In developing countries such as South Africa, it is not at all unusual for young children to be left in the care of older siblings. Is it fair to expect a child to take on this responsibility?
"It is unrealistic to expect that children can take adequate care of younger children, especially not if there are safety risks involved," says Fozia Ryklief, social worker at The Parent Centre.
"A nine-year-old is still a child and at a play stage of development. Children get absorbed in play and will not notice that there is anything a miss. They are not necessarily neglectful or careless, just absorbed and distracted.
"Children also don't have a perception of the ability and in ability of younger children to judge space, depth and distance. But even if this child had realised that his siblings were in danger, he would not have had the influence nor the physical strength to restrain or rescue them," says Ryklief.
Is age the most important factor?
"Age alone does not determine whether or not a child is capable of looking after himself or herself or younger siblings," says Nelmarie du Toit, director of the Child Accident Prevention Foundation (CAPFSA).
Du Toit lists the following factors which determine a child's readiness for self-care and his/her readiness to look after others:
- the environmental circumstances of the situation
- a child's level of maturity, dependability and ability to make reasonable decisions
- his/her relationship to the parent
- physical or mental limitations
- the time of day or night
- age of other children to be supervised
- frequency of being left alone and
- the accessibility of a parent or other adult.
"Taking care of young children requires a high level of responsibility. It often puts unnecessary strain on a sibling relationship to have the older children take care of younger brothers or sisters. It is very difficult for older siblings to exercise their authority fairly, and often hard for younger siblings to accept that their brothers and sisters really are in charge of them," says Du Toit.
"Remember, children are not small adults. They have many limitations and these vary with every age group. As parents and adults we are responsible for our children, so if you have a choice, do not leave your oldest child with the responsibility of looking after younger siblings. There are so many things that can go wrong."
Parents may be prosecuted for neglect if they leave their children alone and something serious happens to them. Parents should be prepared to take responsibility for anything that should go wrong in their absence. A parent is also responsible for the care and safety of the eldest child who is acting in the place of the parent.
Not always a choice
Both Ryklief and Du Toit point out that some parents have no other choice than to leave younger siblings in the care of older children due to socio-economic factors or ill health. As a result of the Aids pandemic hundreds of Aids orphans are forced to be the sole caregivers of their younger brothers and sisters.
In such extreme circumstances, adults should assist the eldest child in doing a risk assessment of the home, taking into account all possible eventualities, particularly if someone is under 16 years.
CAPFSA gives these pointers:
- Set firm rules, with clear dos and don'ts.
- Prepare your child to deal with situations that may arise.
- Keep in touch if you're hard to reach.
- Make sure the home is safe and secure.
- Point out potential hazards and risks and explain how to control them.
- Hold fire drills with each child, "practising" what to do and where to go in case of fire.
- Teach children basic first aid and have a first aid kit available.
- Have emergency numbers pasted next to the phone.
- Have children practice emergency calls with you, giving their full address and directions if necessary.
- Have a clear understanding about use of ovens, stoves and other appliances.
For more information on how to create a safe home environment for your child and to obtain safety checklists, contact the Child Accident Prevention Foundation of SA (CAPFSA), tel 021 6866331.Do you think older kids are capable of looking after their siblings? Do you expect them to? Should your toddler get hurt in the interim, who would be to blame?