Thursday, April 30, 2009

I Fought The Law and The Law...

A woman in line behind me for Belgian waffles at the Farmer’s Market last Sunday told me I was a criminal. She was debating with a friend whether or not to wait for the warm and sweet and homemade breakfast treat.

“They’re worth it,” I chimed in. “Easy for me to say, but I buy them for my kids every week.”

She noticed I was wearing bike shorts and my bike helmet. “So you biked here?”

“Yes. My wife is actually at obedience class with our dog, so our son is home with our daughter.”

“How old are your children?” she asked after deciding the waffles were worth it.

“Our son is 11 and our daughter is three.”

“Oh, you can’t leave him alone with her. It’s against the law in California for children under 12 to babysit, even for a sibling.”

“Really?” I was flabbergasted. “We’ve done it before…”

Halt! I realized then that I was such a big mouth. Not only did she catch me committing a crime, but now I was admitting to more disregard for the law. But how was I to know it was illegal for Miguel to be home alone with his sister? Must’ve happened after that insipid Macaulay Culkin movie.

California is one of a handful of state that regulates babysitting rules and regulations even for family.

I was shocked, kind of blown over as if I’d been pried loose from a tree in a torrential storm, as reality sunk in. We trust Miguel because he has earned our trust. We wouldn’t leave him alone at night or for more than an hour, but he has demonstrated sound judgment and gentle care in regards to his sister.

I was really shocked because I never intended to be a lawbreaker. Then I started thinking about other crimes. Occasionally, I have left the kids in the car while I’ve dashed into the video store to return a movie. I roll the windows down and leave them a bowl of water for crying out loud!

Now the mere act of biking for an hour and shopping at the Farmer’s Market while our soon to be a middle school-aged son cared for his active sister and the dog violates a California statute. He was alone with sister and puppy for about 60 minutes.

So now that I am a scofflaw and a bad parent, a potent mix of detestable and irresponsible, let me attempt to share what I’ve learned about my criminal ways.

Well, nothing.

I’m no civil libertarian (I wear seatbelts, a bike helmet, and pay taxes to a centralized authority), but I do believe the government is going to have to trust Verna and me on this. If we didn’t think Miguel could ably handle sitting for Maya, we would’ve made other arrangements.

But I have learned some basic guidelines for having older siblings watch younger ones. From Genevieve Thiers, a pregnancy and parenting expert: “In order for the younger siblings to obey another sibling, they need to start seeing that sibling as an authority figure. The most credible way to establish this is through your actions. Find ways to let your kids know that, for instance, Cindy is now a ‘grown-up’.”

Second, “one of the chief problems with siblings sitting for siblings is the fact that there's no incentive for them to do it right. With a professional babysitter, there's a clear contract: They sit well + you pay them = everyone's happy.”

OK, scratch that last idea. We do not pay Miguel to watch Maya. We call it part of his family responsibilities, which also include folding his laundry, setting and clearing the dinner table, and taking in the garbage pails.

Another website says parents should decide when an older child is mature enough to watch a younger sibling. But I also realize now that even though we trust Miguel he doesn’t know CPR and is unaware of any emergency-hospital contact information. He knows to dial 911, but how would he react if Maya started choking or seriously wounded herself?

Now that Miguel is a mother’s helper (one of our neighbors pays him a small amount to watch her almost 3-year-old son while she is in the house) it makes sense—legal and common—to have him take CPR training and acquaint him how to deal with random emergencies.

But I imagine we will still trust him with Maya for an hour or so some mornings or afternoons as the need arises. Just don’t tell any officers of the court or kindly folk in line at the Farmer’s Market. Big Brother is watching and eating.


  1. We have a Diabolical Criminal as a blogger.. My gosh, What kind of people am I associated with.

  2. You could probably argue that the law is unconstitutional if you felt like going to court :-) It's possible it infringes on the fundamental right to raise your kids the way you want to (I have my constitutional law final on Monday). Great blogs Mr. F, and helpful in my studies!