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. Teens are more available to babysit during the summer months, but it might be difficult to find a reliable sitter when the beach is so tempting. During the school year, you might run short of daytime sitters .Enter the babysitting co-op, an arrangement between sets of parents that provides childcare while sidestepping out-of-pocket expenses.
They aren’t new – my mother was a part of a small-town co-op in the 60s. The concept is simple: A group of parents get together, come up with some guidelines, and babysit one another’s kids. Parents earn points by watching the children of other members, and they can spend those points on care for their own kids. They might meet outside of babysitting to build solid relationships. Some co-ops use a simple activity board or Google doc to share and moderate babysitting commitments. Others use systems like BabysitterExchange or SittingAround to organize the group.
Babysitting co-ops are experiencing a revival, and young families find they create friendships among themselves as well as the children. Here’s a step-by-step guide on making it work.The good thing is that a co-op is usually pretty informal, so you can adjust the rules as you go, depending on what works.
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. In the beginning, keep the circle fairly small – don’t blast out a public Facebook post. And don’t be surprised if the response is overwhelming – after all, the opportunity for free childcare is rare. But it can be difficult in the early stages – parents might be hesitant to jump in and ask or offer a sit. Spend some time explaining the system, and make sure your database of participants is large enough to avoid overwhelming parents. If you only have three sets of parents who are eager to participate, they will grow tired of the concept fairly quickly. Consider inviting grandparents, allowing them to earn hours to be redeemed by their children.
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. Holidays such as New Year’s Eve might demand a higher rate. Finally, choose whether the rate will increase with the number of children being watched.
Set guidelines. Decide on scheduling rules, cancellations, and negative balances. Should the co-op calendar be created on a month-to-month basis, or can a family schedule at the last minute? What happens if there is an emergency?
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 could happen. Families that don’t feel comfortable with the system may decide to leave the co-op. 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. Make the group private, and have all applications go through a trusted administrator. Consider creating a shared Google Calendar so members can post their available hours each week, too.
Reciprocate. Be kind to each other. If you utilize the co-op services, make sure you step up to do your part as a sitter. Try to schedule as far in advance as possible. Go the extra mile for each other, and compromise if an unavoidable situation comes up. But keep your appointments, and treat everyone’s kids with love and compassion. Keep the drama to yourself.
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.
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