Is your babysitter mature enough for the job?

Claire McCarthy, MD

The 12-year-old next door seems so nice and responsible. You find yourself thinking: she’d make a great babysitter.

Maybe—but maybe not.

Researchers from Penn State Hershey Medical Center surveyed 727 11- to 13-year-olds who had cared for younger children, to see how much they knew about safety. Forty percent had left a child unattended—and twenty percent had opened the door to a stranger.

The next-door neighbor is looking a lot less appealing all of a sudden, huh?

To be fair, you could spin it that more than half didn’t leave children unattended, and eighty percent knew not to open the door to a stranger. And there were other findings that were actually pretty encouraging. Essentially all knew what to do if there was an intruder (so even if they let one in, they knew what to do next), where the first aid kit was kept, and who to contact if a child was injured or poisoned. Two-thirds knew where the fire extinguisher was. Half had taken a first aid class, and just under half had even taken CPR (how many parents can say they’ve taken first aid or CPR?). That’s reasonably impressive for kids that young. Because that’s what they are: kids.

Generally, most parents would prefer an older babysitter. They are more experienced, and (usually) more mature. The problem is finding an older teen that has the time—and wants to babysit. By 16, my older daughter was pretty done with babysitting, and her weekends were full with work and social stuff. My 13-year-old, though, is very enthusiastic about it, and has been working for some neighbors for about a year.

I did some Googling to see if I could find any statistics on the average age of babysitters, but I couldn’t. Choosing a babysitter tends to be a relatively casual decision, and not something we keep data on. Susie seems sweet and she has no plans for Saturday night. Done. I did find that some states have laws as to how old a child needs to be to be left alone (an important prerequisite if you are considering them as a babysitter). They are pretty variable, but 12 is a common age.

Some 12-year-olds are mature enough to babysit, some are not. Parents must choose carefully to make sure their sitter is ready.

The problem is, some 11-year-olds are incredibly mature—and some 18-year-olds shouldn’t be left alone with a hamster. It really does depend on the babysitter, the babysittees, and the situation. Here are some suggestions if you are considering using a younger (under 14) babysitter:

Get references. Ask friends and neighbors who they have used, and how it worked out.

Talk to the parents. Ask them about their child’s personality and temperament, and whether they think they are ready to babysit. While you’re at it, ask if they can be around if their child has question or problem (I always make a point of being close by when my children babysit—parents often feel better knowing there’s a pediatrician as backup).

Don’t do it if you have an infant, a child with a health problem, or a child with difficult behavior. That’s not fair to anyone.

Keep the hours—and tasks—limited. No long days involving cooking.

Look for someone who has taken a babysitting course. These are offered by the Red Cross, the YMCA, and some community organizations. They don’t cover every possible situation or topic, but kids who go through them are much better prepared than those who don’t. If there’s someone in your neighborhood who has babysitting potential, suggest that they take a course!

Do a dry run. Pay the person to come over while you are home. You can orient them to the house and your children, and then they can babysit while you do chores or tackle that elusive household project (finally, you can paint the bathroom!). That way, you can watch them interact with your kids—and get something done at the same time.

Set guidelines (write them down!). Common sense can’t be taken for granted at any age. Sometimes you just need to teach people things (“1. Don’t leave the children unattended. 2. Don’t open the door to a stranger. 3…”)

For those older-babysitter-needed situations, consider joining a babysitting co-op (yes, you will have to babysit, but it could be very worth it), or putting up an ad at a local college (college kids are sometimes more desperate for cash than high schoolers).

The point, really, is to choose someone that will keep your children safe and happy while you are gone. So take the time, be thoughtful, and build a group of babysitters (when you find ones you like, be really nice to them—you want to be high on the Favorite Family list). Your children are worth it.

7 thoughts on “Is your babysitter mature enough for the job?

    1. Though you also need to keep in mind the training/experience of the person. I am 23 however the day care center I used to work at I dealt with a few special needs children, I have also babysat an autistic child, and am in nursing school. However I do agree you need someone much more mature for a special needs child, you wouldn’t want a 11 or 12 year old caring for them

  1. When I was younger 13 to be more accurate.I showed parents I was responsible ect. this is how my little sister had lots of nieghborhood friends she would have em over to play. Then I would ask if they wanted to curl their,hair put make up on,ect. if they said yes I had them run home to get a note from their parents saying it was okay. After I gained their trust that way they would come knocking on my door asking me to baby sit.

    Once I was 17 did the same thing,but would ask if they wanted to go to the park,again asked for signed notes from parents. Always making sure to introduce myself,giveing my cell number,saying where we were going,and how long we would be gone.

    I also was kind enough to clean up if their house was messy(some moms/dads were single parents) being considerate always helps when being chosen as a babysitter.

  2. I live just outside Bloomington, IN and having IU as a resource has been wonderful. I call the nursing department (I’m a nurse so that just makes sense) and the early childhood ed department. I have no shortage of quality sitters to choose from. Local churches can also be a good resource. And like you mentioned, the YMCA, they are usually willing to give your contact info to potential sitters.

  3. I agree it all depends on the individual. I can say honestly at age 13 I wouldn’t have been ready to babysit, but now that I’ve graduated, I enjoy helping children and watching them learn. Right now I get up at 3:40am to get ready to provide before care. It’s early but I love it, the family is great, and we’ve almost got shoe tieing down! 🙂

  4. The best baby sitter I ever had was barely older than my oldest. I’m a mom who NEVER leaves her children. Ever. I can go years (literally) without a night away. So when I do need a sitter you can imagine I am picky. She was 12 years old and my oldest was about 8 and our youngest was almost 1. Based on her age alone she wasn’t old enough in my opinion; however, she was the oldest of 6 and unfortunately her own mother spent a lot of time playing computer games and just generally ignoring the family. I knew them well enough to know that wasn’t just the neighborhood gossip. This young girl had first aid training, administered medication to her siblings when sick, cooked meals 7 nights a week, and maintained the home. I felt really good in hiring her because it gave her a night away from home and at the time I was able to pay her very well (about $25 an hour). She asked me if I was going to tell her mom how much money I gave her and I told her that was between me and her and if she chose to tell her mom that was fine but I wasn’t going to. I let her know that if her mom asked me that I would not lie, but I was also not going to offer up the information because I knew her mom would take the money away. I was very happy to find out later she had bought herself a coat and a pair of jeans with it. She was very responsible, her home life had forced her to be, and it was a good situation for us both. I could relax and not worry and I was able to do something to help her. When I was her age, well you couldn’t trust me with your favorite house plant!

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