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Children raising children: Should siblings babysit?

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When can tweens and teens care for younger children?

After almost 10 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 caregiving 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?

Study highlights teen caregiving

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 13 to 17 percent of children ages 13 to 19 act as caregivers to younger siblings for reasons other than social or entertainment events. Slightly more than 67 percent of sibling caregivers are girls. Of all the 737 teen and tween caregivers who participated in the study, more than 75 percent of them do so for an average of 14 hours a week — and almost 27 percent of them 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 effects

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 Steven Bridge, LCSW, MSW and family therapist 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 caregiver 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 able handle the pressure associated with the responsibility — plagues the parents of caregiving 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 17-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 babysit, 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," shares Schmidt.

Samantha Rae Glashaw, Schmidt's 19-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 caregivers and their younger sibling usually build a very strong foundation for the relationships they'll share as adults.

More on child care

How to find child care you can afford
Everything you need to know about sick child care
How I kept my nanny from ruining my kid

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