Dear Dr. Debbie,
A few friends in the neighborhood have been talking about starting a babysitting co-op for our young children. Any tips for getting us going in the right direction?
Far From Family
Don’t miss last week’s column Handling a child’s interruptions — Good Parenting
Dear Far From Family,
I joined a babysitting cooperative when my children were ages 1 and 4. Right away, I reazlied that the benefits went way beyond getting someone to watch my children for a few hours at a time. Everyone wins in a babysitting cooperative. Parents can get a break (and maybe some precious time with each other). Children make friends, play with different toys and eat new snacks. There is essentially no cost and much to gain.
The premise of a babysitting co-op is that you accept the other members as suitable care providers for your children in your absence. You also accept responsibility for caring for the children of the other members. There must be unquestionable trust among the members in the group. You trust one another’s judgment though there are bound to be differences among you. A parent who has rigid requirements for how she wants her child to be talked to, played with, fed, changed and napped, will not do well in a co-op.
Sharing implies holding a common baseline of understanding, despite individual variations in caring for a child’s needs. You may be so impressed with someone’s ideas and strategies that you take a few home! That was the case when I saw a swing mounted from the ceiling in a basement playroom. We had the perfect beam in our playroom to do the same thing. On the other hand, the home with no television, while admirable, was just a nice change and not an idea my family wanted to copy.
The first arrangement for care I made in my co-op was with one of my “sponsors,” a neighbor I had known for over a year. My children were acquainted with the family, and it was just three houses away. Not only did my children enjoy their visit with the children, their toys, and their snacks, I was finally able to do something as child-unfriendly as clean out the oven.
Another time I set up a sit with a perfect stranger. The mother had not been to the gathering at which I was introduced to the other members because she had been on bedrest. The arrangement, however, worked well for both me and my children.
Membership in a babysitting co-op is usually by invitation or through a sponsorship by someone in the club. This shows the confidence of a current member that this new person is OK. In our club, two sponsors were required. If you are starting from scratch, it’s better to start with a small group until you feel comfortable with each other. Let the group grow after you have worked out the operational kinks.
Before I could join, I was given a two-page list of co-op rules that I had to agree to follow. Throughout my years in the co-op, the rule sheet was often discussed, debated and amended at our quarterly meetings. Rules often changed. When I started, night time sits counted as double time. At the time, night time help was rarely needed since teenage sitters were available for those rare occasions when both parents were out. But as times changed, parents had more work, community meetings and classes in the evenings and teenage sitters became sparse. So the group decided that any time of day was worth the same. More members needed, and were willing to host, night time sits.
How it works
Our club operated on bingo chips. I was given 75 plastic chips and each chip worth a half hour of care for one child. I had two children so that equaled 18 hours and 45 minutes of child-free time. Upon leaving the co-op, I was to return no less than 75 chips.
The economic beauty of the co-op is that, as determined by the monthly “chip count,” the members who are low on chips get more sits directed their way. If you have a high chip count (way over 75) you wouldn’t be called to sit. We took turns serving as the monthly secretary, who was responsible for evening out the chip count as we set up the month’s sits. With an optimal 18 to 20 members, the duty came around every year and a half, and there were enough sitters that almost every sit was easily filled.
A sample sitters’ spreadsheet can be found on Frugal Mama’s website. I notice that this co-op keeps track of how much a child sleeps during the sit and only gives half credit for that. That is a good example of the kinds of variations that are determined by each co-op.
Unexpected and Lasting Benefits
As a family, we found innumerable benefits to being in the babysitting co-op. My skeptical husband was disappointed one day when I agreed to sit a 6-year-old at the last minute, just as he and I had started a serious discussion. He soon realized the benefit of an added child, however, as our children and the guest disappeared into the playroom. We were able to resume our discussion without interruption.
The children, of course, made friendships with future schoolmates, some of which lasted well beyond our time in the co-op. They had friends throughout the neighborhood, and a real village of adults who truly cared about them.
Long after the babysitting years, it was a great comfort to run into a friend from the co-op and compare notes, commiserate and encourage one another along the rocky path of our children’s adolescence. The caring genuinely never stopped.
Sharing yourself and each other’s children is what a babysitting co-op is all about.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
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What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy[at]jecoannapolis.com.