When children look after children
While children who choose to work on newspaper delivery rounds, on farms or in retail jobs are covered and hopefully protected by general and specific health and safety law – notably the Health and Safety (Young Persons) Regulations 1997 – those who choose babysitting as a means of earning money fall outside these laws.
With this in mind, RoSPA and the NSPCC recommend that no one under the age of 16 should be left to care for a baby or toddler. The British Red Cross, states that participants must have reached their 14th birthday by the time of their final assessment.
Under some circumstances, parents can be prosecuted and fined if they leave their children in a situation which a court might judge to be “neglectful”. This usually occurs when there is an incident which requires intervention by the emergency services.
Thankfully, the vast majority of babysitting situations do end happily and when you consider the number of parents who engage babysitters to look after children, the disasters are few. But leaving children in the hands of other children increases the risk of harm.
In simple terms, risk is the chance or probability that an accident could happen
A lot of young people we spoke to, who were expected to look after younger brothers and sisters, felt trapped by their enforced child-minding duties and, in many cases, it had created a great deal of family tension. Some youngsters felt that they were being “blackmailed” into babysitting. A lot of the children felt “used”.
How can risks be reduced?
The most successful sitters had taken courses in child development and first aid. Those who had better babysitting experiences usually sat for other people, for an agreed sum of money, with support nearby. For example: their own parent or other relative would be available to step in and help in a crisis.
Being a babysitter means that you have someone else’s life in your hands and that in itself is a tremendous responsibility. Having to look after one or more children can be tiring, frustrating and sometimes difficult to cope with – even for experienced adults.
Parents need to think about all possible eventualities (i.e. do a risk assessment) before leaving their children in the hands of someone else, particularly someone under the age of 16. Likewise, any prospective babysitter should be well prepared and armed with enough information to be able to cope with most situations that could arise.
Through mutual co-operation and understanding, babysitters and parents can reduce the risk of potential harm and promote a safer environment for the child as well as for the babysitters themselves.
This doesn’t need to be complicated – in fact, you probably do your own risk assessments all the time, without realising it. It’s simply about spotting hazards, deciding how likely it is that it will cause harm to someone, and working out how to carry out your activity safely.
Good practice for parents
What should I think about when hiring a young babysitter?
- If you decide to hire a young babysitter under the age of 16, you must be prepared to take some responsibility for anything that should go wrong in your absence. Under some circumstances, the police will charge parents with negligence. You must also be prepared to take responsibility for the care and safety of your babysitter – including making arrangements in advance for the sitter’s safe return home if they are not being collected by a parent or sleeping over. Never let a young babysitter travel home alone late at night
- Remember that the majority of babysitters mean well and genuinely like children. However, these qualities might not be enough if difficulties should occur. You need to know your babysitter is a competent person
- Think about the qualities you are looking for in a good babysitter. They may include: responsible attitude, maturity, reliability, honesty, tolerance, patience, kind but firm, has experience with young children, has first aid experience etc.
- Make sure the babysitter knows how and when to call the emergency services if it should become necessary
- Encourage your babysitter to visit your home and get to know the child or children who will be left in their care. It will also help them understand the particular household and the children’s daytime and night-time routines
- Give an honest opinion when the question arises concerning your babysitter having friends to sit with them (same sex or opposite sex). Use common sense and remember that babysitting can be a lonely business
- Make adequate preparations for your babysitter not only in terms of refreshments but also in giving them enough information to cover all eventualities. Make sure your sitter knows where everything is
- Never take advantage of a babysitter by leaving them to cope with an already sick or upset child who you know will not settle
- Never leave a babysitter alone with several children for long periods of time
- Always return home as close to the time you agreed with your babysitter as you can. If you are going to be late, inform the babysitter if possible
- Talk to your babysitter about the child’s progress and give them up-to-date information, which is particularly important if the sitter does not see your child regularly
- If you feel unhappy about any aspect of the care of your child, talk it over with the babysitter.
Should I use my eldest child as a babysitter?
- As with parents hiring a sitter under 16 years of age, you must also be prepared to take some responsibility for anything that should go wrong in your absence. Remember, you are also responsible for the care and safety of your eldest child even while they are taking responsibility for your other child or children
- Try not to take advantage of your eldest child by expecting them to babysit on too frequent a basis – and certainly not seven days a week. This can lead to resentment and family tension. However, if circumstances dictate there is no alternative, talk things through with your eldest. Understanding why things are as they are can be helpful
- Ask yourself whether your eldest child has the maturity and qualities you would look for if hiring a babysitter from somewhere else. Are they capable of looking after the rest of the children in your absence?
- Give praise where it is due and reward your eldest child for a job well done: this can be anything from pocket money, to a small gift such as a favourite magazine, or just sincere thanks
- In the unlikely event that something does go wrong in your absence, try not to allocate blame. It is not easy being expected to have authority and control over younger family members who have probably already reminded them that they are not you and, therefore, have no authority
- Help your eldest child do a risk assessment of your home. Point out potential hazards and risks and discuss how to control them.
A hazard is anything that has the potential to cause harm (things such as heat / fire, chemicals, animals, other people, stress or tiredness)
“Please keep an eye on your younger sister” – new research
Research was published in August 2010 in Injury Prevention, a journal from the British Medical Association, entitled “Please keep an eye on your younger sister”: sibling supervision and young children’s risk of unintentional injury. The abstract can be viewed online.
It is known that when parents supervise their children it reduces the chance that a child will be injured. However, when older siblings supervise younger children there is an increased risk of injury. The idea behind the research was to explore why the risk of injury to young children increased when they were supervised by older siblings.
The researchers found that mothers were more likely to spot and remove hazards, whereas older siblings were more likely to interact with the hazards in front of the younger children (for example, an older child may make themselves a hot drink and put it within reach of a young child, whereas the mother would be more likely to keep hot drinks well away from toddlers). It is well known that younger children tend to copy their older siblings – and indeed, this was found to be the case during the study.
Children also behaved in a more risky manner when they were supervised by a sibling; however, their sibling babysitters were less attentive to that risk than their mothers would be. The problem was compounded by the fact that young children were less likely to listen to their siblings when asked to stop risk taking.
In conclusion, the researchers found that both the behaviour of the younger children and their supervisors contributed to the increase in injury risk when older siblings supervise younger ones.
The full study, for those interested in the methodology and deeper conclusions, is available from the website and in the printed journal; however, this short piece may provide parents with food for thought when asking their elder children to babysit for the younger ones.
We would recommend that parents encourage their children to go on a babysitting course if possible, to enable them to fully understand what they are being asked to do.
Good practice for babysitters
What if my parents ask me to look after my younger siblings?
- Do try and be open with your parent(s) about how you feel about babysitting your younger brothers and sisters. If you have any worries or concerns, try to bring them out in the open. Try to talk about it calmly
- Negotiate. No-one can be expected to babysit every night. Agree to sit a few evenings if you, in turn, can have some nights off to do your own thing
- If you do have to stay in with younger siblings for a whole week, ask if you can have a friend to come and sit with you so that you can share the responsibility of looking after the children
- Try not to resent or blame your younger brothers and sisters for the situation; it is not their fault. Try to look at the situation from all points of view including that of your parent(s)
- Treat your responsibilities as seriously as you would if you were sitting for someone else’s children
- Set up a back-up system. Is there another relative or other adult you can ask for help in an emergency? Would a neighbour help?
- Make sure you know where your parent(s) will be and roughly what time they will be back. Give them a little leeway as it can be difficult to return “on the dot”. Get a contact telephone number, if you can
- In the unlikely event that something major occurs – illness or accident – would you know what to do? Do you know how to get hold of the family doctor and the emergency services? If not, ask a parent to help you find out
- Knowledge of home safety would be helpful to you. Get to know hazards and risks in and around your home. Some things which are safe for you to use can cause harm to small children, e.g. babies will put objects in their mouths, which can cause choking. Identify hazards which have the potential to cause harm to you and the other children. What are the risks? Do you know how to manage and control those risks? Some things are best removed altogether
- Remember your younger brother or sister may misbehave while you are in charge – or play in more risky ways. Think of ways to reward them for playing safely, as well as making sure they can’t injure themselves
- If no-one thanks you or praises you for looking after your younger siblings, then give yourself a pat on the back for doing a good job.
What about sitting for other people’s children?
- Are you aged 16 years and over and able to accept the responsibilities of looking after one or more children?
- Parents are seeking good child care in their absence. You must remember at all times that there is a child in the house in your care. Can you offer such a service?
- Why do you want to babysit? Is it for the love of children or to earn some extra money? Hopefully, it is a combination of both. If it is simply to get away from your own house so that you can do what you like in someone else’s, think again
- Take some basic training in the safe care of young children. Remember that young children are not only prone to illness but also to having mishaps and accidents. It is essential that you can cope with such emergencies. If you can study child development and first aid at school, do so; otherwise, take a first aid course .
- A good working knowledge and understanding of safety in the home environment is important so that you can recognise good and bad safety practices. You should be able to identify hazards and risks, particularly for younger children
- You ideally need some experience of dealing with and looking after small children and should spend some time with a family where there are small children present. Getting to know the child you will be caring for before you babysit is a good idea
- Organise a suitable back-up system – such as having a near relative or neighbour available whom you can call upon in an emergency or simply to ask advice about an uncertain situation
- If you agree to babysit, always be prompt
- Try not to let the child’s parents leave the home before learning where to contact them. Ask for other numbers, too – e.g. family doctor, other relatives etc. You must feel safe, secure and happy to be left alone with the child or children before the parents depart for the evening
- Know, in advance, exactly how you will be getting home after the sitting session. You might also like to negotiate terms of payment and whether or not you are allowed to have a friend sit with you. Make sure you know what you can and cannot do in someone else’s home.
By following these simple guidelines, the babysitter will be rewarded by a feeling of confidence and develop a better relationship with the children in their care while parents will be rewarded by the knowledge that their child is secure and happy in the hands of a well-prepared and trusted babysitter.