The Sibling Baby-Sitters Club

My older three children are relatively close in age: 13, almost 11, and almost 9. The younger two are a fair amount younger: they are now 5 and about 9 months.

This makes for a very different sibling dynamic than when I had a 4-year-old, a 2-year-old, and a baby. Then, they all required adult supervision. If I was the adult in charge and we needed to go somewhere, all three would be coming.

Now, the older two at least can stay home by themselves. And over the past few months I’ve been sorting out how the older ones might assist in the care of the younger ones.

Like a lot of people my age, I started babysitting pretty young. I know I had parents in my neighborhood hiring me to stay with their kids while they went out when I lived in North Carolina, and we moved away when I was 12. Looking back, this seems a little crazy. There weren’t even cell phones! But I was responsible, as 11- to 12-year-olds go, and I was Red Cross Babysitter certified and all that good stuff (I still use the diaper changing technique I learned from that course, making sure to put one finger between the baby’s ankles with my left hand while I’m wiping with my right to keep the little angel’s ankle bones from banging on each other…The diaper pin safety techniques I learned have proved less useful…).

Now I have children who are the age I was when I launched my babysitting business. Times have changed, but possibly less than I think they have.

The current thinking is that the 13-year-old can be in charge of the next two siblings for an hour or two if the adults are out and about with the little kids. These three mostly do their own thing, so there’s not much supervision required. I recently left the 13-year-old in charge of the 5-year-old for 30 minutes while I went for a walk with the baby and my husband was out. I was a little more nervous about this, but decided it was OK if the 5-year-old was watching videos or playing a video game, and I was close enough to come racing back. The 5-year-old is a bit, um, spirited, and I wouldn’t want my eldest to actually be in charge of any major disciplinary situation. In any case, they did fine.

I wouldn’t leave the baby with the older kids, but he’s increasingly mobile, which means he needs to be watched constantly. So I’m figuring out what is reasonable (and fair) for using the older kids as mother’s (or father’s) helpers. The current thinking is that when we ask, they need to play with him for 10-15 minutes while mom or dad takes a shower, or cooks lunch, or takes out the garbage or other related household tasks. Longer stretches for other things could be compensated. For instance, the 8-year-old played with the baby in a separate area of the basement (that I could see) while I ran on the treadmill for 20 minutes. If things had gone awry, I could have stopped and gone over, but there was no way I could have run without her help. I paid her a few dollars for this and she was quite excited about it. (Why the 8-year-old and not the older two boys? She is more likely to volunteer for it, though I’m trying not to dabble in gender stereotypes here. Both older boys are very nurturing and loving with their baby brother too. The 8-year-old is also very interested in earning money, as she knows we set the kids up with a bank account at age 10 and provide a match to anything they’ve saved).

Anyway, if you have a large age gap between siblings, I’m curious when you started using the older ones as babysitters or parents’ helpers and what your general policies have been on which gigs should be compensated. Plus, if you did a lot of babysitting as a teen/pre-teen, when did you start?

In other news: This weekend was almost back to normal in terms of activities. We had three baseball games (T-ball, softball, and Little League), plus soccer and outdoor church. Masks for everything of course, staying outside, and keeping our distance from other family units, but it was nice to see other families again. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before I’ll be complaining about being busy…

Photo: Needs constant supervision…

27 thoughts on “The Sibling Baby-Sitters Club

  1. My kids are 13, 10, 7 and 4.5. We have been leaving the older two home alone during the day for a while. the 7 yo stays home for a few minutes alone here and there. For the last year, I have left the 4.5 year old home with the now 13 yo for shorter periods of time. And just this summer we added evening babysitting to the 13 yo’s family responsibilities. We make sure they have eaten dinner. We help the 4 of them agree on a movie and then my husband will head out to a local restaurant to enjoy some outdoor dining. We don’t go too far yet, often just 5 minutes away. He takes it very seriously and steps up to the task. So far no issues and all but once we have come home to find everyone but him in bed post-movie–he even remembers to get the 4.5 yo in a pullup before bed. I think you have to know your kid on this one, but it has been going well in our house so far.

  2. I think about this often. My oldest just turned 12 and my youngest is 10 1/2. They stay home alone all the time, for hours on end. They’re totally fine but no younger siblings here.

    I know for a fact that I was babysitting by 11. I actually babysat at TEN for a WFH Dad who worked as a mechanic out of his garage (so he was near but not present). But “real” babysitting started at 11 for- get this- a 3 week old baby. Yup. You read that right. My sister and I were out selling Christmas wreaths door to door for Girl Scouts and a pregnant lady we encountered asked for our numbers to babysit in the future. We thought she meant WAY in the future. Nope. She wanted regular babysitters immediately after giving birth so she and her husband could go to their Wednesday night bowling league, plus every single Friday and Saturday. My whole group of girlfriends and I had a schedule and all rotated. I can’t even fathom leaving 11- 12 year olds with a baby, period, much less a newborn!!! omg. I babysat for them for years though until I turned 14 and got a real job at McDonalds after school. 🙂

    With my son being 12, every time he does anything remotely irresponsible, I scold him and say, ” Come on!!! I was BABYSITTING at your age!!!” hahhahaha.

    1. This reminded me that at 13 I babysat for a 4 month old plus d 4 other boys at the same time, they were 4 (x2), 6 and 10, but the 10 yo had Downs Syndrome. Once when I went to the bathroom the baby rolled away (like a 4 month old rolling as transportation). I was completely freaked out, but he had just wedged himself under a couch. It is crazy what we were allowed to do.

    2. @Grateful Kae – three weeks old with an 11-year-old!!! oh my goodness. I can’t even imagine. They must have really enjoyed bowling together!

  3. Ours who are still at home are 11, 15, and 17. It seems self-evidently easy at this point, but the younger 2 have some behavioral/emotional challenges, so it’s only recently that 11 and 15 could be trusted to be home together without an adult, but we’re finally there. We can leave either 15 or 17 in charge of 11 for up to a couple of hours, especially if there’s screen time for 11.

  4. No advice. Just dreaming of a day when this will be my life!

    I started baby sitting around age 11. Mostly limited by my lack of transportation & living in the country.

    In all honesty though, my 6yo is incredibly responsible. She keeps a great eye on the 1yo when I am in another room. The 3yo is a whole other story. She’s a wild one!

  5. I started babysitting for my own siblings when I was 11 (and they were 9 and 4). I begged to do it and I enjoyed it. At almost-13 I started babysitting for families beyond mine. At 13-14 I had a regular babysitting gig around the corner from my house for FOUR kids, 9, 7, 3 and under 1—something NO ONE would ever think was appropriate today. (In my defense I was a very responsible teen, I never let that baby out of my sight and nothing went awry.)

    1. I was similar in babysitting at such a young age with no major issues! At 11, the neighbor down the street started me with her 5-year-old, 3-year-old, and 5-month-old. (Now a parent, I seriously question her sanity but…I was a responsible kid and my parents were always home when I was there babysitting). Two years later, they added a fourth child so by age 13, I was watching four kids ages 7 and under. I babysat them until the day I went to college and still keep in touch with the family =) The oldest now has a newborn of his own and kiddo #3 is a professional soccer player! Because I started so young, it was pretty cool watching them all grow up over the years =) But I look at 11-year-olds today and think NO WAY.

  6. My mother thought it was sexist to “make” little girls babysit, so this was not something I did growing up, but glad to see that you’ve enlisted your boys in this! Honestly, with one kid the issue mostly arises regarding how long and under what circumstances we can leave her home alone. So far we haven’t done it for more than an hour or so while my husband and I go for a walk around the neighborhood, and she knows how to call us if she needs something. I find myself wondering how old she will need to be for me to leave her home alone over night while I’m on call. Unfortunately I think the answer will be something along the lines of “15” which, for better or for worse, is still a long time off.

    1. @omdg – if I remember correctly, I first stayed home alone overnight when I was 16 or so, and hence able to drive. This would be less of a dividing line in a city where public transport or walking places was a possibility.

  7. I have used a “mother’s helper” who was 13 to watch the baby, who was really a baby– not quite a newborn but not walking yet- while I did something in the house. It was only an hour or two and it worked great. I was in the house if there was any issue or concern or if I wanted to check in. Would 100% recommend.

    I have also been in the situation where I needed o be on a professional phone call while working from home with no childcare for the now 1.5 year old. This is a nightmare, as you can imagine. So I enlisted by 8 year old boy to watch her for 30 minutes. I paid him $1 I think and basically just had him play with her/read books in the baby’s room. I had the baby monitor on low so I could sort of passively monitor what was happening/if there was a injury. It also worked out great. I probably wouldn’t recommend doing this with any regularity but it worked in a pinch.

  8. If she’s interested in money now, maybe you can set up a bank account for her now too? No point in limiting kiddo #3 if she’s stepping up to the plate more in this area anyway. Oh how I wish I had had more interest in money when I was younger! My parents had opened me an account when I was six and I didn’t become interested until I was 23 at the earliest. I was very unprepared!

  9. For me this falls into the question of paying kids for chores vs giving an allowance. My kids are 6 and 3 so we aren’t there yet! I babysat my younger siblings (younger by 4yrs and 6yrs) often growing up and was not paid for it. Maybe that’s why I started using my skills for gigs outside the family 🙂 I actually had an older brother 2y older than me but it was pretty accepted that I was the one responsible for the little kids- I’m not sure this was great for my older brother’s maturity. I was very close with my mother growing up and was often enlisted as her helper because I had empathy for all the stuff on her plate. I never felt that it was excessive- the babysitting- they didn’t ask me to cancel my plans to babysit so it wasn’t oppressive. Perhaps this is a “chore” shared between the 3 big kids that is a family responsibility required to get their allowance. It may be tough to need to pay $ every time you need to take a shower! I know you’ve talked before about allowance vs $ for chores and cannot remember where you stand.

    1. @VSH – I don’t plan to pay for every shower! It’s more if I have something specific I want to do beyond life maintenance that will require baby supervision. So doing a treadmill work out, or if I had to take a work call during a time when I didn’t have childcare.

  10. I was staying at home with my younger sister when I was 11 (and she was 8) and started babysitting others when I was 12. I never encountered any problems but my best friend was babysitting when a raccoon fell down the chimney of the house and started running around the living room, covered in soot. This was before cell phones. She somehow cornered the raccoon in the living room and called the police, who came with animal control people who captured the animal. She just had to explain the soot to the parents when they came home. My daughter (an only child) started baby sitting for neighbors when she was 12, after taking the Red Cross course. She never had any problems except that, as an only child, she really could not understand sibling bickering and fighting.

  11. My kids are 14, 12 and 6. We can leave them home alone for a few hours. The 12- and 14-yr-old get paid to do this. If I just leave them for 15 minutes to go to the store there’s no payment. A lot of their “babysitting” is very low-key childcare. I think when we are gone they just watch a lot of TV.

  12. We don’t pay our teens to watch their younger sister, but we will let them off the hook for chores for a day or two if they do it. I was desperate a few weeks ago, and also gave my son extra video game time in exchange for watching his sister.

  13. I had a 12 yo babysitter when I was a toddler, and likewise I started babysitting when I was 12. In both cases there were adults in the house, but not in the room. One of my best gigs was providing childcare during moms group meetings. 🙂

  14. My comment is mostly going to be what not to do for handling babysitting with your kids. My parents created a lot of resentment, both for them and my siblings.  I am the oldest of six kids (15 year spread) and babysat my brothers and sisters alone from about 10 on and started babysitting other families around 13 years old. I would say that being mindful that the older kids should be compensated for their time and effort says a lot. I was never paid for babysitting siblings as my parents didn’t have a lot of financial means and they felt it was simply my duty to babysit them whenever my parents deemed it necessary. They would go so far as to have me cancel paying babysitting jobs for other families because they needed me to babysit. And once I had a waitressing job, I would have to change my schedule to accommodate their babysitting needs. When I pushed against this, I was punished (losing car privileges/ability to go out with friends). This led to me telling them when I went to college that I would not go to college anywhere near my hometown because I never wanted them to pop by and drop off their children for me to babysit. So I went to college 7 hours away, while all of my high school friends went to a great college in town. 

    I have a brother who is 2 years younger than me, and he never had to babysit. They “tried” to have him babysit, but he went to play at the neighbor’s house and so instead of him being reprimanded for that, they decided that I was the only one responsible enough to babysit. There were a couple of families who loved me babysitting for them so much that once I was waitressing and had gone to college, they had my brother babysit for their kids (and my younger sister later.)

    I will add that once I came home from college for a weekend to babysit so my parents could go away for the weekend, but they ended up canceling last minute. We had arranged for them to pay me for the weekend – but since they canceled, they didn’t. And then I got reprimanded for being upset about the situation. Clearly you are not there yet, but if your kids are planning around babysitting for you, it goes a long way to treat them with respect like you would a hired babysitter.

  15. I babysat for 6 kids ( two families combined) when I was 12 years old.Tthe parents went to a big 10 football game and were gone forever. One child fell and bruised her elbow. Responsible babysitter that I was, ice was applied while telling her to maybe stop crying. Turns out she broke her elbow in 3 places! I felt terrible!
    They did ask me to babysit again, but I never did again. I can’t imagine trusting A 12 year to be in charge for 8 hours!

  16. I’m the oldest of five kids, and my two youngest siblings are 7 and 10 years younger than me. I helped with both of them a lot (though I volunteered for most of it; I don’t think my parents ever asked me to help for more than a few minutes unless they compensated me for it or counted it as my chore of the day, which we earned an allowance for). I think I was 12 or 13 when I started staying home alone with the next to youngest sibling, and probably not much older than that when I stayed home alone with the youngest sibling, too. I was quite a home body at that age, so it was helpful for my mom if she could run errands without a bunch of kids under foot and it was nice for me because I got out of doing other cleaning that I didn’t want to do and got to spend extra time with my youngest siblings!

  17. Am loving reading these comments. I started babysitting between 10 and 12 years of age. First my sisters, who were newborn and 3. By 11 I am quite sure I was sitting for the neighbors, mostly during the day. AT 12, nighttime babysitting. at 11, I would babysit for 5 kids for 50 cents an hour — twins at 3, single at 5, twins at 7 (you can see why the mom needed to get out). It was across the street from our house. Interestingly, I really was only responsible for three kids, as the 7 year olds were on their own, as in they did not NEED a babysitter. Who knows where they were in the neighborhood while I was babysitting. The world was definitely a different place back then. But when I had my own child in 2005, I only left him with my graduate students as babysitters.

  18. I love these comments! It’s crazy to see how much the thinking has changed in just a generation. My brother and I are nine years apart and after the newborn days, I was ten and my mom would run down to the grocery store while he napped! My uncle was the butcher there, so she had the meat departments number by the phone to call if I needed anything. We survived. I was I guess 11 when I started babysitting him just on my own, did carpool with him and classmates right when I turned 16 and got my license.
    I babysat kids in my neighborhood and my cousins when I was about 12 and continued through high school.
    I recently had a friend leave her 3 and 6 year old with a 13 year old for a couple of hours, I gave it the side eye at first but I was baby sitting at that age so what’s the difference?? I was uber responsible at that age and had a ton of experience with my brother and cousins. Going younger does open up a wider range of babysitters! I haven’t felt comfortable with someone who doesn’t drive if there is an emergency but to each their own.

  19. “Um, spirited” – I love it ;-D
    But back on topic; if and when to enlist paid help from one’s older kids. I guess for us it all boils down to which babysitting is part and parcel of being a family and helping each other out and which is a favor you would compensate an outside for as well… In this vein we ask our older two (13 and 15 yrs old) to come straight home from school rather than hang out with friends if we need them to spend an hour or so with their younger brother who will do fine on the ipad but we’re just more comfortable with someone being there. We don’t pay them for this, as this is their home where they can get on with whatever they want and it’s not unreasonable to be there for each other as a family.
    However, if it involves doing something specifically they wouldn’t otherwise do, we may offer cash. This weekend my eldest is walking with my youngest to judo class, staying on for the hour and walking back. This will take her two hours of her time in which she can’t do much else and it’s normally my job or something I’d get a sitter in for. Now I have offered her €5 for it and she’s delighted. Obviously it’s less than the going rate for a sitter, but I’d feel I’d be spoiling her appreciation of money if I paid her too much for it (her being and entry-lever ‘worker’ and all) 😉

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