When are children old enough to start babysitting?


AS A 14 year old boy or girl too young to babysit? The answer, of course is, as the health board concerned has pointed out, it depends: it depends on the teenager, and on the circumstances - how well the families concerned know each other, the age and number of children to be babysat, the time of day, the number of hours, whether adult help is near by.

As Ms Fionnuala Kilfeather of the National Parents' Council (Primary) says, many parents would not leave their 14 year old child unsupervised in their own home for more than a few hours.

As always, parents need to use their common sense: but it is surprising how careless some usually conscientious parents can be when it comes to hiring a babysitter.

To babysit, a teenager has to be capable of coping with young children, as well as calm enough to cope in an emergency.

Thousands of Irish 14 year old girls, and boys, do mind younger children responsibly week in and out.

But parents of young children, as well as the parents of babysitters, do need to observe some ground rules. Both should judge what level of responsibility the 14 year old can handle.

Some 14 year olds are very capable but might still be nervous in a house without an adult after dark.

The parents of the children being minded need to know that their babysitter will be not only sensible but kind and patient.

The parents of the babysitter, need to know that the family hiring them will return more or less on time, and deliver them home if that has been agreed.

Most parents of boys will nowadays be aware that their sons are vulnerable to accusations of sexual abuse, and will want to trust the people hiring him just as much as that family will want to trust the boy.

The Irish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children is particularly cautious in its advice. It points out that no one under the age of 16 can be charged with neglect or ill treatment of a child left in their care. In other words, the parents themselves are responsible.

"For this reason, the ISPCC does not recommend asking anyone under 16 to look after a young child and feels this should be expressed in law," it says in a leaflet called Home Alone.

In practice, you may find it difficult to hire a babysitter aged 16 or over.

Most babysitting seems to be done when children are old enough to be responsible, but too young to have a life of their own.

So what are the ground rule for hiring a young babysitter?

Mr Nick Killian of the National Parents' Council (Post Primary) recommends that you interview a potential babysitter before hiring him or her, and most importantly, let your children get to know them.

If you don't know a babysitter's family, you should find out something about them: you could look for references from the teenager.

All of us know parents who have hunted for a last minute babysitter, if a regular has let them down: but it is irresponsible, even reckless, to leave your children in the care of a stranger, says Mr Killian.

He feels it may be easier to arrange all this in a country area, like the one in which he lives, where families tend to know one another.

From the age of 13 onwards, his children, both boys and girls, babysat, but always for friends and neighbours, and never more than half a mile from home.

Fourteen year olds should probably only babysit for two or three hours at a time, and usually not after midnight. Apart from anything else, they're likely to fall asleep if they're up too late.

Parents should spell out their rules in advance, telling the babysitter, for example, how many times - and how - they should check on the children, whether or not they can have a friend with them.

Both Mr Killian and Ms Kilfeather say they are against friends, on the basis that it may distract the babysitter.

It is also vital to leave emergency numbers with the sitter, as well as names/numbers of neighbours who could help in a crisis.

As for gender, both Mr Killian and Ms Kilfeather feel it is unfair to discriminate against boys, although they agree there is a widespread perception that 14 year old girls are more mature and capable than boys of that age.

In the end, it depends on the teenager, and the most important thing is for a parent hiring a babysitter to know him or her.

Babysitting can be a good way for young teenagers to develop a sense of responsibility as well as making money, but parents should never hire children who are too young.