips and tricks. And we’ll get to that! But first, I want to talk ground-rules and principles. Before we dive into the how, I want to think about the why (or why not) behind siblings babysitting siblings.

Siblings Should Primarily Be ... Siblings

The most important thing I want you to hear from the outset is that the relationship between siblings should be primarily just that - a sibling to sibling relationship. In other words you, the parent, should be the primary caregiver, discipler, and trainer of your children.

Older siblings should be older siblings who may occasionally provide temporary oversight. Older siblings should not be virtual stand-ins or replacements for mom and dad. If your younger children are receiving more direct care and provision from older siblings than from parents, there is a problem.

If you want to explore this concern further, I've written about the problem of parentification over on Your Large Family Homeschool.

Siblings Babysitting Siblings Isn't Guaranteed

The next thing we need to be clear on is that we aren’t entitled to in-house babysitting services. Most parents dream about the time when the older kids are old enough to babysit and they finally get to leave the house for a date without spending more on babysitting than they did on dinner.

I get it. It would be lovely if it always worked out that way.

It would also be lovely if both sets of grandparents lived in town, were loving and nurturing to you and your kids, and just loved to babysit. But things don’t always work out how we’d hoped.

I have friends who can’t leave their children with their parents or in-laws because those aren’t safe environments for their children. It’s heartbreaking, but I applaud them for doing what is best for their children rather than what is easiest for them.

We have to be willing to make the same careful choices about older siblings babysitting younger siblings. Here are some situations that are just not workable:

  • Your older children are harsh and rough with the younger children
  • Your older children are easily distractible and may neglect their care of the younger children
  • Your younger children resent being bossed around by an older sibling and don’t usually cooperate
  • Your younger children are uncooperative with older siblings leaving the older siblings frustrated and resentful
  • Being asked to babysit frequently leads to older children who resent or wish they didn’t have younger siblings

It’s just not a good idea to leave your children in the care of someone who - for whatever reason - is not competent to care for them. And it’s also not OK to set up situations that will breed animosity and resentment between siblings. That definitely qualifies as the stumbling block that Jesus warns us not to be for his little ones in Matthew 18.

You are the parent. Your children are your responsibility. If you delegate some of that responsibility, the buck still stops with you in terms of the care providers and settings you allow for your children.

Practical Tips for Sibling Babysitting

Now that we’ve got the ground rules in place, let’s talk about those tips and tricks. If you’re reading this, you are probably either looking towards those future years and wondering how to get your older kids ready for potential babysitting, or you’ve already given it a try and run into some rough patches and want some help troubleshooting. Let’s jump in!

Observing Sibling Trust

Any relationship of care and supervision has to be built on trust. In a healthy home, parents or legal guardians provide most of the care for the physical and emotional needs of a child, which means this is a high-trust relationship.

In families with a wide variety in ages, and especially families who homeschool, there may also be a lot of opportunities for an older child to take care of the needs of a younger child. This doesn’t have to be anything major or profound. It could be as simple as tying a shoe, helping with math problems, or reaching something on a high shelf.

So the first thing to do is to observe which older children are generally willing to help younger children with their needs. One clue is to observe which older children younger children go to when they need help. Asking for help and receiving help are important trust-building factors.

Something to note here is that this kind of relationship does not develop as readily between siblings who are close in age and/or who are side-by-side in birth order. While a child may go to someone two years older for help on occasion, their relationship will be primarily that of peers. This is usually a workable dynamic for babysitting.

But again, this will depend on your family. There isn’t a certain age gap minimum. For example, my oldest two boys are 16 and 10. If they were the only children in the family, they might behave more like peers. But because there are three girls in birth-order between them, they definitely fall more into adored-big-brother and adored-little-brother roles.

Having an awareness of the relationship dynamics is an important first step.

Opportunities for Sibling Help

The next step is to offer opportunities for older children to care for younger children in the regular course of daily life. Pick small, very specific tasks. For example, I often ask my nine-year-old daughter to help the seven- and four-year-olds to put away their laundry. I’m still in the house. She’s not in charge of them, but she’s practicing helping and guiding them.

She’s nowhere near old enough to babysit. But these are skills and habits we can begin building long before we reach that point.

The next step is to allow children to act as “mother’s helper”. For example, I might ask one child to play with the youngest two boys in the next room while I work with an older kid on school work. The older child’s job isn’t to boss or correct, but more to be the activities director - leading them in safe and non-destructive play.

To Pay or Not to Pay

It’s also worthwhile to think about paying for the help you get from your older kids whether you are in the house or not. Some help with younger siblings is normal as a part of participation in the work of the family. But paying older siblings is a really good way to communicate “This is my job that I am delegating to you and therefore I am paying you for your time.”

When I was a teen, my parents paid me for much of the babysitting I did for my two youngest brothers. If they went on a date, for example, I was paid to babysit.

However, one morning a week, my mother went to help my great-grandparents change linens and complete other basic household tasks. During that time, I babysat without pay as that was the part I could play in the family’s care of Grandma and Grandpa.

There isn’t one hard and fast rule about when to pay and when not to, but payment can be a good way to communicate that the responsibility for parenting ultimately rests with you, and not your older kids.

Paying for their time honors their other responsibilities and communicates your appreciation that they chose to spend some of that time helping you. Committing to pay will also naturally limit how often you decide to make use of their services.

Making Sibling Babysitting Optional

If possible, it’s also helpful to make caring for younger children an optional task.

For example, last fall, we instituted a time of the day called “Boy School” where older kids took turns doing learning activities with the little boys so that I could help older kids with school work. I planned out very specific activities and provided all of the resources.

I offered the job to three older children and made it clear that it was an optional responsibility - in other words, if they didn’t want to participate, they could decline. However, it was also a paid position.

They were incentivized to take a turn to earn a little extra income. But they were also free to decline, or even trade days if they weren’t interested. One child eventually opted out.

As with any system, over time it became stale. The little boys were no longer as enthusiastic about “Boy School” and the older siblings were no longer as excited about leading it.

We transitioned to a different schedule rather than continuing to put siblings in a situation that would likely have devolved into animosity and resentment.

State Laws about Staying Home Alone and Siblings Babysitting Siblings

So, when can you leave the house with older kids in charge?

First of all, it’s helpful to know if there are laws in your state about children staying home alone, or staying home alone supervising younger siblings. We live in Virginia and our state, like 38 other states, does not have a specific law about how old a child must be to stay home alone or supervise siblings.

In states that do have specific laws, the age ranges from 6 years old in Kansas to 14 years old in Illinois. You can search for laws in your state or region.

But please remember that even if your state has a specific age limit, it’s more important to gauge maturity and readiness rather than just reaching a certain number of years of life. If you are driving the speed limit during an ice storm, you could still get a ticked for speeding because you are driving too fast given the hazardous conditions.

The same is true for age-limits for children to stay home alone or supervise siblings. Ultimately, it’s still up to you to use careful judgment, and you still ultimately bear the responsibility for your children’s safety and whom you choose to care for them.

Setting Clear Expectations

It’s important to be very clear about expectations for the time that you are gone. For example, you might require the children to stay inside the house and not answer the door during your absence. You might tell them they are not allowed to use the oven or stove while you are gone.

These guidelines will vary depending on your children and your family circumstances.

And, of course, you’ll also want to make sure they have a list of important contact numbers and instructions for emergencies. The Red Cross and other organizations offer babysitting courses, so I’ll not go too deep into the details of that here, but it’s a good idea to make sure you’ve covered the basics of what might come up while you’re gone.

At first, start with short outings. Allow an older child to babysit while you run to drop of another child at a friend’s house, or go to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription. If the arrangements are successful, you can gradually lengthen the time.

A Few Last Suggestions for Sibling Babysitting

If I’m leaving one of the older teens in charge while younger teens are at home also, I’ll usually specify who the older teen is in charge of.

In other words, the babysitter is only babysitting the four youngest. The other three oldest are essentially staying home alone. That means that the babysitter isn’t responsible for managing them, but is there in case they have a need.

If at all possible I try not to leave at a time when the babysitting teen will have to manage younger kids in completing tasks like school work or chores. That adds another layer of responsibility and increases the chances for friction and frustration.

I’m happy for them to use media as long as it isn’t a distraction for the babysitter. For example, if the babysitting teen is showing the younger boys an episode of Bluey, the little boys will have fun, but the babysitter won’t be engrossed enough to be mentally unavailable.

Opportunities for Younger Teens to Babysit Siblings

I’m not sure how your home life dynamics have changed since the pandemic, but my husband, who used to work full time out of the home now works full time from home. In general, he does need to be undisturbed during his work hours, but he’s still present in the home.

This means that if the older teens are out, I can leave a younger teen who might not be quite old enough to be the oldest person present in the home, in charge of the little ones because her primary responsibility is just to help them not to disturb Daddy. However, if there were an emergency, he would be right there.

This same set-up can also work with older teens at home. For example, if the older teens are busy with school work and/or aren’t interested in babysitting but will be at home, I can leave one of the tweens in the direct care of the little ones, while notifying the older teens that they are the oldest people in the house should their help be required.

Plan to Check in for Feedback and Accountability

Before I leave, I always tell the children being cared for “When I come back, I am going to ask the person babysitting you if you were cooperative and helpful.” And then I say to the older child, “And when I come back, I am going to ask the younger kids if you were kind and gentle with them.”

Keep your word. When you get back, follow up with everyone to see how it went. If there were serious issues, take responsibility for them.

If younger children ignored or disregarded instructions or otherwise made a difficult time for the older child, apologize to the older child that he had experienced that frustration. If an older child was harsh or rude with the younger children, apologize to the younger children that someone you left in charge of them was not kind or loving.

After you’ve taken responsibility for the difficulties anyone experienced in a situation you arranged and authorized, address any responsibility on the part of the older or younger kids as needed.

Consider whether the problems that occurred mean that this isn’t a safe set-up in the future, or if it just indicates a need for further guidance and instruction. Do not leave your children in a situation where they feel unsafe, or overwhelmed by responsibility.

There are far too many possible situations and solutions for me to cover in one article, but the bottom line is this: you are the parent. You are responsible for the safety and well-being of your children. Use wisdom. Listen to your children’s concerns and feedback. And proceed with love and patience to see the best interest of all involved!

A Few Ideas from Readers

Here are some ideas blog readers have shared about babysitting strategies.

I will sometimes pay my 10 year old $1 to watch over my one year old for a few minutes. She never feeds her or changes her or anything, just plays on a blanket with some toys while I switch laundry or make lunch or something. And I'm always just in the next room over. ~ Dani

We have a bit of a different situation. We live overseas on a military base in a tower. We leave our 12, 8, and 7 year old alone at times. They walk themselves places alone or ride their bikes there. It’s not uncommon for them to disappear for hours. Even off base, kids walk all over by themselves. We’re actually anxious about moving back this summer because they’ve become so autonomous. ~ Lauren

I love what my sister in law, Margie, did. She would give each child a set of age-appropriate responsibilities and then put age/responsibility appropriate payment on the table and told each child that if they did what they were asked, including good behaviour, they would get their money. That way it felt less like the older ones 'parenting' the younger ones and more of a division of labour. Obviously the older ones had some responsibility of caring for the younger, but children close in age don’t need to have any power struggles. Everyone gets clear instructions and responsibilities. ~ Rachel

My 16 and 15 year old (son and daughter respectively) babysit their 6 year old brother. When he was younger, I always paid them for it. Now that he is pretty independent, I don't pay them for every trip to the store, but they still get paid if I'm gone for any decent length of time. ~ Becky

[Older siblings don't normally babysit] but if I’m going to hire someone anyway I’ll give my older ones the first chance at it. They get paid the same I would pay a non-related sitter. When I need someone to watch them when I’m at home I also give them the first dibs and they get paid. ~ Heather

I have two teenagers, and a 2y. The girls have been helpful and watch him while I'm still at home. However, do I have them watch him while I'm not home? No, because I know my children have their heads attached to the phones and one of the two of them wouldn't be pulling their weight. But, that's just my kids and my family. ~ Melanie

So far they are not old enough to babysit but they are old enough to keep tots out of trouble while I’m taking a shower. ~ Brooke

Yes [my older kids babysit] but we compensate them somehow when they do, but not for more than 2 hrs at a time. ~ Amanda

Do your older children babysit your younger children? What ideas have you found that made these opportunities work smoothly?

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Lynna Sutherland is the mother of eight kids ages teen to toddler. She hosts the Sibling Relationship Lab podcast and writes about sibling conflict resolution and sibling relationship building. Lynna believes that the gospel transforms sibling conflict from an obstacle to an opportunity and loves to show other parents the freedom and confidence of gospel-centered parenting.