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What's a babysitting co-op?
The official definition of a co-op is an enterprise or institution owned and operated by the people who use its services. In practice, of course, babysitting co-ops are much more casual: Basically, a bunch of parents get together and agree to take turns watching each other's children.
Many local moms' clubs or other parenting groups have a babysitting co-op, so consider joining such a group if one exists in your area.
Why do I need one?
The main reason most parents join or start babysitting co-ops is to save money on sitters. It's a trade instead of a paid service – you get free babysitting in return for providing free babysitting for others. And this can be easier than you think because watching other peoples' kids is less of a stretch when you're already home watching your own.
As your children get older, shared babysitting can actually feel more like trading playdates. The children are occupied playing together, which gives you more time to yourself.
More important, joining a co-op assures you that your child will be looked after by the best kind of sitter – another parent you know and trust. You don't have to worry about hiring a teenager who's essentially a stranger and might pay scant attention to your kids or do things in your home you don't entirely approve of.
"The best thing about the co-op, besides not having to pay, is that our kids know each other and play together," says Marie desJardins, a mother of two in Menlo Park, California. "So in some ways, it's actually better than having a babysitter come over because it's a treat for the kids to get to visit a friend's house. Plus, we know that these are experienced parents, and over time, the parents have become close friends too."
How do I set one up?
Take the initiative. Talk to other parents in your neighborhood and see whether they like the idea. If you're new to the area, or just haven't met many parents, consider posting fliers at a local gathering spot – the corner cafe, the gym, the baby products store down the street, or check online for a parenting group in your area.
Marie desJardins started her co-op after reading an article on the subject in a newsletter for stay-at-home moms. Shortly after, she placed an ad in her daycare newsletter asking interested parents to give her a call. Several of them did. The result? The group established a three-way trading system.
The participants set up their co-op using a point system. Every hour (or portion thereof) of babysitting time is worth a specific number of points. Parents get paid for babysitting time in poker chips, which represent these points.
For example, a half hour of sitting can be exchanged for a white chip, an hour exchanged for a red chip, and two hours exchanged for a blue chip. When members accumulate enough chips to "pay" for an upcoming outing, they ask another member to babysit.
"The thing about setting up the chip system is that when you run out of earned time, you have an incentive to babysit for the other parents in the co-op," says desJardins, "which means that everybody ends up going out on a fairly regular basis."
Of course, you can also use a much more informal system in which you simply keep track of the number of hours each member babysits and consider that the same number of free babysitting hours earned.
Once you've found a few willing participants, think about setting up some guidelines. Some issues to consider:
- Compensation. Do you want to use a time-reward system like desJardins's chip method? Or would you prefer that parents simply keep track of their time? Some groups even arrange things so parents get paid for their time, then use that money in turn to pay other parents for the service.
- Pricing. How will you determine the value of babysitting hours? For instance, will households with more than one child pay a higher rate than single-child households? Will co-op members earn extra credits for sitting on holidays?
- Scheduling. One approach is to set up a group email list and send out weekly schedule updates to make sure everyone knows what's happening. Some co-ops find it's best to ask one person to keep track of scheduling. The job can either rotate monthly or be held by someone who is compensated for her time with extra hours of babysitting.
- Ground rules. Do you want to set rules about how far in advance a co-op member must schedule or cancel a babysitting appointment? And how far in the hole can a family get before they have to start returning babysitting services?
Also, what should the policy be if members drop out of the group should they be asked to make up any time "owed" before they leave? And will new members need to have a sponsor in the group in order to join the co-op, or can anyone join?
After you iron out the details, distribute a master list that includes each member's contact information. Make sure to have everyone's phone numbers, email addresses, and mailing addresses. Note the number of children in each family as well as their names, ages, and emergency contact information.
Websites like Babysitter Exchange and Sitting Around can help you set up and manage a co-op. You can also get some good advice from books like Babysitting Co-Op 101: a Win-Win Childcare Solution, by Samantha Fogg Nielsen and Rachel Tolman Terry, or Smart Mom's Baby-Sitting Co-Op Handbook: How We Solved the Babysitter Puzzle, by Gary Myers.