Kids babysitting siblings presents some dangerous problems. In times past, it was common, even necessary for older siblings to care for younger children. Granted children learn responsibility in childcare, but too much taking on parental roles means older siblings are surrogate parenting younger siblings. How much is too much childcare for minor children? Here’s a checklist to determine when babysitting siblings becomes unhealthy surrogate parenting.
Length of time in childcare. Expecting older children (under 18) to care for younger children while you work, or go out occasionally is healthy if it’s only for a few hours. Kids under nine can’t legally be left alone unsupervised at all. Kids under 12 can be left home alone for two hours at most. Kids 12 to 17 may be left home alone no more than 11 hours. It’s not clear what age caregiver constitutes “supervision” but presumably a minor doesn’t count. Children 9-12 shouldn’t babysit if they can’t even be left home alone. Kids over 12 can be left alone longer but not necessarily as caregivers for others. The best plan is not to have kids babysitting siblings longer than two hours if they are 12-13, 3-4 hours if they are 14-15 and eight hours if they are 16-17 and driving. They should also have access to parents for emergencies and a phone and transportation at all times.
Factors with kids babysitting siblings. One way kids babysitting siblings become surrogate parenting is with large families where older siblings are expected to help raise siblings. Families should not have children if they need older siblings to take on parental roles. Parent lifestyle choices -drug use, alcoholism, morbid obesity–factor dangerously into siblings surrogate parenting. Uncontrollable factors may force kids to help with parental duties–disability, death of parent, illness, mental health issues, parents working unusual schedules or long hours. As much as possible though, parents should be the primary caregivers of children.
Parental roles. A major warning sign that elder siblings are surrogate parenting is when they perform parental duties as much and even more than parents. Parental duties include dressing and bathing, getting children ready for school, discipline, pottying or diaper changing, after-school and evening childcare, cooking, major housework, feeding and putting kids to bed, transportation, walking kids to school, sleeping with younger siblings, getting up in the night with them, helping with homework, comforting children, taking them places, providing medical care, home repair, planning events, supervising activities. Older siblings may do a few of these, but they shouldn’t do them all the time. All children should be expected to help equally as they are able. Parents should be the ones mainly responsible. A child who performs several parental duties isn’t just babysitting, she’s surrogate parenting.
Psychological dangers. Older siblings surrogate parenting younger siblings is dangerous on many levels. It confuses both younger and older siblings. The younger children are aware that while the older sibling acts in parental roles and has parental duties, they are still kids themselves and lack the power to enforce rules. Younger children may take advantage of older siblings. Surrogate parenting pf siblings robs older children of their childhood. Taking parental roles makes them too busy to enjoy normal growing-up experiences agemates have. It may give them skewed self-concepts. Many will leave the nest as early as possible to escape. Or they may stay at home well into adulthood because they feel responsible to parents and siblings. If a surrogate parent is needed, it should be another adult, adult sibling or family member and never a child sibling.