All parents need a break, but is a baby-sitting co-op the answer?
Starting a baby-sitting co-op sounds like a great idea: get some families you know together, come up with a system for trading time and voilà—parents get some freedom minus the steep fees and worries that often come with a teenage gun for hire. Also, no gum under the coffee table.
But when you get down to it, there’s no such thing as a free night out in this world. Ideally, a co-op will liberate you and your spouse for a night at the Empty Bottle (or the symphony, if that’s your thing) just like the old days, but it can also leave you with a fistful of baby-sitting credit good only for Tuesday afternoons and stick you home watching the neighbor’s kids on a prime Saturday night. “Basically, for a couple, it gives you a night out together but also creates another night where one of you has to go baby-sit,” says co-op newbie Gabe McDonough of Logan Square and father of an 18-month-old girl. “It defeats the purpose.”
Proponents note that co-ops that last tend to be about more than saving money and getting a break from the kids—they’re organic social networks. “It appeals to people who like being part of a collective endeavor,” says Monica Lasky, director of the Neighborhood Parents Network Babysitting Cooperative, which has been running for more than 20 years. “If you have people who are just using it as a backup or who don’t appreciate the community-building benefits, ultimately it’s going to fail.”
Check the boards on websites such as npnparents.org for co-ops looking for members. Otherwise, there’s scads of info online about starting your own, as well as sites like babysitterexchange.com that will put you in touch with local co-ops your research may not have turned up.
If you do decide to strike out on your own, download a free start-up kit from babysittingcoop.com, and keep in mind Lasky’s suggestions:
1. Lay down the law.
Make a list of what is expected of members, how and when the group will meet, standard rates and rates for watching multiple children. Rules such as maximum membership and penalty payments for leaving the group with negative credits can also be established.
2. Be choosey.
Consider home visits and the background of prospective members. More stringent co-ops can require home visits before admitting new members or a sponsor within the group who will vouch for a prospective member. Also think about potential members’ locations and access to transportation. Families who live close by will undoubtedly do more sitting for each other, says Lasky.
3. Be systematic.
Develop a system to track and log hours. Some larger groups have online exchanges that keep track of credits and hours automatically while low-tech methods (using carnival tickets, for example) also do the trick.
4. Talk amongst yourselves.
Suggest members spread the word when they’re spending an evening at home and are available to baby-sit, instead of just responding to requests. Ask families to make preferred and blackout days clear to avoid confusion, and establish policies for dealing with pets, sick/difficult kids and deliveries.
5. Powwow for peace.
Meet face-to-face every once in a while. Co-op members are more likely to continue participating if they get together regularly. Bring the kids to these meetings, too. They’re the reason you’re here—remember?