Finding a babysitter you trust is tough enough, but what if it’s your firstborn watching the kids? Experts explain how old big brother or sister should be to be in charge.

By Jennifer Benjamin/REALSIMPLE.COM
Jun 27, 2019 @ 9:00 am
Studio Firma/Stocksy

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Obviously, the idea of doing date night without also paying for a babysitter (or even figuring out how to find a babysitter) sounds like a sweet arrangement. But it only works if your older child is willing and able—a.k.a. of babysitting age—to take this big step. The age of readiness can vary widely; after all, have you decided at what age kids can stay home alone in your family? That milestone can often coincide with discovering how old you have to be to babysit.

“We never see as much developmental variation [again] as we do during the tween years, so it’s not consistent,” says Jennifer Powell-Lunder Psy.D, a clinical psychologist in Westchester, New York. “You can have an 11-year-old who is babysitting, while another 11-year-old still needs a babysitter. It’s so specific to the individual child and their own experience and their natural level of maturity.”

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While Dr. Powell-Lunder feels that 12 is about the right age, she points out that firstborn children with younger siblings tend to become more responsible at younger ages, and that tween girls tend to be about two years more mature than boys the same age. Just food for thought, but here are some other questions—think of it as your in-family babysitter checklist—you may want to consider before telling your oldest he or she is on babysitting duty.

Are all children on board?

While you might be ready for an opportunity to go shopping sans kiddos, you have to make sure your older child really wants this. Experts point out that kids are often put in that role without feeling confident enough to do it, so you need to have an honest conversation, without expectations. Consider asking your eldest, “How old do you have to be to babysit?” If he or she feels confident that they’re old enough to handle the responsibility, that’s a good sign.

“You have to ask them if they’re comfortable being left home alone and being responsible for their sibling or siblings. You don’t want to force it, or you’ll create a lot of chaos and anxiety—this isn’t a life skill they need, so don’t pressure them,” says Dr. Powell-Lunder. Even if they say they’re ready, you still have to ask yourself if they seem responsible enough. Are they forgetful or easily distracted? Maybe they’re not there yet. Are they attentive, on top of things, and mature? Then try it out.

You also need to think about how little sis is going to respond.

“The biggest problem I see is when the younger sibling[s] refuses to listen to the older one, so you need to make sure [all] kids are firm on allowing the authority of the older child,” says Dr. Powell-Lunder. If all are on the same page, the Red Cross offers babysitting courses for middle schoolers, which might help your child get even more prepared.

Where are you going?

When your child is ready to babysit the brood, make sure you start small. “You don’t want to just spring the responsibility on them, so start by running to a neighbor’s house for half an hour, or doing a quick errand,” Dr. Powell-Lunder suggests. “At younger ages, you can prep them with these small windows of time, and then they’ll be more prepared when you’re ready to have a date night.”

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What are the ground rules?

Just as you have instructions for a babysitter, you need to set firm boundaries and house rules for when your older child is minding the house. “It’s always helpful for families to keep a written copy of house rules in a centrally located place that a child can re-review with the younger sibling[s] when they’re in charge,” Dr. Powell-Lunder says. “It’s a good idea to review those house rules with all of the kids before going out, and that way you can clarify any questions about bedtimes, electronics, etc. so everyone is on the same page and the younger ones understand the expectations.” She also recommends agreeing to communicate periodically with text messages and updates.

Do you have a neighbor for backup?

It’s always a good idea to have a trustworthy neighbor or a familiar friend nearby that your child can call on if they need anything. Not only will it help make them feel more secure, but you’ll also have the peace of mind knowing another grown-up can get to them quickly if you’re not close to home.