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Siblings as Babysitters - Is Your Older Child Ready?

Summer is almost here, and many working parents are trying to figure out what to do with kids while school is out, but their jobs are not. Some parents opt for summer camps; while others arrange for university students to act as child care providers to fill in until September.

Yet, for others, the seemingly perfect solution is to have an older sibling take care of younger sibling(s). This may seem to be an ideal situation as there are no transportation concerns; you don’t have to bring a stranger into your home, the sitter will never be late and parents may feel they can save a bit on financial compensation.

Before you use a sibling as a child care provider, keep in mind: The Government of Alberta states, “... there is no legislation in Alberta that sets an age at which a child can be left home alone. However, the Alberta Safety Council will not give a child a babysitting course diploma before the age of twelve” and, “... in Alberta, the test is the safety of the child as defined in the Child, Youth & Family Enhancement Act. If the child’s safety is endangered by being left alone, that child may be considered neglected.”

In addition, parents need to ask the following questions when assessing a sibling’s ability/readiness to act as a caregiver for younger siblings:

1. What is the maturity level of your older child? How does the older sibling interact with their younger sibling(s)? Does the older child tend to show patience and help out with siblings, or are they disinterested in youngsters and easily become irritated or frustrated with a younger sibling’s behavior?

2. What is the history between your older child and younger sibling(s)? Have your children typically gotten along, or do they tend to get into arguments easily and on a seemingly constant basis?

3. Is there sibling rivalry between your children? Sibling rivalry can be defined as a competitiveness between children – it can also involve comparisons between appearance, intelligence and accomplishments. Sibling rivalry in moderation can teach children valuable life skills including: sharing, the ability to compromise and to be a good sport when winning or losing. It’s important to keep tabs on the state of sibling rivalry between your children, because as the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy states, “...what begins as normal sibling rivalry can escalate into something more when parents fail to adequately supervise their children or teach them appropriate means of resolving conflict.”

4. How do your children resolve arguments? Arguments with siblings are bound to occur, but when they do, are your children able to resolve the conflict by talking it out and occasionally having an adult get involved, or do their arguments routinely evolve into screaming and yelling, forcing you as the parent to intervene in order to restore peace?

5. How long are you expecting an older sibling to take care of younger siblings? Will your older child be required to stay home and act as a caregiver five days a week for eight hours a day, or will they be asked to walk a sibling home from day camp and then stay with them for half an hour until mom and dad arrive home from work?

If you decide your older child is capable of caring for their younger sibling(s), here are some tips to help things go smoother:

1. Talk with your children about how they feel about the child care arrangement. While it is reasonable to ask children to help out, it’s also good to get their feedback, as being a babysitter comes with a lot of responsibility. Does your older child want to care for siblings all day? If they don’t or don’t feel they can ‘handle’ their younger sibling(s), this is important information to know. If an older child is forced into caring for younger children, it could result in your older child developing a sense of resentment toward the younger child(ren), influencing the quality of care the younger siblings are receiving.

2. Set very clear guidelines on what your expectations are of your older child while they are acting as a caregiver. Clarify that their role is not to discipline their siblings – they are a babysitter, not a parent. Be clear about no hitting, yelling and name calling. Clarify what you want them to do during the day (i.e. Make breakfast and lunch, tidy up after each meal, walk younger sibling to camp after lunch, etc.). Parents can set out activities such as games, puzzles and movies, if kids get bored. Also, plan a weekly trip to the library with the kids in order to have plenty of new reading material on hand.

3. Be aware of what is normal sibling rivalry and what becomes sibling abuse. With siblings spending periods of time together without adult supervision, unresolved issues around sibling rivalry and poor conflict-resolution skills could lead to an escalation in aggressive behavior toward siblings. The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy defines sibling abuse as a “... repeated pattern of physical, emotional and/or sexual aggression with the intent to inflict harm and is motivated by a need for power and control.” Although many times older siblings looking after younger siblings works out well, there are instances in which siblings being left without adult supervision can go terribly wrong. According to Dr. Vernon Wiehe, author of Perilous Rivalry: When Siblings Become Abusive, “as many as 53 out of every 100 children abuse a brother or sister, higher than the percentage of adults who abuse their children or their spouse.”

4. Enroll your older child in a babysitting and First-Aid course. Any additional information and training can help an older sibling become a more confident and effective caregiver for younger siblings.

5. Check in with your children separately and ask how things are going while you are at work. If you notice any changes in your children’s behavior (i.e. Your older child is more easily frustrated with younger siblings, your younger child has become withdrawn from their older sibling) take it seriously and find out what’s going on. Provide your older child with the number of someone other than yourself, (in the event they cannot get a hold of you), who they can call if they feel overwhelmed or frustrated. Let all children in your home know that you are willing to have an open dialogue about any frustrations they are experiencing while you are at work.

6. Finally, show your children that you appreciate them working together. Your oldest for babysitting for their sibling(s) and the youngest for abiding by the rules while you are at work.

In summary, older siblings who babysit younger siblings should show maturity for their age, get along well with siblings; they should have good conflict-resolution skills and should be willing/interested in looking after younger siblings. In addition, older siblings should have no history of being physically, emotionally or sexually inappropriate with younger siblings.

Initially, keep babysitting to short periods of time, as older children get used to the increased level of responsibility. If parents are away all day, enroll younger sibling(s) in a half-day neighborhood day camp in order to give your older child a break.

Lastly, make open communication a priority in your home.

Stephanie Robson, MSW, RSW, ECE III, is a mother of three, and has worked with many children and families through a number of city agencies and child care settings.

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