Even the most enthusiastic parent needs some kid-free time – whether it’s for a night out with the spouse, a lunch with friends or even just a doctor’s appointment. But the expense of paid childcare can be prohibitive for some families. Enter the babysitting co-op, an arrangement between sets of parents that provides childcare while sidestepping out-of-pocket expenses. Parents earn points by watching the children of other members, and they can spend those points on care for their own kids. Here’s a step-by-step guide on making it work.
- Identify potential members. These might be parents at your church, daycare, playgroup, office or other organization; of course, you’ll want to make sure they’re people you would be comfortable leaving your child with. Put the idea out there (a group e-mail is a good way to start) and see who responds. If there’s interest from at least six or seven households, you probably have a big enough base to get started. If you come up short, ask the interested families to pass the word along to their trusted friends. Don’t be surprised if the response is overwhelming – after all, the opportunity for free childcare is rare.
- Devise a tracking system. Figure out a way to keep track of each member’s earned and spent babysitting hours. Some groups use poker chips or carnival-type tickets as currency, while others track points on a spreadsheet. (Since busy parents tend to lose things, this might be a better option unless your members are exceptionally organized.) Also, choose how many credits (if any) each member will have upon joining and how far “in the hole” they can go.
- Work out rates. Decide if you’re going to use a flat rate schedule or a variable one – some co-ops charge more points for sitting during dinner hours or on the weekends, while a lower rate might be used during sleeping hours. Finally, choose whether the rate will increase with the number of children being watched.
- Plan for contingencies. What happens if a member leaves the group with a negative balance? What if one family’s kids are exceptionally unruly? It’s not possible to anticipate every situation, but planning for the likely ones and setting some ground rules is a good way to head off many disagreements.
- Communicate. It’s much easier to find childcare within the co-op if you stay in regular contact with your fellow members. This could be done through a listserv, like a Google Group, but a Facebook group or message board could work just as well. Consider creating a shared Google Calendar so members can post their available hours each week, too.
- Have social events. This isn’t required, but playdates and events for co-op members are helpful for getting to know the parents and kids in your group. A quarterly potluck BBQ at a local park is a good, low-cost way to maintain personal interaction with members. Or organize the occasional trip to a local children’s museum.
- Make membership rules. As your co-op becomes more established, you’ll probably be approached by “outsiders” who want to become part of your group. If your co-op members are open to newcomers, decide how you want to vet potential new members. You might create a membership application that asks for personal references, have an organizer visit the applicant’s home, or both. Consider setting a cap on the co-op’s size, too – a group of 40 or so families is comfortable, but it’s impossible to get to know everyone in a co-op with hundreds of members.
Feeling lazy? Organize a swap. If you’re not up for the hassle of tracking points, simply gather a few friends and organize a “parent’s night out” – you watch their kids for a few hours one evening, and they’ll do the same on a future date. Your kids will have fun – and you’ll get some much-needed time to relax and recharge.