Babysitting siblings

How to prepare your (pre)teen for babysitting her little brother or sister

“We started things quite gradually,” says Rosalie Sarasua, mother of 14-year-old Alysha, five-year-old Alexander and three-year-old Ben. “At first, I’d just leave Alysha with the children while I went to the corner store for milk. Then we gradually worked up to longer periods of time, as she got more comfortable.”

Having Alysha babysit has worked out wonderfully for the family. “There’s never a problem with them respecting her — the boys worship her, especially Alexander, and when she pays attention to them they are just so happy,” Sarasua says.

But that’s not always the case. While parents often look forward to the day when an older sibling can be left in charge of the younger ones on occasion, some teens resent being asked to watch their brothers and sisters, and sometimes the younger kids aren’t willing to follow the older sibling’s lead.

“This is most often challenging when you have a child who is 13 or 14 babysitting a sibling who is, say, nine or 10,” says Lesley Elaschuk, regional manager of injury prevention for the Canadian Red Cross. “In our babysitting courses, we have the children act out scenarios where the child is not behaving or listening to the babysitter, and help them develop strategies to deal with these situations.”

Parents can help prepare their teens to take care of siblings by considering these ideas:

• Enrol them in a babysitting course. “In the Red Cross courses, we help potential babysitters work through their fears and concerns,” says Elaschuk. “It gives them a lot more confidence about taking care of kids.”

• Look for opportunities to have your teenager take charge of the younger ones while you’re still at home. She could plan an activity to do with her little brother, read him a bedtime story and supervise teeth brushing even if you come up and tuck him into bed at the end, for example. By showing you respect your teen as a caregiver, you encourage your kids to show respect as well, says Elaschuk. Sarasua used this approach when she had daughter Alysha pick up her younger brothers from daycare — a short distance from their house — and walk them home.

• Review the “red flags.” When should your babysitting child call you, a neighbour, or 911? Make sure she knows her options and resources.

• Talk through possible challenges with your teen. Is five-year-old Bobby a risk taker who is likely to want to ride his scooter without a helmet (and you know this because he tries to talk you into it on a regular basis)? Then make that one of the challenges you discuss. Says Elaschuk: “You know your children’s personalities best, so you know the possible problems and conflicts that might come up.” She adds that your teen needs to know that she’s not a failure if she can’t end a tantrum or resolve a behaviour problem with a child.

• And speaking of knowing your child’s personality — are you concerned that your teen might be overly bossy to the little ones? Elaschuk recommends: “Ask him to remember times when he had a babysitter looking after him, and how he liked to be treated. And remind him that he’s there as a caregiver, not a parent. The house rules are still the house rules.”

• Probably the most important factor of all is the maturity of the babysitter. “I really think there’s not an age when you can say a child is ready to babysit because it depends so much on the child,” says Sarasua. “Alysha has always been very competent and mature, so I feel quite confident leaving the boys with her. But I know other kids her age who are just not responsible.”

Elaschuk says that the situation needs to be right. “Some teens are not comfortable being left in charge, some younger siblings can be a real handful, and some teens aren’t mature enough to handle problems that might come up. It’s not something to take lightly.” Another potentially touchy situation: asking older stepsiblings to take care of the younger children when they already feel somewhat resentful about the new additions to their family.

The other big question in having your teen babysit is: Should you pay? Some parents feel that looking after younger siblings is just part of belonging to a family, so no money changes hands. Sarasua, on the other hand, says, “I pay Alysha because I never want her to feel resentful or like I’m making her be another mother to the boys. What we’ve worked out is that her cellphone costs us about $40 a month, so she owes us four hours of babysitting each month at $10 an hour. Anything over that, we pay her cash.”

It seems to be working, Sarasua adds. “Often she says, ‘Why don’t you two go out for dinner, I need $20.’”

A babysitting kit

You can make babysitting younger siblings seem more like a real job, and make it more fun for both your teen and his charges, with a kit of activities and information for your sitter. This is also something he can bring along for outside sitting jobs. Use a tote bag or cardboard box and fill it with:

• index card with your cellphone number, neighbour phone numbers, and any other contact numbers you think would be helpful (you may want to laminate this)
• a couple of age-appropriate storybooks
• craft supplies to match the children’s ages and interests
• DVD the kids haven’t seen (and perhaps some microwave popcorn if the kids are old enough), or CD of appropriate music
• deck of cards and instructions for a simple game to play with the kids
• small treats for the kids — new toys or granola bars