The right age to start babysitting is largely a judgment call based on several factors, including the age and maturity levels of the children who need care and the maturity level of the babysitter providing the care. The amount of care required is also an important factor; watching children for a couple of hours while their parents go out to dinner is significantly different from caring for children throughout a day or overnight.
The babysitting course provided by the American Red Cross requires students to be at least 11 years old. The maturity levels of 11-year-olds can vary greatly, so this course can be a good indicator of how ready they are for light babysitting duties.
What the Law Says
Most states do not have laws specifying age requirements for babysitting, and many offer no more than guidelines for how old children should be before they are left home alone. Some of those recommendations are quite young. Kansas, for example, suggests that children aged 6 to 9 can be left on their own at home for short periods of time if they are mature enough. Illinois law, on the other hand, states that children must be at least 14 to be left home alone for an extended period of time, which is defined as 24 hours. A contradictory law says 13-year-olds may act as babysitters in Illinois as long as it is not for an extended period of time. (A bill to allow children 12 years of age or older to be left at home without adult supervision passed the Illinois House in April 2019, but the proposed legislation did not come up for a vote in the state's Senate.) Maryland also requires children to be at least 13 to work as a babysitter. No other state has a law mandating a babysitter be of a specific age.
Free-Range Kids compiled a list of laws or guidelines by state regarding ages that a child can not or should not be left unsupervised in a home, and they can apply to babysitting. The best thing to do, however, if you're unsure whether your child is old enough to legally be left on his or her own—and to babysit younger children—is to check with the department of your state government that oversees the health and welfare of children. You should also keep in mind that local laws may apply as well.
By and large, though, in most of the country, determining how young a child can be when they start babysitting is left up to parents. Both the parents of the babysitter and the parents of the child or children being babysat need to consider whether the babysitting child is mature enough for the job.
Factors to Consider
Deciding whether a child is mature enough to take on the responsibility of caring for other children involves a number of factors. They should all be considered when making that decision.
- Safety: The Red Cross babysitting course is a good test of a potential babysitter's ability to keep a child safe because the course is recognized nationally. If your child expresses an interest in babysitting, have them attend the Red Cross course so they understand what the job will entail. That will prepare them for the day you feel they're ready, and it will reassure you that they have received the necessary training. If you are the parents hiring a babysitter, requiring this certification is a good way to set a minimum standard and at least confirm that the babysitter is responsible and intelligent enough to complete the course successfully.
- Maturity: The age when children can start babysitting often depends on how advanced the child is mentally. The best judge of your child's maturity is you. Children vary widely in how fast their senses of good judgment and responsibility mature. How comfortable would you feel leaving your younger children home alone with your older child? How would you feel leaving your older child alone with a baby? If you feel your child is not yet ready to babysit, encourage them to look for jobs helping a parent take care of children or let them help you out to gain the necessary skills.
- Age of Children: The age of the babysitter will also be dependent on the needs of the child. Specifically, an infant may require an older child—a teenager—to babysit, preferably one who has had experience caring for younger siblings when they were infants. A very active child will need a babysitter who can keep them engaged and out of mischief. A child with special needs or behavioral issues may require a more mature babysitter or, at least, one with the necessary care skills and an easy rapport with the child.
- Parents of Child: Ultimately, the parents being asked to leave their children with your child will determine whether they believe your child is ready to be a babysitter. They are the employers, and your child is the employee. The younger the babysitter is, the more likely it is that the parents hiring them will want to be sure their parents are accessible and available in the case of an emergency.