After almost ten years as a stay at home mom, Tenna Perry found herself in the unexpected position of returning to work. Needing to find reliable and safe, yet inexpensive child care for her two younger children, Perry, like countless parents today, needed to rely on her oldest child. "Even though she hated the idea, my 17-year-old needed to step up to the plate," says Perry, a Porter, Texas mother of three.

Unexpected financial burden, illness, and divorce are just a few of the circumstances surrounding the need for older children to care for their younger siblings. While many responsibility thirsty teens and tweens crave the chance to demonstrate their babysitting prowess, having to routinely care for a younger brother or sister stirs a bag of mixed emotions.

Should older children be expected to 'pitch in' and care for their younger siblings? Do care giving siblings deserve compensation, or is their contribution expected as part of their family responsibilities? How does having one child care for another impact the family dynamics and the relationships of the children?

A 2004 study conducted by graduate research students at Northwestern University highlighted a few interesting facts about children who care for their younger siblings. An estimated thirteen to seventeen percent of children ages thirteen to nineteen act as care givers to younger siblings for reasons other than social or entertainment events. Slightly more than sixty seven percent of sibling caregivers are girls. Of all the 737 teen and tween care givers who participated in the study, more than seventy five percent of them do so for an average of fourteen hours a week and almost twenty seven percent of are expected to prepare and serve meals, help with homework and tuck younger sibling into bed during the week. "It was most interesting to see the significant difference in the number of hours that girls are left to care for their siblings versus boys," noted Carinna Inuyde-Johnston in the study.

Understanding the affects
Health care experts have begun focusing on the impact of giving a child too much responsibility or assigning responsibility before a child is mature enough to handle it. Some children do not function well under pressure while others may not be mature enough to temper the inclination to boss around a younger sibling. "The child's personality and nature has a lot to do with how he or she will handle this experience," says Family Therapist, Steven Bridge, LCSW, MSW of South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania,

A naturally bossy child might need occasional reminders of the difference between being 'Boss' and being 'In charge'. "It can be tough for teens to transition back and forth from being a child when their parents are home, to being the care giver and responsible party when they're 'in charge'," Bridge adds.

A parent's point of view
There are a range of emotions that correspond with the decision to leave children home together. Fear that they will fight or be scared, worry over what they'll eat and how they'll be entertained, and massive amounts of parental guilt top the list of many in this situation.

"I would always feel guilty if my older daughter was missing out on a social event with peers," shares mother of three, April Lee Schmidt of Moundville, Alabama who also relied on her oldest for child care. Seemingly the most compelling emotion tied to leaving older children in charge, guilt that they'll resent the responsibility, are not able to enjoy a 'normal' childhood, or handle the pressure associated with the responsibility plagues the parents of care giving teens.

Worrying how the responsibility and pressure affects all of the children fuels a parent's conflicting emotions. "While I don't feel it is completely fair to my seventeen year old, I also don't feel it is fair to my younger children that just because of their age, they do not have equal responsibility," Perry notes.

What the teens think
Many teens in this situation often question what they are going to get out of caring for their siblings. Questions such as 'How much am I going to paid?' and 'Can I use the car if I watch them?' are frequently presented to parents requiring the child care assistance of an older child.

Adding to the fray is the potential for resentment for the need to 'act like an adult' or 'miss out on what their friends are doing'. While many older children do demonstrate varying levels of resentment, most do not exhibit any more resentment for caring for a sibling than they do for taking out the trash or performing other routine chores. "Although she does resent helping out, if I mention hiring someone to baby-sit, the thought of her losing out on the income sits even worse with her," shares Perry.

In some cases, teens and tweens relish the chance to be granted responsibility or to shower a younger child with attention for structured periods of time. "The older she got my daughter would suggest my husband and I go out to dinner and offer to care for her siblings," effuses Schmidt.

Samantha Rae Glashaw, Schmidt's nineteen year old daughter adds, "Honestly, it always felt really natural to take care of my siblings. I never resented the responsibility because I enjoyed it so much."

"I think the most negative aspect of it is that my brother sees me more in a maternal/authoritative role and even so, I wouldn't really classify that as negative," Glashaw adds. By participating in a variety of aspects as they are growing up, teen care givers and their younger sibling usually build a very strong foundation for the relationships they'll share as adults.

Comments

Comments on "Children raising children: Should siblings babysit?"

Amber February 17, 2014 | 1:58 PM

I think there is a right way and a wrong way to this. Like many of the other posters here, I was a teenager who was in charge of the household and my siblings (2, 7, and 10 years younger than me.) I changed diapers, prepped bottles, cooked dinners, did laundry, washed dishes, and (once I turned 16) ran errands. My responsibilities started when I was 8 then gradually increased until I was home six nights a week manning the house. My mom worked second shift 4 nights a week, then went to pool league twice a week. I moved out at 18 and when I told my mom she asked me "Who's going to watch the girls?" I said "I dunno, their mother?" She was not happy with me. Then I reminded her my (at the time) 16 year old sister could do it, which she wasn't thrilled about. She too moved out at 18 and now my youngest sisters are latch key kids, which my mom despises. I love my mom and I understand when you make $14 an hour you can't afford full time care, but I didn't have much of a childhood. I couldn't go on many sleepovers, or join a sport, or even church youth group. My grades in high school were alright but could've been better. It was hard to make and keep friends because I couldn't go out or have friends over if I was in charge. Point blank, it sucked. Things happen, spouses die, or divorce, or whatever but parents please do all you can to avoid this scenario. At least compensate your children, if nothing else. All children deserve a childhood. If I wanted to take care of three kids, I would've had three kids.

Lily February 10, 2014 | 9:29 AM

I'm 15-years-old and have 2 little sisters and an older brother. I always have to watch the youngest, she's only one, because I'm the girl. I even had to get home schooled because both of my parents have full times jobs and they don't like they're kids being taken care of by people not in the family. My youngest sister even calls me mommy. I love to take care of my little sister, but 8 hours 4 days a week is getting really tiring. The worst part is that I don't even get paid.

Melissa Sammy December 31, 2013 | 3:58 PM

When I was about 8 years old, I started really taking care of my siblings, and I mean: watch, clean, feed, bathe, put to sleep, etc. My father worked night shift and my mother worked the day shift, and there was no babysitter, so I had to step up and take care of my brothers and sisters. Some people have no idea what it is like trying to take care of a 7 year old, a 3 year old, and a 1 year old at only 8 years of age. I feel like I didn't have a childhood and, while I resent that, it has instilled me with a maturity and sense of responsibility that I have today. The only thing that I really hate is that, now that my siblings are older in their teens, they are so disrespectful towards me. They forget that I was the one who fed them, changed their diapers, and wiped their ass when they were younger.

Karra December 17, 2013 | 11:10 AM

I am 23 years old. I have a 6 year old sister and 8 year old brother. When I was younger, my mom separated and we were on our own. I did everything for my other siblings, cooked for them everynight, we walked each other home from school, rode bikes to school, never missed a beat. Taken care of everything on our own. My mom went away for work, and only comes home occasionally now. Her boyfriend, father of my youngest sister and brother takes full time care of them, but is very busy. I ended up being a FT nanny for 8 months last year, before I decided it was pretty over the top for a single female to spend her life taking care of someone elses children. I also worked a full time job, and relied on before and after school child care for when I was at work. Since I quit, I get called on occasionally in times of need. I work 30min away from where my siblings go to school, but get called 2-3 times a week in times of "emergency" when their Dad gets busy at work and cant take them. I started taking them out every Wednesday, thinking one day of my week would be enough to donate to take some of the pressure off of their Dad while my Mom was gone. Wednesdays are pretty good, but slowly turned into more "needing me" and me being "guilty" for having to say no. I never say NO. The guilt is too much for me. So even when I have important plans or an agenda, I constantly have to cancel so that I can go be busy handling somebody elses life. I can't leave my job, so I can't move. But as soon as I can, I will quit my job and move far away from here. I'm going to die inside, feeling like I'm abandoning my siblings, but I just cant keep living my life like this. I miss appointments, lessons, meetings, work etc - just to make up for where somebody else is slacking off.. my Mom. This is a message to parents - don't let your children live their lives like this, and if you do - make sure that you understand just what you have made them sacrafice from their own lives. Understand that your decisions have a direct effect on your children, and it could possibly be a very negative situation where your children are feeling a lot of guilt. I feel so horrible about it all. I hate living like this.

Carolyn December 03, 2013 | 11:41 AM

As the oldest child of 4, I was forced to parent my younger siblings. Twin girls, and then my baby brother. I always felt like I didn't have any childhood, and I resented that I was being forced to parent children that weren't my own. Yes, I felt a responsibility towards them.. I mean, if I didn't feed them or change their diapers, it just didn't get done. So I would stack up boxes on top of chairs to reach the cabinets at 5, 6, 7 years old to feed myself and my siblings. My father worked nights, and was unavailable to parent. And my mother chose to lock herself away in her room for days at a time. I wasn't given the option whether I'd like to watch my siblings, it was thrust upon me. My aunts, uncles and other family friends all remember instances where we went to visit such and such family member and I was required to care for and entertain my siblings while my mother chit-chatted and visited with our family members. They remember my mother seeing me sitting with a book and literally SCREAMING at me to put that book down and watch my siblings. Why was it MY responsibility to raise her children? If she didn't want to parent or raise us, she shouldn't have even had us. Or at the very least, should have hired a nanny instead of making me into a virtual slave. I did the laundry. I did the sweeping. I did the dishes. I cooked the meals. I taught them how to ride bikes, tie their shoes and use the toilet. I changed diapers and made bottles and brushed their hair and teeth. I got them up for school in the mornings and packed their lunches. I gathered them off the bus and helped them with their homework. How is any of that my responsibility? I'm not the parent. It still angers me to know that I missed out on sleep overs and after school activities and even the simple activity of reading a book was robbed of me. Eventually, I was taken into foster care due to physical and ual abuses that were happening to me. I was removed for 3-6 months at a time, and then put right back into my mother's "loving" arms. Where it would happen over and over again. Eventually in my mid teens, I was made a ward of the state and removed from her care for good. My siblings were all of the age where they could pretty much care for themselves at that point. My mother still contends to this day that she did nothing wrong. That I "made a big deal" out of it. That it was perfectly normal. That there was never any abuse or neglect of any kind and that she's a wonderful parent who deserves accolades for dealing with 4 children... smh Some people don't deserve to have children. You have to get a license to drive a car, or even to catch a fish.. But any idiot who spreads their legs can be a parent.

Gertrude October 16, 2013 | 10:35 AM

Taking care of younger siblings can be a life long problem. My sister, 78, has never recovered from having to help raise her siblings. She doesn't particularly like children, was not an attentive mother (one child) and has to be reminded to notice her grandchildren. She frequently tells us that we (her siblings) should be grateful that she looked after us. Even at this age she doesn't seem to grasp that we were children too and had nothing to do with her being required to help care for us. Does anyone else have this problem?

Maggie August 19, 2013 | 12:43 PM

Wow, this bring back so many difficult memories. Dad worked all the time, Mom decided to go back to college when I was in elementary school. During that time she went at night - so Dad had to step in after working all day - not a good situation.... onto Junior High... at 11 years old I was responsible for the housework, cooking most of the meals, taking care of my younger brother - who by all accounts was the anointed prince of the family - the only male grandchild on my Dad's side, the only smart one, etc. etc. etc.... I was much too young for this amount of responsibility and when my dad starting having serious heart problems things just went downhill fast (some of which I was blamed for - I can to this day remember my mother telling me it was my fault that Dad was in the hospital). My job was to take care of the stuff at home while Mom was taking care of Dad and going to school... little brother had no responsibilities and was a spoiled brat - but somehow nothing was ever his fault. Fast forward a couple of years, little brother got to do all kinds of scouting activities, was sent to a private school - he was the smart one, went to confidence building courses. Between doing the chores at home and going to public school, there was no time to have outside activities - it was patently unfair to expect that of a teenager and then spoil the one who has no responsibilities based upon gender models - he's the boy - boys get to do that stuff - girls don't.... Dad put everything he had into getting little brother into a service academy and little brother was selected... I was attending college working on a BFA at a local school - I guess I was supposed to be there to get my "MRS." degree... Little brother decided he couldn't hack it and dropped out - that's when I got the phone call from the parents saying - we can't afford to pay for your college - we have to pay for your brother's education... so, he went to a prestigious technical university, was provided a car, an apartment, and living expenses - after he blew a full ride at a service academy... I joined the military and just about never looked back - still keep my distance. Bitter - yes, still have problems getting along with my younger brother and we are in our 50s - because he still acts like he's entitled to do/say/be whatever he wants - no matter who it hurts. Its always all about him. My blood pressure goes through the roof at the mention of a visit from him. Mom just want's us to "get along." My take on it is that he got lots and I got the left overs. I'm still trying to get my head screwed on straight over all this crap. Please don't do this to your kids - treat them as fairly as you can - don't compare them - just love them.

Jyl August 02, 2013 | 12:16 AM

It is not fair to the children, not the older one watching and not the younger ones being watched. The bottom line is that if you want children then it is your responsibility to raise them. Period. The whole argument about family duty is ridiculous.There is no similar duty for the younger children, it's a simple case of responsibility vs. privilege. Whom so ever egg drops last wins. Your older children are not your automatic child care, it robs them of their youth in ways that they can't even fully recognize until later. Your younger children are YOUR children. If you chose to have them (or were just surprised) then they are your responsibility to raise. Expecting your 16 year old to constantly provide child care is the same as permitting your children to be raised by a teenage parent. It isn't fair to the babies, they deserve their parents, not a stressed teen. There is a difference between being raised and being taken care of. If you are not ready to raise your children, don't have them.

Lorenzo June 13, 2013 | 8:45 PM

Hello, I am a 17 year old guy who's living the same situation! And it's hell!! Well, through my four years of high school I had to take care of my little brothers! I couldn't do any after school activities. For instance, At the beginning of my junior year I decided to get involved in school since that helps a lot when applying for college so I joined this technology Club because am a computer guy. Well so I went to the first meeting and i really liked. But the my mom without having a job! Calls halfway through that meeting and that she needs help and tries To persuade me to just go home so I could take care of her son!!!! Not Mine!!!!! I mean am their brother not their parents. Well so my never directly said to live the club but she always said " don't stay after school because I need help with Eury( my 5 year old brother)" so I have a thing that I let my parents manipulate me. There were many ocations Like that one through my high school years. I couldn't enjoy hanging out with "friends" cuz of my little brothers. At the moment I am in college and am part time student for now and don't have job but am trying to find one. I just need help and advice because I don't want to end up taking care of them my whole life. So Please help!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Liz December 15, 2012 | 2:33 PM

When I was little I was left alone with my sister most evenings. Her friends would often come over and although most of them were ok and just ignored me, there were a couple who really weren't ok. I love my parents dearly but I don't have as strong a bond with them as most people I know have with their parents. Now, at high school, I am constantly the victim of intimidation and bullying from older boys at my school and I feel unable to connect with my parents enough to tell them. I don't like being in the house with my sister's male friends. Every night still I come home from school to an empty house -- my sister at uni, my parents working late -- and I am responsible for our dog, my homework, my music practice and my evening meal. Interestingly though, one of the boys who picks on me at school was left with a babysitter a fair bit while his parents worked late shifts when he was younger and although it is not an excuse at all, as his family are such lovely people, to him and everyone they meet, I still feel there is something I understand, sort of a connection which makes it easier for me to take the bullying. It's had an effect on me, and although I don't know about my sister, I figure it has probably had an effect on her too.

Megan October 16, 2012 | 8:31 PM

** I should note that I only helped out in this way if my parents were working, if my father was home but had just worked a double (I watched the kids so he could rest), and once in awhile for the occasional wedding, party, etc... **

Meg October 16, 2012 | 8:28 PM

It seems like most people on here think this is not something that should be done, but for most of you who are watching/have watched siblings, please tell me: is it because the parents are at work? Many of you seem to indicate that they are doing nothing, which is apalling - no child should have to watch siblings so that the parents can enjoy their lives free of worry about kids. That is child abuse. But for parents to rely on older kids to care for younger kids - seems perfectly fine to me. I'm the oldest of 6 and I helped out in this way for years. I was of course NEVER paid - I have always looked at it from this perspective: my mother wasn't paid to do laundry or cook, and my father wasn't paid to fix our toilet or vacuum - etc., etc....so why should they pay me for doing what the family needed to function properly? Was I not part of the family too? I complained sometimes, but when I look back now (I am in my thirties) I am thankful my parents trusted me & gave me the opportunity to assist the family in this way. I felt good about contributing to my family, and my parents never abused the privilege of having me available.

James July 31, 2012 | 11:03 AM

I agree with many of these comments. I come from a separated Irish family, and my sister and later myself were forced to watch our younger siblings for hours at a time. Sometimes for periods extending 10 hours. We didn't get to go out after school, we didn't know when our parents were coming home. We didn't get to enjoy our childhoods or express our will for independence. The majority of these babysitting sessions were unpaid. What's more, around 16, my parents, would complain that I didn't get a job in my free time. The effect? Strained relationship with siblings (after all they aren't your siblings, they're work), absolutely no desire to raise kids of our own (After all, we already raised kids once...why do it again?), and a lot of resentment to our parents. Use condoms if you don't want to raise your kids. It's selfish, lazy, and I have no sympathy for parents who do that.

Alyssa July 09, 2012 | 1:26 PM

So im a middle child , i hate being one ! My mom expects me to do everything , then my baby brother came along . I had to take care of him everyday , i make his milk . WTF ? Your the mom not me , why would you even get another child if you wouldnt take care of it ?!?!!! After all of dat you still have dah nerve to call yourself a mom !! ????????

H February 03, 2012 | 9:13 PM

This is from A person who was raised by kids.Its hard on both the younger and older siblings. The older kids get taken advantage of 9/10 and misused . It creates problems were the oldest child's freedom,priorities and childhood getting robbed somewhat. The youngest lacks on a certain connection with the parents. This causes problems for the youngest growth and learning. Kids can't necessarily teach the lessons and carry them out the way Parents/Adults do. DONT MISUSE your KIDs!! If they baby sit make sure you give them a proper way that it should Not feel/be like this.

CLARE December 31, 2011 | 1:36 AM

Parents must NEVER expect the older child to care for the younger. I had the same problem , my mum delivered my only brother at an olde4r age and was constantly feeling tired so she shoved all the jobs to me- washing bottles , watching baby, hanging out the nappies and in spite of that never ceased to scream at me for not doing things fast enough. Who chose to give birth? Mum and dad. Who had the ? Mum and dad, so why was I the one who became the victim? Even up to this age they expect me to give my brother monthly allowance, pay for his ecucation and and chauffeur him around to university. What the hell..... he's not my son! I missed out lots of fun during my younger years because of my brother. When my brother fell and broke his arm, mum screamed at me. When he swallowed a fish bone, she screamed at me. when he did badly at exams she blamed me for not tutoring him. It was never my fault, but she always pointed the finger at me because I was older. Probably when my brother dies someday, she'll blame me too.Never have a second child if you expect the eldest to carry all the burdens for you. My happy life ended the day my parents chose to have a second child and I will probably carry this grudge for eternity.

Christine December 10, 2011 | 11:57 AM

I am a single Mom of 3 precious girls 12; 5 & 4. I have been separated almost 9 months. My ex & I have had our share of problems, but mostly because of his alcoholism & addiction. I stood by his side for the first 7 years of our marriage, 6 re-habs, 2 DUI's, & so on. He cleaned up for awhile, only to fall off the wagon once again. Things eventually got real ugly. The amount of emotional, mental & sometimes physical abuse was overwhelming for us all. My 12 year old is awesome. She has taken on the role of 2nd parent. Of course not by my choice, but she is happier this way than having her abusive father in the house. I feel horrible for her not being able to do after school activities & so on. She struggles in school. She is smart, but has missing assignments, she cares for her sisters after school everyday. I work retail, crazy hours. Although she does not mind, I feel she is losing out on so much. I pray everyday for a "regular" 9-5 job so that I can serve a "real" family dinner, help my girls with their homework, read stories to them before bed. My oldest does everything from feeding them to bathing them. She is such a blessing. So to all you parents out there, let your kids be kids if you can. Once in awhile to sit so you can go out, fine. But my family doesn't have that choice. God Bless all you single Moms & Dads & all your kids.

Jody October 23, 2011 | 2:18 PM

My neighbor has three girls, the oldest is 10. She recently had twin boys. The 10 year old is constantly having to look after the boys so mom can have a break. The mother never seems to want to care for her own children. I am betting this 10 year old girl has been babysitting since her younger sister was born. They are five years apart. I think it robs a child of their right to a childhood. It may also make a child resentful and not want children when they grow up because they are sick of the responsibility.

Ali September 01, 2011 | 8:49 AM

I agree with Loli. Please, please don't do that to your children! I was put in charge of my five younger siblings when I was 17, and it made my life a nightmare. I went from being a 4.0 AP student to barely passing classes. I rarely, if ever, went out with friends, and I had to quit all my after-school sports and clubs I was involved with. I was anxious and depressed, and my younger siblings suffered, too. They deserved a caretaker who devote not only their time, but their energy to them, something I just couldn't do. Children need a parent's support at any age. It's not right to leave that responsibility on the shoulders of a child.

harrisonesl November 18, 2010 | 11:51 AM

I disagree because kids don't need to be paid when they're babysitting their siblings. When i was eight i had to take care of my sister when my mom went to work. I kept following her to not throw anything in my grandma's house. I was geting boring because my sister didn't throw anything.My mom came home to pick us up. I told my mom that I was hungry. Then my mom said I couldn't eat because my sister if she wasn't throwing anything from my grandma's house. Then we came home. My mom made food then she said I can't still eat because I had to take care of my sister if she isn't throwing anything again.

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