When I was around 10 years old, I based many of my opinions on fashion, boys, and life on conversations with our teenaged babysitter. There was a rumor floating around that she was Madonna’s third cousin once removed, so my adolescent self took everything she said as gospel truth. She was my gateway into teen magazines and gave me my first (garish) makeover, complete with teased 80s bangs and bright blue eyeshadow.
And now all these years later, I’m watching my 10-year-old daughter with the same case of hero worship for our own teenage sitters. It is powerful, and so, so cute.
For example: This past summer, my kids excitedly told me about a fun, new thing the 15-year-old babysitter had introduced them to. That thing was… CDs. I proudly went down into the basement and tossed a three-ring binder busting with Britney Spears and the Dixie Chicks (now known as The Chicks) in front of them and offered to play a few. They were not impressed.
The sitter, being much cooler than me, had not played music with the discs. She let my kids paint CDs and turn them into art projects — really cool ones. Given the multitude of streaming options on my phone, I caved to their creative streak and they spent the rest of the afternoon painting over my “1999 Car Jamz 4 The Ride 2 School” mixes.
If I had ever suggested the idea of painting my old discs my kids would not have looked up from their Minecraft game, but from a high schooler? Best. Idea. Ever. And I see this again and again. Clean up after your art project? No issue for the sitter, but a huge battle for me. Do you think that top might be ready for the hand-me-down bin? Sage fashion advice from an older girl, but just a bad idea when it’s mom’s suggestion.
This behavior seems most common in tweens and teens, but my best friend has already seen it crop up with her two boys, ages 7 and 9. Not only do they aspire to do everything my 10 and 12-year-olds do, the older kids run the show in their neighborhood, too. “If they come up with an idea or a game, my kids are desperate to be a part of it in any way,” she says.
While at times frustrating, it’s really not a mystery why our kids are almost always more likely to value the opinions of peers a few years ahead of them over our parental wisdom. When you’re a kid, adulthood — especially your 40s— feels impossibly far away. The ideas and opinions of parents chafe and feel uncomfortable to kids because they have a hard time realizing that mom or dad has been in their shoes, even if that was in “the 1900s.”
When the exact same advice comes from a slightly older neighbor, teen babysitter, or young adult cousin, kids feel like they can relate. Those older kids are living in the same world and have only just recently navigated the stage our kids are now in.
There’s literally science on this, too: Nearly a decade ago, a study in Psychological Science found that adolescents between 12 and 14 are more likely to trust other adolescents’ opinions on safety and risk than their own parents. Tween and teens are endlessly peer-driven, and a kid a few years older is particularly alluring to most of them. Younger kids, the study found, tend to still trust their grownups, and older teens often circle back around to valuing their parents’ advice, too.
Kids in their tween years are going through a period of major change, so of course they’d look to the teens who’ve just made the same leap. I find it comforting to know it’s not just my kids… though maybe a little scary, too.
As with so many parenting issues, I guess we have to adopt a “this too shall pass” mentality with the older-kid fascination. Not only are their cases of hero worship developmentally expected, they may be even necessary to their identity development. Thankfully, as the research shows, they will likely begin to think our opinions matter again someday. After all, when I am in Target deciding between two shirts, I text my mom — not my former babysitter.
Meg St-Esprit, M. Ed., is a journalist and essayist based in Pittsburgh, PA. She’s a mom to four kids via adoption as well as a twin mom. She loves to write about parenting, education, trends, and the general hilarity of raising little people.