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Many of us remember babysitting gigs as a teenager. For some, it might have been our first job—and representative of our first moments of autonomy and freedom. In fact, for some of us, babysitting was the definition of our teen-hood.
…and maybe some of us even broke the rules on one or two occasions.
We’ve all seen the movies and read the books where kids get into “adventures” when parents are away. They solve mysteries, “borrow” cars, and hold wild parties, all hidden from clueless parents—Yikes!
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So maybe we’re a little haunted by all that. Kids today might seem a little less mature, or maybe less independent, or maybe just more vulnerable—and yes, sometimes just because they’re OUR kids. We want to protect them and we cringe at the thought of leaving them home with a sitter, especially another kid/teen. We might even think teens don’t seem as responsible these days, or as attentive (with their eyes glued to their cell phones all the time).
My husband and I have been struggling with this exact issue as our girls get older. Are they old enough to stay home alone? At 8 years old and 10 years old, they still seem a little young to be home alone at night or for long periods of time. I know I was babysitting in the fifth grade, but I look at my daughter and I’m not sure she’s ready.
We first looked at our state’s laws and guidelines for leaving kids at home, which can vary from state to state. (For example, in Maryland it’s 8 but in Illinois it’s 14—and many states don’t have actual laws.) Once we discovered it was okay from a legal perspective, we went on a few “test runs”—quick errands, coffee around the corner, a trip to the store. As my daughters prove their responsibility, we get more and more comfortable leaving them home. Still, for longer periods of time, at this point we’re still hiring a sitter.
So I get it. Finding a good sitter can be a challenge! If you live in a neighborhood with lots of stay-at-home moms or friendly neighbors, consider a babysitting trade or find an adult willing to sit for a few hours. If you live close to family members, they’re sometimes willing to help out too, of course.
Depending on location and the proximity of potential babysitters, contacting someone for date night coverage might be simple or a huge challenge. Then there’s the “mom guilt” we feel when we leave the kids on a weekend (again) or feel like we’re imposing on Grandma.
The good news is with some smart strategies, finding the right babysitter for your family is totally possible. Sure, there’s some legwork required, and we have to be prepared to pay for childcare or make a trade. (After all, having someone watch kids for a few hours is a big request!) But it can be done!
Here’s how to find the right sitter for your kids.
Are My Kids To Be Left Home Alone?
Each parent knows his or her kids better than anyone else. They know their kids’ maturity and comfort level with being alone. They also know their level of responsibility and what they’re prepared for.
As a general rule of thumb, kids under 10 shouldn’t be left alone. (Again, that’s not a hard and fast guideline.) At about 11 or 12, it’s appropriate to ease them into being self-directed, provided they’re able to handle the responsibility.
To start to test the boundary, see how kids do with brief periods of independence. If left home during an errand for 15-30 minutes, how do they do? Do they follow simple instructions? Do they know what to do in an emergency?
Some items to keep in mind, especially in today’s tech-savvy world, kids at home need:
- Access to a phone for emergencies Especially in cell-phone-only households, they’ll need a phone in case they have to make a call.
- A list of numbers to call Don’t simply rely on what’s programmed in the phone—in a panic, kids may scroll through the phone looking for “Aunt Jean” instead of “Jean Smith” or they might forget 911.
- Access to alarm codes And the ability to contact and interact with a security or alarm company in case it’s accidentally triggered.
- A safety/emergency plan Do kids know what to do if the smoke alarm goes off? Do they know what to do if someone chokes? Electrical shock? A deep cut?
- Back-up adults Who can they call if they get scared, have a question or need something while a parent is gone? What if they can’t get a hold of a parent?
- Stranger rules Do kids know who they should and shouldn’t answer the door for? What about rules for the Internet?
- Less access Make sure any dangerous items like alcohol, firearms and medications are locked away and out of reach. Check the parental controls on the cable, computer, and other technology.
- A clear hierarchy If more than one child will be home, who’s in charge? What are the rules for siblings? Kids are often much more comfortable fighting with a sister or brother than a babysitter, even if the sitter is the same age.
As kids show they’re able to handle brief periods alone, start to ease them into longer times of independence.
When they “graduate” into understanding all of the above, congratulations, you no longer need to hire a sitter!
How to Find a Babysitter + What Your Babysitter Needs From You
For multiple children or younger kids, a sitter is probably the right choice. Finding a great babysitter can be tough, however. Even in a neighborhood full of teenagers, giving access to your home can be a little scary—but there are many ways to make the whole process much more comfortable.
Finding and Working with an Adult Sitter
There are many options for finding an adult babysitter. First, look to friends or family in the neighborhood who you would feel comfortable leaving your kids with.
Fellow moms can be a great resource—try to coordinate some playdate/babysitting swaps. (One mom watches the kids one week and the other mom watches the kids the next.) This can be a great way to find a sitter without the guilt—and for less. Trading services (especially if the kids are already friends) is the best free option. Just be ready to reciprocate.
When it’s your turn to sit, set a precedent with the other parents by letting them know activity plans, meal plans, and the level of supervision. When it’s their turn, it’s fine to expect the same. Make a simple sheet with emergency contact numbers and information about each child, and be sure to include any allergies or health concerns.
Older adults may also be a great option, provided the kids are calm(ish) and responsible. Keep in mind, older adults can’t quite lift and carry little children as easily, and they may also not feel quite as patient with loud, rambunctious behavior. So if the kiddos are being watched by Grandma or an older friend or neighbor, make things easy by including some favorite quiet-time activities—building sets, movies they love, easy-to-prepare snacks they enjoy, and books or art projects that are less messy.
Offer to compensate an older adult sitter or to do something in trade (like bring them dinner, give a gift card to a movie, or help them with yardwork later on). Taking advantage of a generous sitter is a surefire way to find them less and less available, so make things as easy as possible and offer to compensate as much as you can. Remember it’s our personal responsibility to care for our own kids.
If the sitter comes to your house, include all of the information you would give your children: access to a phone, a list of emergency numbers, access to security codes, and a knowledge of house rules. While an adult will be able to deal with emergency situations, they can happen to anyone, so it’s good to be sure they’re comfortable in an unfamiliar home. Whenever possible, prepare food or let them know where easy-to-make snacks and meals are, and of course, encourage them to help themselves as well.
If the kids are headed to another mom’s house to play or they’re going to be staying with a sitter, it can be hard to ask tough questions like, “Do you keep medications and dangerous items out of the reach of kids?” But every parent whose child has been involved in an accident or a dangerous situation wishes they asked.
Don’t be afraid to bring up hard questions. You can just say, “We have some family guidelines we follow with our kids because they are very curious, do you mind if I ask you…?” And then ask. Most moms will happily comply and then of course, be forthcoming with the same information. If you have other rules (like preferring your child not play with violent toys or watch movies above a “G” rating), then it’s also okay to bring it up. Keep in mind, however, you may need to offer an alternative option.
For example, “We only watch movies with a PG rating or lower in our house. Would you mind if my daughter brought her favorite film to share?” or “We aren’t into weapons in our home, but my son LOVES Pokémon, would you mind if he brought his cards to play?”
It’s much better to be upfront about babysitting preferences than run into an upsetting situation later on.
Finding and Working with a Teen Sitter
Teenagers, especially older teens, are often more responsible than we give them credit for! In fact, many view babysitting as a serious job opportunity and embrace the task. They’re energetic, and often younger kids look up to them, even adoring the attention from a “cool older kid.”
The best way to find ready-to-sit teens in your neighborhood is to ask around. Referrals are golden and SO much easier than guessing whether or not a teenager will be responsible. Check with other moms in the area to see who they hire for sitting. Ask teens in the youth group at church or check your local Nextdoor or Facebook neighborhood board for sitters.
Many local community centers like the Red Cross and YMCAs offer safety classes and babysitting certification classes for teens. If you have a 14-18-year-old, this can be a great opportunity for them, too! Reaching out to the class instructors can also be a great way to find potential babysitters as well, so keep it in mind when you’re searching.
When you find a potential sitter, it’s totally fine to interview them and even ask them a few tough questions. Also, be sure to explain the scope of the job, the pay, and expectations up front.
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Ask them what they would do in certain emergency situations and how they would handle things such as fighting among the kids. Give them the same information you would give your own kids, such as:
- Access to a phone for emergencies
- A list of numbers to call
- Access to alarm codes
- A safety/emergency plan
- Back-up adults
- Clearly defined rules (stranger rules; rules about inviting their own friends and other teens over; rules about alcohol, medications, and firearms; and rules about Internet use for both the babysitter and the kids)
- Clear guidelines about what to cook (leave easy meals or no-cook options and show them how to work the stove, microwave, etc.)
- Guidelines for mealtimes, bedtimes, and other daily rituals
- Guidelines for pet care, if applicable
- Preferences about driving (or not) with your kids
- Clear times you will be returning home
Ease in a new teen babysitter by inviting them over to help you out with the kids for a day. Stay home or close by so you can keep an eye on their behavior. Once you’re sure they’re the right fit, choose a shorter, earlier evening as a test run. See how things work out for a two-hour stretch before leaving them for longer with the kids.
If a babysitter is too young to drive, be sure they have a way home or a ride planned beforehand. When it comes to paying your sitter, the average rate for a sitter is currently $13.97/hour. While this might seem a little steep, remember, babysitters are providing a very valuable service and protecting your most important family members. Also, expect to pay your sitter in cash whenever possible—it’s just easier than other alternatives, including apps. Plus, cashing a check might be a challenge if they don’t yet have a bank account.
Listen to your kids, too. If they love their babysitter and request them or get excited when they come over, then it’s probably a good fit. Always trust your gut instincts on a sitter and choose someone who you’re comfortable and happy with.
Be up front and honest with your babysitter and chances are, you’ll find someone who you trust and who will do a great job!