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Kids Watching Kids: A Parent's Guide to Sitter Safety
Can a child who still trick-or-treats and sleeps with a teddy bear be trusted to care for a toddler? Maybe. Some kids are mature and responsible enough to babysit at 13, while others still can't handle the job at 16. In most cases, kids aren't equipped to babysit until at least the age of 12. Many states don't have any laws around the minimum age at which kids can be left alone, so it's up to parents to make the call on a case-by-case basis. Whether you're hiring a sitter or deciding whether your own tween is ready for the job, be sure to question the would-be sitter's training.
Most states have no age requirements associated with babysitting. Some do have laws or guidelines governing the minimum age that children can be left alone, which is relevant when the sitter is a tween or young teen.
In Delaware, for instance, sitters should be at least 12. It's not illegal to leave kids under 12 alone, but the state's Division of Family Services will investigate any reports of that happening. Illinois has the strictest laws on this topic, making it illegal to leave kids under 14 alone for "an unreasonable period of time." It's unlikely parents would get in trouble for leaving a 13-year-old in charge of one child for an hour or two, but the legal consequences of hiring a young sitter are worth considering.
In most places and in most cases, you don't have to worry about the legality of hiring a young sitter or letting your young teen babysit. Whether it's a good idea, however, depends entirely on the situation.
Ready or Not
When a kid is just starting her babysitting career, her own parents should weigh in on whether she's ready. If you're hiring the sitter, you may want to reach out to her parents directly to ask if they think she's mature and responsible enough for the role.
If it's your child who's offered a babysitting job, you get veto power. You know your child and her maturity level better than anyone, so don't grant her permission to care for kids without adult supervision until you're sure she's ready.
What's tricky is that different kids are ready at different ages. Even a mature 11-year-old probably isn't ready to handle the responsibilities of babysitting, but she may be prepared by age 13. An 11- or 12-year-old may make a great parent's helper, though. In that capacity, she can watch children and gain some experience without being solely responsible for their safety.
Certain factors affect a babysitter's readiness to be in charge. A teen who is growing up with younger siblings may be more knowledgeable about how to feed, entertain and protect young kids, and therefore may be ready to do the job at 13. An only child may need to get a few years of experience as a parent's helper before she's ready to sit on her own at 14 or 15.
The parameters of the job are relevant too. The younger and less experienced the sitter, the fewer complications she should be expected to handle. A 13- or 14-year-old sitter shouldn't be left alone with multiple charges, newborns or children who have medical needs or behavioral challenges. Short daytime stints are safest. Nighttime jobs are generally appropriate for kids who are 16 or older.
Preparation for New Sitters
First aid training is an essential prerequisite to babysitting. Any new sitter should take a first aid course before taking her first job. The American Red Cross offers training and safety courses for sitters. A local organization may have similar courses in your area. Ask to see proof that your sitter has completed a safety course and is certified in CPR and first aid before hiring her.
Even with training, new babysitters often need coaching and the chance to gain experience. If it's your child who wants to start sitting, suggest she help a friend watch younger siblings or volunteer to be a parent's helper for a relative with young kids. Talk about issues that could arise during a job and how she should handle them. What should she do if the doorbell rings, the smoke alarm goes off or the child starts choking? How should she handle a child who won't stop crying?
When you're hiring a young sitter, schedule her to come at least an hour early so you can show her around and talk about the house rules and emergency procedures. Give the sitter at least a few phone numbers of people she can reach with any questions, and urge her to reach out with questions. Getting constant texts may interrupt date night, but knowing that everything's going well at home is worth the distraction.
- State of Delaware Department of Services for Children, Youth and their Families: FAQs
- Illinois Legal Aid Online: Can I Leave My Children Alone at Home After School
- The Washington Post: Latchkey children age restrictions by state
- HealthyChildren: Are You Ready to be a Babysitter?
- American Red Cross: Babysitting & Child Care Training
Kathryn has been a lifestyle writer for more than a decade. Her work has appeared on USAToday.com and Indeed.com.