When parents are forced to leave the home for work purposes or social engagements it’s not uncommon for them to leave an eldest child in charge of both the household and their younger siblings for a brief period of time. This family-based approach to childcare raises few eyebrows; however, there are several reasons why it may not always be the best idea. Before leaving your children in the care of an older sibling, there are a few factors that you might want to consider.
The Arrangement Can Affect Sibling Relationships and the Family Dynamic
Younger children may have a difficult time accepting an older sibling as an authority figure, especially if they’re not accustomed to being left in their care. Faced with a willfully disobedient, stubborn younger sibling, older kids can become disillusioned with the idea of helping to care for them; the strain that such behavior places on sibling relationships can easily extend to the dynamic of your family as a whole; this tension and the damage it causes can be difficult to avoid or repair. Often, an unrelated babysitter, even one of comparable age and childcare experience level, can maintain order and establish themselves as an authority figure with less difficulty and better results than a sibling.
Arguments Can Quickly Spiral Out of Control
Most often, when siblings argue, there is a parent or authority figure on hand to intervene before the situation gets out of control. Left to their own devices, however, kids who have a tendency to argue or an established history of not getting along are likely to have disagreements that lead to serious altercations, up to and including physical violence. This is especially true when a younger sibling resents the authority that a parent has bestowed on a brother or sister that they view as an equal, rather than a caregiver.
Kids Can Become “Partners in Crime”
Parents of several children are well acquainted with the crowd mentality, which can cause children that are normally well-behaved to descend into anarchy the moment they have a willing accomplice. Siblings that get along well may not have dangerous disputes or suffer from mutual resentment as a result of a sibling-as-caregiver arrangement; they may, however, find themselves breaking the rules and behaving in a way that they know isn’t acceptable simply because there are no adults to stop them. Rather than supervising younger brothers and sisters, older siblings often become inadvertent ringleaders, which can sometimes lead to disastrous results.
Possible Legal Ramifications
Depending upon the laws in your area, leaving an older child in charge of his siblings could be considered unlawful neglect. The National Child Care Information Center states that only Illinois and Maryland currently have laws mandating a specific minimum age for leaving a child at home alone, and even those states consider additional factors when determining neglect. Should a situation arise in which emergency assistance is required in the absence of an adult, parents may find themselves in a precarious legal position.
Resentment Can Lead to Dangerous Conditions
In most cases, the oldest child in a family is eager to accept responsibility for their younger siblings on occasion, both as a means of exerting their independence from their parents and to establish a pattern or responsibility that extends to the earning of privileges or other compensation. Still, there are teenagers that view such responsibilities as a burden, especially when frequent babysitting duties interfere with their own budding social lives or the pursuit of favorite hobbies. When older kids resent their parents and younger siblings for this interference, they can become so angry that they provide less-than-adequate care for the youngest members of the family; in the supervision vacuum left by a resentful sibling caregiver, kids can very easily find themselves in dangerous situations.
When older children are forced to look after their siblings as a result of a significant change in the family, such as a divorce, extended illness, or even sudden financial difficulties that require a second parent to enter the workforce, the stress of coping with those changes is compounded by the added responsibility of looking after younger brothers and sisters. During these complicated and often traumatic times in the lives of your children, it may be better for everyone involved if an outside caregiver or an older member of the extended family is called in to meet childcare needs. Teenagers that are struggling with some degree of upheaval or change in family dynamics are not the ideal choice to shoulder the serious responsibility or the burden of becoming a primary caregiver, especially if they’ve shown signs of resentment or lashing out as a result of such arrangements.
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