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.