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When Older Siblings Babysit

QUESTION: Our grandson is 12 years old. We feel he lacks the skill and judgment necessary to care for his six-year-old twin sisters. Recently he locked the basement door and turned out the lights while the twins were in the basement playing. They were able to turn on a light and open the door to get upstairs. I know that they did not tell their parents about it, although they told us. It scared them. We have not said anything to their parents. Do you have any suggestions?

ANSWER: Your granddaughters are reaching out to you with important information about their welfare and safety. Take their trust seriously and address the incident directly with their parents.

It is not merely an issue of whether your grandson is mature enough, but of the pitfalls inherent in using an older sibling to babysit in the first place. Putting an older sibling "in charge" of a younger one creates a hierarchy of authority that may undermine the quality of the sibling relationship. In your example, the younger siblings are put in the uncomfortable position of "tattling," which undermines their loyalty to their big brother. They may later feel guilty if he is reprimanded. This may be a reason they remained quiet about the basement incident. This kind of dilemma can put them all in danger.

An older sibling who is put in a position of authority over younger siblings also suffers by being isolated from the care-free relationship of the younger siblings. Not only may his elevated role be too much responsibility for him within his own family, but he may be more likely to be abusive or neglectful, if he resents the responsibility he is shouldering. While he could say "no" to a babysitting job for another family, he may not have that option if his parents request (or require) him to "help out."

While occasional babysitting may work out, especially in short duration and with the full cooperation of all siblings, it is typically not a good idea on a regular basis. Siblings often resent having another sibling as an authority, making it more likely that rebellion or chaos will break out. And it may not be viable at all, depending on the maturity of the children and the parameters set up by the parents. In the occasional situation where a parent does ask an older child to care for a younger one, it is important to have a back-up adult readily available within walking distance if things spiral out of control, which can happen when siblings fight.

I suggest you talk with the parents about the incident. Do not draw conclusions for them, but bring up the question of whether your grandson is mature enough to handle the responsibility he is being given. And point out the difficulty and dangers inherent in such an arrangement between siblings. Ask questions that help the parents explore the situation siblings are put in, and the danger illustrated by the incident.

Putting one sibling in charge of another can undermine the very nature of camaraderie and equality we so hope to nurture between them. When resentment festers in childhood relationships, siblings choose distance rather than closeness as adults. Do not forget that a sibling relationship can be one of the most valuable, because it so often spans the longest duration of any relationship we will experience in our lifetime. A relationship with a sibling through early, middle, and later years represents a tremendous resource throughout our lives. Act now to keep these relationships healthy!

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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