The walls are closing in on you. It’s hard to catch your breath. You have GOT to get out of the house. But you can hardly afford your favorite half-caf double vanilla latte with a dusting of cinnamon at the local coffee shop let alone a babysitter to watch over your precious little darlings. Your oldest should be ready to babysit his siblings by now, right?
Well, it turns out that there are a few qualities your kid needs to have before you put them in charge of their siblings when you aren’t around.
AGE AND INDEPENDENCE
The first thing to do is assess whether the teen in charge is old enough to handle the responsibility. From a developmental perspective, kids begin to demonstrate higher order cognitive processing abilities around the age of twelve. They will need these skills to deal with the issues they encounter while looking after their siblings as well as to respond effectively to any emergencies that may arise. At this age (ages eleven to thirteen), parents can reasonably leave their kid in charge for three to four hours in a familiar environment like the home. Early teens (thirteen to sixteen years old) can reasonably be left in charge for periods of six to eight hours—although overnight is unwise. Older teens (age seventeen and above) are capable of managing many of the issues (and emergencies) that might arise if they are left in charge for a full day and night. In all these instances, it is important to consider your teen’s particular level of emotional and intellectual maturity.
Age differences between your kids is another factor to consider. There probably should be at least two years difference between the teen in charge and their next younger sibling to minimize the likelihood of a successful uprising by the oppressed siblings. If the age difference is less than 2 years, your kids need to get along particularly well before you consider leaving the older sibling in charge. Kids who are six or younger should not be left in the daily care of a teen under the age of sixteen. Finally, the ratio of siblings to teen-in-charge should not exceed 2:1. Three siblings (or more!) to one teen in charge is an invitation to disaster.
Kids can drive large, competent and relatively psychologically healthy adults to the brink of insanity. A teenager who is going to watch their siblings needs to be relatively level-headed in the presence of provocation, intense emotions and potential crisis. A hot-headed sibling is an easy target for siblings to play “let’s get Suzy to blow her stack.” And then there is the running and the screaming and the carnage (and that’s just you when you get back home to deal with them).
A kid in charge of siblings will need to be able to put aside their own personal interests or needs at least some of the time during their watch. They need to be relatively responsive to looming crises (rather than saying “just a minute let me save this game” as the flames spread to the kitchen cabinets above the stove). They need to randomly check on things even though nothing seems amiss. (It is a plus if they can register that eerie quiet that precedes kids doing something they aren’t supposed to be doing.) Most importantly, you should be able to expect them to not join in on some hair-brained scheme thought up by their younger siblings!
Being in charge of kids requires the ability to take action and to make decisions. Your kid will need to be able to step in and start giving directions and making demands as the situation warrants. This does not mean acting as a tin pot dictator. They will need to formulate an effective plan for dealing with a rebellious sibling or a potential emergency.
All of these qualities can be developed and observed by requiring your kid to practice watching their siblings before you put them fully in charge. (This also lets younger siblings practice being accountable to their older brother or sister in charge.) Start by having the teen in charge review a good manual on babysitting. You may even want to have them complete a formal babysitting course. Review with them how to handle different unusual situations (e.g., answering the door, friends showing up, etc.) and emergencies (e.g., injuries, fire, etc.). Schedule brief stretches of time where your teen is responsible for watching their siblings while you are at home, but occupied with other things. Watch and make suggestions. Put your teenager in charge while you run brief errands. hen gradually add more time as they demonstrate the ability to survive time together without a squad of police cars ending up in your driveway.
Once you are confident your kid is ready for the awesome responsibility that is babysitting his siblings, it will be important to set some ground rules. The teen in charge is a low-level functionary—not the lord or lady of the manner. The teen’s job is to monitor, remind, and transmit direct instructions from the royals (e.g., you) as well as report to the person with real authority (e.g., again, you). The teen in charge should not make sure siblings do their chores, have the right attitude toward a (minor, bureaucratic) official like herself or demonstrate the highest moral character. Make sure everyone is clear what merits punishment (e.g., rebellious vassals, abuse of power). And, don’t forget to make it worthwhile for the sibling in charge. You know how exhausting it is to be responsible for a pack of wildlings.
Now go breathe deeply of that sweet air of freedom (which smells remarkably similar to a half-caf double vanilla latte with a light dusting of cinnamon).
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