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Successful sibling sitting

Published on: August 30, 2007

When yoga instructor Maria Bliss considered opening a studio of her own, the Mercer Island mom knew that her business plan needed to include buy-in from her children. “When we decided, ‘Yes, we are going to do this on a bigger scale,’ we said it is going to involve the whole family,” she says. Especially her teenaged daughter and son, who would need to help care for their 8-year-old brother.

For many teens, caring for a younger sibling is their first babysitting experience. Some families will decide to pay their teenagers for their work, other families will work out different arrangements for compensation. But beyond the issue of pay, there are significant ways in which sibling sitting is different from other babysitting arrangements.

Dr. Patricia Keener is a pediatrician and founder of the Safe Sitter program. She says she believes sibling sitting is really the hardest babysitting of all because, she says, “sometimes parents don’t put as much work into helping built-in sitters succeed.” Here are some ways you can help make the arrangement work in your house.

Safety first

If your teen has never enrolled in a babysitting course, they may already be too old for the comprehensive babysitter training offered by nonprofit groups such as the American Red Cross (11- to 15-year-olds) and Safe Sitter (11- to 13-year-olds). These courses cover topics from home safety to age-appropriate games to role playing for different scenarios.

At the very least, experts say, older siblings must take a class in infant/child CPR and first aid. “What we like to point out is that even if it is a brother or sister, you have to use the same safety practices, maybe even more so, because you can be too comfortable,” says Jackie Fojtik, youth program manager for the American Red Cross, serving King and Kitsap counties.

While older siblings will know their way around the house, they may not know where the fire extinguishers are, let alone have a fire escape plan. They may be unprepared to handle a life-threatening situation, such as a fall. A 17-year-old might be trained to drive a car, but without first aid training, they will not know what to do if a young child swallows a dangerous substance.

Parents should leave their adolescents with all the same information they would leave an unrelated sitter. Consider using formal worksheets, such as one found on the Red Cross’ Web site. This is a single sheet filled out by parents that gives teens the pediatrician’s phone number, the nearest intersection should they need to call 911, as well as a list of medications the younger sibling takes. “They are used to Mom or Dad being there, and everything being OK,” says Fotjik. “They need to be aware that anything can happen.”

Setting expectations

Since her yoga studio opened last January and her teenagers took more responsibility for their younger brother, Maria Bliss found that problems would arise when she did not clarify what was required of her teens. “You have to verbalize your expectations,” says Bliss. “The reality is that it’s probably not going to be their favorite thing to watch their younger brother.”

Some teens might need a simple reminder that they are not to check email, have friends over or even talk on the phone while babysitting. Sixteen-year-old Sam Bliss admits that, unless he is told specifically that Andy is not allowed to watch TV, he will sometimes plant his 8-year-old brother in front of the tube.

Parents can have their teens fill out a Babysitter’s Report Record. By forcing teens to write down what discipline techniques they used on their brothers or sisters, and what foods they fed them at what times, parents will get a sense for what gaps need to be filled the next time.

Michelle Johnson, the public education specialist for the University Place Fire Department, oversees one of Pierce County’s Safe Sitter programs. Johnson believes a big factor in how well sibling sitting works is the spacing of the children. If they are too close, she says, older siblings will often hear pushback along the lines of “You aren’t the boss of me!”

Johnson recommends parents have a sit-down with all the kids, making it very clear what is expected of younger brothers and sisters as well the older ones. “You have got to impart upon them that the rules are the same as Mom’s and Dad’s.” Doing that also reminds older siblings of what is at stake. “We like to tell them that even if it is ‘just’ a brother or sister, they are accepting responsibility for a child’s life.”

Hilary Benson is a freelance writer in the Seattle area and mother of three boys.

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