At what age can your older kid start babysitting your younger one?

The day you can finally call on your built-in babysitter is one many parents fantasize about. But realizing this dream is a bit trickier than you think.

Two kids sitting on a couch, looking at a tablet
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Date night with my husband was just wrapping up when our 11-year-old daughter called, near tears. “Bennett just threw Cheerios at me and he’s not listening and I don’t know what to do!” Avery wailed. Her frustration was understandable: It was her first time babysitting her little bro.

I talked her through it, and by the time we got home, Bennett, 9, was tucked in, and our canine vacuum had hoovered up his bedtime snack off the floor. Avery was calm and felt proud of her accomplishment. Most important, she said she’d be happy to babysit again.

The day you can finally call on your built-in babysitter is one many parents fantasize about. But realizing this dream is a bit trickier than hiring a local teenager who has plenty of babysitting gigs under his belt. For example, Bennett would never have pulled the cereal stunt on an experienced outsider.

So how do you know if your older kid is ready? Put simply, experts say you should expect the same maturity and qualifications from your child as you would a hired sitter; otherwise, she’s not ready to be in charge.

“Just because they’re the right age doesn’t mean they’re ready to be alone with a sibling for any period of time,” says Tracey Warren, national director of injury prevention and education for Child Safe Canada. “The parents or guardians have to decide if their child is capable of handling responsibility and, if so, what degree of responsibility.”

How to prepare
If your kid is mature enough for the task, you’re off to the races. But first, check with your regional government child agency (such as the local Children’s Aid Society) to make sure he or she is old enough, by law, to babysit. Depending on the province or territory, laws and guidelines range in terms of age (anywhere from 12 to 18), length of time left alone, whether they’re in charge of other children and even the time of day.

Next, sign your kid up for a babysitting and a home-alone course. These classes cover being at home without adults and the responsibilities involved in looking after younger kids, from first aid to bedtime strategies.

Finally, role-play situations that might arise. “There are some things you need to go through,” says Gail Bell, co-founder of Parenting Power, a parent education resource company. “What if the fire alarm goes off? What if your brother throws up?” She suggests writing down the rules, if it helps. Bell also recommends taking baby steps: First, leave your older kid in charge for an hour while you’re home. Then go out for an hour, then two, and then maybe a whole evening.

Make your expectations clear
In addition to walking the kids through emergency scenarios and setting out behaviour guidelines, tell them how they can spend their time. Are they allowed to pig out on chips and use their devices, or are they expected to snack on veggies and do homework?

That first time we put Avery in charge, we asked her to make popcorn and put on a movie to watch before bed. We thought that would be easier than having her make dinner and get Bennett to do his school reading. Bell applauds that decision. “Start small and have it be a really great experience,” she says.

The first time Rachel Byers* left her son, then 11, in charge of his little sister, it was just for an hour while she and her husband grabbed a coffee. The Calgary couple slowly increased the time they were away until they felt Caleb* was ready to be in charge for an evening. But Caleb, high on power, put on airs and acted unnecessarily bossy. So the next time, she had the kids choose the movie before Mom and Dad left for the night, so Caleb couldn’t power trip his preferences. That time, everything went according to plan, and both kids were happy. “When it’s expected of them to get along, they do OK,” says Byers.

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   Siblings: Who's really in charge?

Indeed, even when the sibling relationship is fraught with tension, the kids should be able to step up and put aside their differences for a few hours, says Bell. “The message should be, ‘We know you guys can do this,’” she says. “It’s not necessarily that they have to like each other, but there has to be that line of respect.”

Should a sibling babysitter be paid?
That’s up to you. You could offer a rate similar to what you’d pay a local teenager or opt for a discounted rate. You could reward her after a few babysitting sessions with an item she’s been wanting. Some parents even pay the younger sibling a fee for behaving!

We don’t pay Avery to babysit; it’s just another way she helps out at home. Avery likes the responsibility, and she considers it practice for her paying babysitting jobs. Plus, it’s gotten easier—Bennett has been a star charge ever since the initial Cheerios fiasco. The only one who has lost out in the arrangement is the dog, who no longer gets to eat cereal off the floor.

*Names have been changed

Read more:
Babysitting 101: Finding and keeping a super-sitter
Should you pay your kids to babysit their siblings?

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