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When Is My Child Old Enough to Babysit?
Tips for deciding when older kids are ready to babysit while you work

When Is My Child Old Enough to Babysit?

Are your kids ready to stay home alone while you work? How to tackle the big question: "When is my child old enough to babysit her younger sibling?"

Childcare is one of the biggest expenses for working moms. One perk of having school-age kids is knowing they’re in a safe, supervised — and, for most of us, free — environment several hours each day.

But after-school and summers can still be tricky. For the past several years, I’ve hired a summer nanny to care for my girls. And after-school time has been a mish-mosh of trading favors with other moms who have complementary schedules. But some moms don’t have the flexibility or support system I enjoy. And for some, child care expenses eat up enough of the family budget to make affording other necessities tough.

So, when is my child old enough to babysit her younger sibling?

It’s on my mind because I’m starting to think maybe I won’t need that expensive summer nanny this year. My oldest daughter is 11-and-a-half, which she will tell you is more than old enough to babysit. When summer rolls around, she will be 12 and on her way to junior high. I already leave her in charge when I go pick up a pizza or grab something at the neighborhood Walgreens.

I’m starting to think she and her 6-year-old sister are ready for a little more home-alone responsibility. So I’m dipping my foot into the water and thought I’d share our experiences so far.

What’s legal?

The first place I looked to gauge an appropriate home-alone age was my local and state laws. A quick Google search yields a ton of information. Some states do have statutes and guidelines, so do your research.

But what most of the information boils down to is … it’s subjective. Check out this article, one of many good ones I’ve found on when it’s legally OK to leave children home alone. Basically, you need to ask the following:

  • How mature is the child? Does he make good decisions? Has she demonstrated responsibility already?
  • How many and how old are the other children in the house? An 11-year-old looking after a 6-year-old is different from an 11-year-old being responsible for, say, an infant and toddler at the same time.
  • How long will the kids be home alone, and how safe is the home?
  • Are there neighbors or other responsible adults nearby whom the child would feel comfortable approaching for help, if needed?
  • How easy would it be for your child to reach you with questions and other needs?
  • Would your children be scared being home alone?

I also looked at when the Red Cross starts offering babysitting classes. I thought I remembered starting them myself at at age 11, and I was correct. We’ll be signing my oldest up for those come spring.

Of course, if some busybody wants to make a fuss about the fact that your kids are home alone, you could still wind up in trouble. The news is full of stories about moms getting arrested for letting their children play alone in a park while they worked a shift across the street, or even simply allowing their kids to play outside by themselves in the neighborhood while the parents were home. I’m not going to rail against the unfairness of the former and the absurdity of the latter here, but let’s just say I think most parents these days are aware that they’re taking a chance no matter what they do.

I think my neighbors are reasonable people. And I believe my kids are responsible enough. So I’m forging ahead. Here’s what we’ve done so far.

After school

Are your kids ready to stay home alone while you work? How to tackle the big question: "When is my child old enough to babysit her younger sibling?"

This is where we started. Days when meetings or projects keep me at work until dinnertime, I’ve had the girls take the bus home, then do homework until I return.

So far, so good. Although I still worry how they’re doing, which feels weird because I was a literal latch-key kid. As young as second grade, I wore a key around my neck, walked home from school, and then hung out there with my little sister until my mom came home from her teaching job.

Granted, she got home around 4 p.m., so we were probably only by ourselves for an hour at the most. And yes, it was a small town in Kansas. Times were different. But still. Second grade. Key around neck. Little sister in the mix. And we all turned out fine (though Sis and I did get into some impressive bickering matches without Mom around to shut that ish down).

Evenings

A few months ago, we went out with friends whose kids aren’t that much older than ours. Their kids were home by themselves. I had a hard time wrapping my brain around that, until I paid our sitter $50. Of course I’d never put money above the safety of my children, but I did think about how great it would be not to have to pay someone the price of dinner just to be able to go out with my husband.

Fast forward to last week, when we had a Tuesday evening commitment and none of our regular sitters were free. Dinner reservations were for 6:30. We were certain to be home no later than 9. I made the decision to give my oldest her first evening babysitting gig.

We laid down strict rules. No going outside. No opening the door, to anyone. No cooking or anything involving the oven or stove. Keep the phone charged. And then … we left. We had a wonderful dinner with our real estate agent and the gentleman who’s selling us his house. My daughter called once to ask a question. She helped her sister with her homework. She bathed her. And when we walked in the door, they were reading a bedtime story. I was so proud!

Now, let me be clear. By no means do I think an 11-year-old and 6-year-old should be left home alone late at night. If we’re going out past 9, we still hire a sitter. I’m not sure when I’ll feel comfortable letting my oldest babysit into the wee hours. Thirteen seems like the age to start considering that. But for early outings, she’s shown us she can handle it. And her sister has shown that she can behave and obey, which displays a lot of responsibility, too.

Wondering if your kids are ready for a little more home-alone responsibility? Here's what to think about as you weigh the options.

Summers

All of this is leading up to the summer. I’m fortunate that I’m able to work from home much of the time, but my schedule can be hard-core, with lots of big projects to juggle. I need several hours of uninterrupted work time.

Rather than hire a nanny, I’m thinking my oldest can take on that role. She’ll need to get breakfast and lunch for her sister. Help keep her sister entertained and out of trouble. Handle any minor emergencies. Basically, she’ll be in charge. And for this, she will get paid. To her, the sum we’re discussing seems astronomical (and she’s already spent it all in her head). But it’s less than half of what I’d pay a nanny, which is a big deal since we’ll have a bigger mortgage.

I’m still not sure how to handle things like the swim club. I don’t think she should be responsible for a younger child in the water, so I may bring in a high school-aged kid for a couple of afternoons here and there. And I do realize that I’m fortunate in my work arrangement. If I had to be gone every day from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., I would probably wait until both girls are older to leave them without a sitter.

But that’s the gist of what I’ve learned on this new journey in working parenthood: These decisions should be based on your individual situation, your own children, and your own level of comfort and resources. Have you started letting an older child care for siblings while you work? If so, I’d love to hear your story!


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3 thoughts on “When Is My Child Old Enough to Babysit?

  1. Hi Sara,
    I was so happy to read your blog. I have two boys 11 and a 1/2 and 8. This year we decided to not put the boys in the after-school program at school and have them take the bus home. I recently got a job close to home (I mean literally 5 minutes down the road), after spending most of my career commuting over an hour each way to and from work I have to tell you it is great being so close to home, BUT I did take a rather large pay cut in making the decision to be closer to home.
    I leave work for my lunch at the time when the kids get off the bus and I go pick them up, get them situated in the house and then go back to work. They both love it,
    This summer I really can’t afford to send them both to camp full day. It would cost us about $6k for the summer. I have my mother-in-law in from Florida for a couple of weeks and then my 8 year will be going to the parks-and rec camp in our town which is only for the month of July until 3 p.m.. I will need to leave to pick him up from camp and bring him to be with his older brother who will be home. I did not sign my older one up for camp because it would be in a different location than his brother and would be difficult for me to race to pick him up and then his younger brother. I am however, worried that with my oldest being home all day this summer it will really be bad for him. He tends to sit around – play video games, watch tv and just veg out. I am not happy about this situation and I have been trying to figure out something that he can do. I have thought of making a schedule for him to follow, chores, home-work (as he will be in middle school next year) and times when he can play video games and can’t. Not sure how diligent he will follow-it. I can really use any ideas you may have in this area as far as keeping him on track and motivated. The guilt that I have been feeling is horrible about leaving him home because he lacks motivation as it is currently…I am afraid this will make it worse.
    This summer is extremely long for us as the boys finished school on June 8th and don’t go back till August 29th. Last year I was able to afford to put them in camp all day, this year it just can’t happen financially.
    Another item that I agree on that you mentioned in your article is that you have to be careful who knows that your kids are home. I am very cognizant on who knows that my boys are home as I know there are some mothers who would be very judging of this and make comments to other mothers. I have told my boys not to let anyone ever know that they are home alone, mostly for safety reasons, but I don’t need mothers judging me for my boys being home alone.
    Thank you again for your article it was extremely insightful.

  2. My 12 year old son(soon to be 13) has been babysitting he’s 9 and 5 year old sister while me and my hubby work. I only work 4-5 hour shifts at a time and work less than 5 minutes away. We also put security cameras in every room in our house which I can monitor from my phone while I’m at work and got my son a cell phone which has an alarm set for every hour…he has to text me every hour and say how thongs are going. They ALL know the rules no cooking no answering the door for ANYBODY and no fighting. My son loves it, he says he feels like an adult and is now asking me if he can put up babysitting flyers to babysit neighbor kids lol. My 9 year old daughter is the “co babysitter as she calls herself” and she reports everything to me…even has a little teaching class with her 5 year old sister as she says it…needless to say my 5 year olds teacher says Shea the smartest kid in her class now and it’s all because of her big sister lol. They set out a plan as to their activities like the board games, video games and movies and snacks they want for the day and I approve it all the night before. I am very proud of my babies, but at the same time seeing this level of maturity and responsibility makes me sad because I realize how fast they have grown and how their not my little babies anymore, everyone says I should be proud of how mature they are and how good I’m raising them to be able to take care of each other and the house, and I am but I do wish I could stop them from growing so darned fast!!

  3. Even though it’s a ways down the road, I’m looking at when my daughter can babysit at home. She’s 10 now, little brother is 5 months. Fortunately, I’m blessed to have a job where both can go to work with me and hang out in a room with toys / TV / DVD player. I’ve even taken a small portable crib that can fold up and be out of the way when I’m not using it. I can take breaks as needed to tend to the baby’s needs, and my daughter can keep am eye on him with me no further away than I’d be in our own house. As long as I’m working where I am, I’m not in any hurry to leave the two of them home (even though it’s literally a 2 minute drive between home and work and I rarely am at work longer than 3 hours at a time). I’m just thinking at some point both will likely be more comfortable at home (though my daughter has been hanging out at my job for almost 3 years, it had become her home away from home, so I’m sure my son will feel the same way having literally been there his whole life).

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