“I get scared sometimes when my mother isn’t home,” an eleven-year-old neighbor told me. She was in charge at home, a babysitter for her one-year-old brother while her mother was gone.
“Sometimes I hear noises, and I’m afraid someone is trying to break in,” she said one night when she came to my door to ask me to stay with her a while. Her mother, who was single, was out with friends, so I stayed with her for an hour and a half, in effect, as a free babysitter.
On another occasion I noticed that the girl had convinced my next-door neighbor to sit with her for the same reason. Apparently eleven-year-olds get lonesome when they are left to themselves for hours on end.
All this forced upon me the awareness that I did not understand the extent of my responsibility in dealing with such a situation. Unquestionably the needs of the eleven-year-old were not being met, or she would not have been running around looking in desperation for adult companionship. At the same time I had to admit that she seemed very competent in dealing with the needs of her younger brother.
My question, which I consulted law-enforcement authorities about, is: Is an eleven-year-old old enough to babysit? Although I have yet to receive the definitive answer, I have received a sampling of opinions:
From a local police officer: “Child Protective Services says that an eleven-year-old is old enough to babysit.”
From a Child Protective Services agent: “I really can’t say how old a child should be. Some say fifteen, some say thirteen. Some say other things. Nobody really has an answer, it all depends on the maturity of the particular child.”
From a Community Service Officer: “An eleven-year-old is not old enough to babysit and Child Protective Services should be notified immediately, otherwise you are responsible for whatever happens just as the mother is.”
[Note: laws in your area may specify an age, but in my area, they didn’t.]Okay, so what could happen?
The child could play with matches and burn down the house, right? Or that could happen with Mom at home in the next room.
Another not-so-well-meaning neighbor could lead astray or molest the child, which is probably more likely to happen while Mom is gone.
It is possible the younger child could choke on something and big sister might not be able to provide life-saving emergency treatment, but then again, could Mom, if she were home?
Truthfully, there are any number of situations that might come up that an eleven-year-old would not be fully equipped to deal with. I could say the same thing about an older babysitter of any age, but younger people do seem more vulnerable.
Now, let me consider the effect I could make by calling Child Protective Services. First of all, I would remain anonymous and supposedly nobody would ever know who called, but somehow at this point (I had approached the mother several times with my suggestions) I felt I would be high on the list of prime suspects.
Second, Child Protective Services has the duty to come out and do a home visit. What would they find? What I see is a very nice mother who seems to be down on her luck, single, and sincerely trying to do her best to raise two children by becoming employed. At the same time, she apparently can’t afford childcare during employment or training and she also leaves the children alone while she goes out in the evenings to maintain her social life.
I also can see that the children are healthy-looking, clean, and well-clothed. The house is reasonably clean and Mom says she does check in at times by phone to see that the children are doing well. The older child does not lose her temper with the baby, and keeps a constant watch on him while he is awake.
So what is there to report? Only that there is a lonely, frightened eleven-year-old child there, who is wise enough to manipulate her neighbors into sitting up with her.
If I were to call Child Protective Services there would be a possibility of these children being placed in foster care. Probably the children would be more emotionally harmed and traumatized by foster placement than by the present deprivation. Perhaps the mother would quit her effort to stay employed, and decide to receive welfare benefits instead.
If I called Child Protective Services, the emotional well-being of the entire family would be at stake. I didn’t want to take responsibility for the devastation that would cause, but I didn’t like being a free babysitter either.
A nurse at a nearby children’s hospital offered this advice:
“The child may be able to take care of her brother, but in an emergency situation…? She shouldn’t have the responsibility thrust on her. Life’s too hard as it is. The primary work of children is to play. Also her nurturing needs are not being met.“
A lot of kids – latchkey kids – may be able to take care of themselves for a few hours. They are primarily older kids – nine, ten and eleven – but they just take care of themselves, not anybody else. And there’s a phone number they can call, a warm line, where they can call and talk to someone if they get scared and lonely. But they generally don’t have to worry about taking care of someone else and they’re only left on their own for a few hours until their parents come home from work.”
The situation ended when the mother stopped leaving her daughter in charge. I was glad I’d talked to her to suggest that leaving her children alone like that was not a good situation for them, especially since the child was getting neighbors involved and everyone in the area knew she was an untended child.
. . .
I originally wrote this article many years ago, in the mid-1980’s – and recently found it in my files. Those children are already adults, and I no longer live in the area where this happened. I’m posting it now because I’d like people who leave their children untended to have a look at the thought processes their neighbors might be going through. No matter how many times you tell your youthful babysitter to stay inside with the shades pulled down, you can always count on a child to disobey, like my neighbor’s daughter did when she went door-to-door asking adults to enter her home.