The youngest babysitters: African youth aptly care for baby siblings

One father traveling overseas realizes finding a babysitter in the US is full of decisions unknown to parents in other parts of the world, who raise their kids to help care for their siblings.

Kate Holt/Reuters
Children displaced by fighting in Bor, South Sudan, rest upon arriving in Mingkaman refugee camp March 24.

I travel overseas frequently for work. My most recent assignment took me to East Africa for several months of human rights research in South Sudan. When I got back, my 8-year-old daughter asked me what children are like there. 

I told her that children in South Sudan loved to run around outside and play. I’d seen them climbing mango trees and pulling toy cars made from discarded milk boxes and plastic soda caps. I’d seen them playing soccer and swimming in the River Nile. One big difference, I told her, is that children in South Sudan were often responsible for caring for even younger children, without adults around.

My daughter looked up from her iPad Mini. I nodded, and asked if she remembered how old her first babysitter had been. 

“I think she was 12,” she says.  

How young is too young for one child to care for another, without an adult around? And how long would our own youngsters last on their own (non-Apple) devices, whether in East Africa or North America? 

My wife and I weren’t sure, but we talked about it after I told her how South Sudanese children as young as 5 and 6 years old seemed at ease caring for their toddler or even infant siblings. While visiting villages there, I’d encountered children alone at home, in front of their thatched-roof houses, called tukuls, tending fires and watching younger ones. I’d seen small girls walking alongside roads, lugging jerry cans of water with babies strapped to their backs – again, no adults to be seen. And I recalled the time I stopped at a roadside stall for a quick meal.

My South Sudanese driver had pulled off the dirt road suddenly. Two very small boys were walking nearby; one looked to be 4 or 5 years old; the other, barely big enough to stand on his own. I saw the look of alarm on the older boy’s face, and how quickly he stepped in front of the younger one as our truck came too close for his liking, shielding and swinging the toddler up to his hip with practiced hands while backing warily away. 

Later, I queried some of my East African friends – university-educated, working professionals – by e-mail about their experiences growing up. Each said that they had taken on caregiver roles at young ages.

“An African child becomes responsible right from childhood,” writes Levi Yona, a South Sudanese pastor at an Episcopalian church, from Juba, the nation’s capital. “Most of the time their parents leave them alone at home while running to find food, either through farming or trade, or pastoralism. As the kids are left alone, they have no choice other than the older ones to assume taking care of the younger ones.” Mr. Yona recalls that as an 11-year-old boy, he was expected to cook for and bathe his 6 and 4-year-old siblings while his parents were away. 

Judy Oduma, a governance consultant in Nairobi, Kenya, writes, “In African settings, taking care of siblings is a common thing. Kids therefore become more responsible at early ages. They know how to feed and carry the babies, either in their arms or tied on their backs. In the West, there are options – taking small ones to day care centers which are not available in Africa.” Ms. Oduma adds that African children are “hardened to tough situations and have to understand that to have something put on the table, parents have to go out and work.” 

My wife and I talked about different expectations of children between cultures. We recalled trying to decide a few years ago whether our two girls – then ages 6 and 4 years old – were “ready” to be left with a not-quite-teenaged babysitter so we could enjoy a dinner out, without having to cut food into little pieces, or argue over desserts. We engaged in a lengthy discussion about whether a responsible-seeming adolescent down the street was old enough – and more important, capable enough – of doing a good job watching our kids. 

The prospective sitter was only 11 at the time. In South Sudan, she might have been a veteran caregiver by that age, yet we felt the need to screen our hypothetical surrogate as thoroughly as we could without running official background checks on her. Yes, she seemed young, but she was bright, respectful, well groomed, and had always been friendly to our girls. When we learned the potential sitter had recently passed a local Red Cross babysitter certification course, we were cautiously optimistic about her chances of success with our girls. 

On the big night, the sitter arrived punctually at 7 p.m. toting her own first aid kit. Before we could even greet her, she requested emergency cell phone numbers from each of us and wrote them down carefully in a small notebook. 

When we got back later, we asked the kids nervously how everything had gone. Nobody was limping or crying, and nothing was on fire – all good signs.

“When can you and mom go away again?” my eldest daughter asked. The younger one was actually mad at us for coming back “too soon” (her words). 

Maybe they’re onto something in East Africa. Maybe the children can survive without us, if only for a few hours.

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