In the Parenthood

Should a 14-year-old babysit her siblings overnight?

Posted by Lylah M. Alphonse  April 26, 2010 01:29 PM

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If you work during the day while your spouse works at night -- something my husband and I did for years -- what do you do for childcare if the parent on the day shift has to go out of town?

A reader wrote to me a few weeks ago, facing just that dilemma. The kids are 14, 12, 7, and 5. The mom, who works days, had to travel for a family emergency. She wanted the kids to stay with her mom, so her husband wouldn't have to take off from work. Her husband, who works nights, wanted the kids to be at home and had no problem with them being alone at night, since they'd be asleep.

What would you do?

While Massachusetts has no official law for how old a child has to be in order to stay home alone, the bare minimum legal age for nonagricultural work, including daytime babysitting, is 14, according to the Federal Department of Labor.  The National Safe Kids campaign recommends that children age 12 and younger NOT be left home alone for any length of time.

There's an online quiz you can take to help determine whether your child is ready to stay home alone. Each child is different, and each family is different, but when you add babysitting in to the equation, I think there are a few other key questions worth asking:

1.) Is there a family member or responsible adult nearby (within walking distance) who could help keep an eye on your kids? 

2.) Would you hire a 14-year-old babysitter -- not your own child --  to stay overnight with your younger kids? Many parents want an overnight babysitter to be able to drive, in case of emergency.

3.) What would your oldest child do in a major emergency (fire, burglar, etc), and how would she handle a smaller emergency (5-year-old choking, 7-year-old spiking a fever, 12-year old-cutting herself badly enough to require stitches)?

4.) Do the younger kids respect your oldest's authority? (When I was 14, my 13 and 11 year old brothers certainly didn't.)

5.) How does your 14-year-old handle peer pressure?

I came home from work one night, at age 18, while my parents were out of town, to find 75 of my 15-year-old brother's closest friends swarming my parents house. Actual conversation:

Friend of my brother: Uh, I wouldn't poke around the kitchen if I were you. Lylah came home early, and she's pretty angry.

Me: Who are you again?

Friend: I'm D.

Me: Hi, D. I'm Lylah.

Friend: (Runs out of the house.)

I used to work nights, so I understand that the temptation to leave older kids alone while they're sleeping. The problem is, what happens if something wakes them up? To me, it's not worth the risk.

Parents, what would you do? Is there a compromise that can be reached in this situation?

Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at lalphonse@globe.com and follow her on Twitter @WriteEditRepeat. April is Autism Awareness Month; you can read her posts about autism here.

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36 comments so far...
  1. "Many parents want an overnight babysitter to be able to drive, in case of emergency."

    In case of an emergency, wouldn't you just want the sitter to call 911?

    Posted by ajr April 26, 10 02:57 PM
  1. Thanks for your comment, ajr. Just having the sitter call 911 was OK back when everyone used land lines only. Now, though, with cell phones and Voice-over-IP services (like Vonage), if you call 911 the people who answer might not know where to find you. When you call 911 from a land line, emergency responders can trace the call to a specific location, even if you're not able to talk. Not so with a cell phone or phone service that's routed through an internet provider -- those calls can be sent to a regional office, not your local 911 operator, or they can be traced to the cell phone tower nearest you, but not necessarily your actual location.

    Also, depending on where you are, it may take less time to drive to the hospital than to call 911 and wait for help. -- LMA

    Posted by Lylah M. Alphonse Author Profile Page April 26, 10 03:10 PM
  1. I think it really depends on the situation. I leave my kids, 10 and 8, at home alone for an hour or two, but there are always multiple neighbors who they know well at home, and I am confident that they would respond appropriately in an emergency. I'm not yet ready to leave them alone at night, and don't foresee leaving them home alone overnight until the younger is at least 14, and even then it would have to be a real emergency where I couldn't find a friend or relative to stay with them.

    ajr - there are plenty of 'emergencies' (injury, illness) where a child would need to be transported to a doctor or emergency room but a ride in an ambulance is unnecessary.

    Posted by akmom April 26, 10 03:13 PM
  1. I would never leave my kids at home by themselves. Liked Lylah said.. what if "something' wakes them up. Not worth the risk. I will always leave my kid with an adult supervision "even" if they are sleeping.

    Posted by FH April 26, 10 03:18 PM
  1. When I was 12, my parents started leaving me overnight with my two sisters who were 10 and 5 at the time. They were not working, they were out partying and would frequently arrive home when we were getting up in the morning. To this day, I still wonder what the heck they were thinking and what I would have done in an emergency. My town did not have 911 back then so I guess I would've called the police, but a 12-year-old should not have to worry about things like that.

    Posted by carbs April 26, 10 03:37 PM
  1. It really depends on the 14 year old.

    One possibility to cover the emergency portion is to have him/her take the American Red Cross Babysitter training course, which covers First Aid and CPR and is designed for that age group. I was trained at age 14, before I started babysitting (My first overnight wasn't until I was 16).

    In this specific case, why not compromise and have the grandmother stay in the kid's home with them? They then have an adult present (which is what mom wants) and are in their own home (which is what dad wants)? Or have the grandmother check in on them, at least by phone, every few hours?

    Posted by Mia April 26, 10 03:50 PM
  1. I thought about leaving my kids age 14 and 10 home for a couple of hours from 4AM - my husband got home at 7AM while they were sleeping so I could stand in line to get them into summer camp. I didn't feel right about doing it and am so glad to this day that I didn't.
    We ended up having a fire, I woke up, neither of my children woke up with the smoke alarm. It will be a long time before I attempt anything like that again. If I had left them, I don't know that they would have woke up at all. I shiver thinking about it.

    Posted by cqb April 26, 10 04:01 PM
  1. If you've gotta ask if it's OK, then it's not.

    Posted by iast8r April 26, 10 04:04 PM
  1. cqb, I'm so glad everything ended up OK! -- LMA

    Posted by Lylah M. Alphonse Author Profile Page April 26, 10 04:32 PM
  1. I wouldn't leave my VERY responsible 16 year old home with my 10 year old son. He has high-functioning Aspergers, but that's beside the point. Call me overprotective... but I agree.that if you have to ask, it's not OK.

    Posted by smbrooks1 April 26, 10 11:06 PM
  1. All the "what-ifs" are calculated risks...

    As a general rule, I think we don't expect enough out of kids these days.

    BUT...The thing that sticks out most to be is the number of children, 4 children is too many kids to leave unattended.

    Posted by Ananonymous April 26, 10 11:34 PM
  1. If you're considering leaving your 14-year-old in charge, then you must think she is responsible and mature. Involve her in the decision, and make it clear that she is under no obligation to go it alone. Involve your younger children too, and make it clear to them that if their older sister is to take care of them overnight, then she is in charge just as surely as if she was any other adult tasked with their care.

    Posted by MNGrad April 27, 10 02:30 AM
  1. I have really responsible kids, age 17 and 12 and then a four year old(not responsible ) I would leave the seventeen and twelve alone if I had to ( I also work shifts evening and night) but never with the four year old, they are not tuned in to nightmares and sleepwalking....God forbid anything happens...those are your most precious responsibilities , thats what family and friends are for...

    Posted by finnsmum April 27, 10 02:59 AM
  1. I would not do it. The benefit does not justify the risk, especially if a grandmother is willing and available. That is a lot of pressure to put on a 14 year-old, even the most mature one. It is hard for me to imagine my children at ages 5 and 7 being able to fall asleep in the care of their older siblings.

    Posted by DonnaD April 27, 10 07:51 AM
  1. A 14 year-old in charge of 3 other kids (including one as young as 5) overnight? Um, absolutely not. Particularly because they are siblings. I think it's a lot harder for a 14 year-old to manage a younger sibling than a child who is not related. Naturally, it depends a lot on the personalities of the children, but this is not an arrangement with which I would be comfortable.

    Posted by JKR April 27, 10 09:09 AM
  1. The 911 response (#2) makes a pile of assumptions and also just passes on things that are untrue. Also, 911 response time is a few minutes in pretty much any urban or suburban location. Are you going to tell me that a 16 year old could get two or three kids into a car (safely) and make it to the nearest hospital in the middle of the night faster than a few minutes? I'd rather have the (likely) panicky and entirely freaked out 16 year old who just started driving call 911 and wait for the professionals to show up.

    1) The parents in question may still have a land line, rendering the remainder moot. Or a neighbor might. Or a sheet of paper next to the phone could clearly state the address and phone number that could be read to the emergency responders. Or a phone can be connected to the land line --any phone must be able to call 911, you don't need to pay for service on it.

    2) Many cell phones have a GPS or other technology for E911 use.

    Reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enhanced_911#Wireless_Enhanced_911

    3) VOIP services support E911, to some extent. When we had Vonage, we had oue emergency information on file so that it would work with E911.

    Reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enhanced_911#VoIP_Enhanced_911

    Posted by j April 27, 10 09:19 AM
  1. I used to babysit the neighborhood kids when I was 11 years old! And they paid me too. Sounds kinda crazy now but its true. I think if they are a responsible 14 year old I absolutely would. I know I was very mature for my age when I was younger. I think some people would be suprised at what their kids can handle and should give them more credit.

    Posted by cj66 April 27, 10 09:27 AM
  1. It's not the 14 year-old's responsibility to be the parent and an overnight at that age, for that many siblings is asking for problems. They didn't mention in the original question if it was on a weekend or a school night, but both bring up a separate set of issues. Bottom line, the husband or the grandmother (or a paid ADULT sitter) needs to be there in case of emergency, illness, or sibling quarrels. I agree, if you have to ask, then you know it's not right.

    Posted by HelenL April 27, 10 09:28 AM
  1. Thanks for your reply, J. Not everyone lives in an urban or suburban area, not all suburban areas have great cell phone coverage, not everyone keeps their emergency info on file with their VoIP provider, and a surprising number of people don't have landlines anymore. Also: the "untrue" points in my earlier comment came from the FCC: http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/wireless911srvc.html (you know anyone can edit a Wiki page, right?)

    Yes, if the parents are prepared and the sitter is mature and calm, calling 911 from a cell phone is just fine. And while a 16 year old may be freaked out and panicky about driving to the hospital, an older babysitter -- they exist! Ours is a preschool teacher... which is to say, not 16 -- would probably be fine. Remember, this post is about babysitting overnight for several days... we're not talking about a a babysitting situation where the parents are at the movies for a couple of hours. -- LMA

    Posted by Lylah M. Alphonse Author Profile Page April 27, 10 09:36 AM
  1. If it was just the 14 year old, or maybe the 14 and 12 year olds, I would consider it. But 4 kids? Even if there were no fire/blood related emergencies, it's just a lot for a 14 year old to manage. Sibling fights and "You're not the boss of me!" type stuff would just make it an unpleasant experience.

    Posted by bms April 27, 10 09:47 AM
  1. No.

    Posted by Peter April 27, 10 10:38 AM
  1. 1. Don't get rid of the lan line phone. Use that phone as the 911 phone only.
    2.Tell your husband you would feel extremely more comfortable if an adult relative was there while he was working.
    3.If there are babysitting classes available send the 2 oldest siblings.
    4.Get to know who your neighbors are especially the ones with children and see if you can get their number and make it available to the children so if there is an emergency an adult can quickly get to them and help them.

    Posted by Carol J Sheehan April 27, 10 10:53 AM
  1. NEVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    You could leave the 14 and 12 year old alone overnight if they are not the agrevating to each other type of siblings. But never a 7 and 5 year old without an adult in the house overnight.

    These parents are irresponsible.

    Posted by Cheryl Stone April 27, 10 11:26 AM
  1. I am a mom of 2 five year olds and when my husband is out of town I sometimes have a hard time sleeping in our big house alone. (And some of my girlfriends have told me the same thing!). You know that your mind plays tricks on you, especially at night. This is too much responsibility for any child/teenager.

    Posted by LTC April 27, 10 12:19 PM
  1. I think that is a ridiculous amount of responsibility to place on a 14 year old even if that child is particularly mature. Of course you hope everything will be fine, but what if there is an emergency? Do you really want 14 year old making critical decisions under pressure about much younger children? I have a brother nearly 20 years younger than I am, who is 14 and a freshman in High School this year. Of course he is okay on his own for a few hours during the day, but if our parents are away over night either my sister or I go to stay with him, or he stays with a grandparent, aunt, etc. His ability to be alone aside, even though he'd never admit it, I very much doubt that he would sleep well alone in the house. I'm sure that uneasiness would be compounded if he was also responsible for younger siblings.

    Posted by Meg April 27, 10 12:19 PM
  1. For practical purposes, I really think one of the kids should be able to drive if you are going to leave them home alone overnight. Beyond that, maturity is the key. Do they know what to do if one of them gets sick? Scared? If they hear noises? Are you sure they will go to bed and not watch movies all night (and is that important)? How do they get along? Will one torment the other with horror movies?

    That said, I have worked nights and I do understand what this father is saying...you are basically leaving them home alone for a shift of your work. Is it really any different than leaving them home during the day alone?

    I'd say the answer to that is yes. Nighttime is scary...for everyone. I am a pediatric nurse and one of my night jobs is answering phones for pediatrician's offices and giving advice. I can't tell you how many calls we get from parents who are nervous just because its nighttime and everything, even a simple fever you would brush off during the day, drives people to panic at night.

    Leaving kids home alone, especially teenagers, is another issue. You simply have to be prepared for whatever might happen in your absence. Doesn't mean anything is going to happen, but you do need to understand there might be things going on you don't want to.


    Posted by ash April 27, 10 12:24 PM
  1. I think it's unfair to ask a 14 year old to assume that responsibility. Even if they were willing, if there was an accident/emergency would you want them to have to live with that for the rest of their lives? Wait until they're old enough to really understand what they're agreeing too!

    Posted by Jenn April 27, 10 12:36 PM
  1. My parents left me home alone with my brother from the time I was 8 and he was 5, every afternoon for several hours (between school and when they got home from work). I don't think they ever left us overnight, but they could have. We might not have gone to bed on time, but other than that, we wouldn't have gotten in any trouble. Worst thing we ever did while home alone was to bake cookies (successfully, even cleaned up after ourselves so as not to get caught) and watch television.

    We were responsible children. We would never have thought of doing something destructive (either to the house or ourselves), partially because our parents trusted us. It was a two way street. We were trusted, therefore we were trustworthy, and vice versa.

    That being said, it seems there are several simple solutions to this problem: Have the night-work parent stay home from work for a few days while the day-work parent is out of town. Have the day-work parent bring the kids with them on the trip. Hire a babysitter for the night (if you have a guest room for them). Ask a relative to stay the night. Or...send the kids to friends' houses for the night.

    Posted by abcdefgh April 27, 10 01:03 PM
  1. I think it is okay if the 14 (and maybe the 12 year old too) are being paid as babysitters. I used to babysit 2 neighborhood kids younger than me overnight when I was 14 and I never had any issues. However, I think resentment would grow if I had to babysit siblings without getting paid!

    On the other hand, PLEASE make sure you set boundaries with your children. My parents left the 4 of us home alone with my brothers in charge -- 2 boys and 2 girls. I was the youngest -- 8 years younger than my oldest brother. I can tell you my sister and I went through hell with my brothers in charge sometimes. They would make us fight with each other -- literally fist fights. They would make me eat disgusting things like horseradish. I was touched inappropriately on occassion as well. Then I was told never to tell which I still haven't to this day. So... in sum... please make sure to set rules!!

    Posted by JJ April 27, 10 01:32 PM
  1. I see the 12 and 14 needing to be working as a team. I know they would be sleeping, but if these two don't respect each other, or aren't very mature, it probably isn't a good idea.
    If you have the option of having them stay elsewhere, or someone to stay with them, that would be best.

    Posted by lala April 27, 10 02:13 PM
  1. Personal experience: 25 year old in charge of younger siblings while parents away. 14 year old wanted sleepover, just a couple of friends. BUT word got around school that parents were out of town. Pajama party for four 14 year old girls crashed by multiple highschoolers with booze ... it was out of control in minutes. Had to call police.

    The fact that it became known that the parents would not be there caused the problem.

    Think about it.

    Posted by justathought April 27, 10 02:15 PM
  1. Yikes JJ -- you realize at this point that your brothers abused you and your sister, right? Not just the "inappropriate touching" (in other words, molestation) but also the forced fights. Boundaries won't make an abuser act appropriately. So I am sorry that all happened to you. And I really hope you understand that what you describe has nothing to do with lack of boundaries: your brothers were abusers. Setting boundaries with abusers won't help.

    So I suppose that brings up a critical point in all this: you have to know your children very, very well to even consider something like this.

    Posted by jlen April 27, 10 03:37 PM
  1. If you are asking one kid to parent the other kid overnight at the age of 14 then you are inviting trouble. Take some of the dual income and hire a responsible baby sitter. Don't let your busy important schedule give you the false confidence that everyone in your family can multitask because evidence shows that you can't if you are asking the question, what makes you think your 14 yr old can.

    Posted by jigscasey April 27, 10 03:55 PM
  1. They shouldn't be left home to babysit or by themselves until they are legal adults and then that is questionable becaue they are teens and could have a party at the house while you are out. It all depends on the child but definitely not until they are at least 18

    Posted by Nicole April 27, 10 05:10 PM
  1. i wouldn't let 14 year old babysit my babies because he/ she may not care what the baby doing

    Posted by farxiyo June 20, 10 04:58 PM
  1. my son age 12 was very upset that I would not leave him for the weekend at his dad's with his 16 year old half sister while his dad was away for the weekend.

    They are responsible but I would rather be safe then sorry. A sibling that is not a paid babysitter can tend to be very lax..over bosy and not always pay attention to details. I feel that it is not the older sibling responsibility to take on the roles of adults!

    Posted by Wendy July 15, 10 08:38 PM
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about the author

Lylah M. Alphonse
Lylah M. Alphonse is a member of the Globe Magazine staff and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling a full-time career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day, and about everything else at Write. Edit. Repeat. When she's not glued to the computer or solving a kid-related crisis, she's in the kitchen or, occasionally, asleep.

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