Swapping babysitters

Sharing the child care with other parents can have huge benifits

We have all been there: you’re invited to dinner with friends and excited about the thought of going out for a night on the town. Putting on lipstick and heels, having someone else cook and clean up your meal, a shared bottle of wine.

But you’ll need to get a sitter.

At $10 an hour it will be $50 for the evening. Now you start to reassess whether this event is “sitter-worthy”.

Do you really need to go? What about all the other places you could spend that money? Can you call on the in-laws again?

Gary Meyers, father of three and author of The Smart Mom’s Babysitting Handbook: How we Solved the Babysitter Puzzle, remembers these challenges.

“My wife was working 24-7, with no break,” he says. “Half of the stress was trying to find a sitter and not wanting to impose on anybody.”

A friend invited Meyers’s wife to join a babysitting co-op, and her entire world changed.

“All of a sudden, she could make an appointment on the spot and know she would be covered,” he says. “It gave her a huge psychological boost.”

The concept of a babysitter co-op is simple: A group of parents agree to share their time by looking after one another’s children. To maintain fairness, a simple currency — be it chips, tokens or points — is introduced. Each member is given a set number of chips, which they can spend on childcare hours.

When members agree to look after other members’ children, they earn chips that are banked until they need a sitter themselves. The cost of sitting, how many chips per-hour per-child are determined at the outset and some groups even determine different rates for the time of day. For example, a Friday night sit may cost or earn more chips than a weekday exchange.

The chips, Meyers says, are key to the success of a co-op.

“It creates a business-like trade where you get in what you put out,” he says. “People don’t have to feel like they are imposing on friends, and no one can take advantage of the system. Every transaction is mutually beneficial and all the inhibitions disappear.”

In considering whether to participate in a co-op, safety is the most common concern for parents. Can you really trust all of the members of the co-op with your children? This is addressed up front, before members are even accepted into the group. It is good practice for new members to be sponsored by an existing member, always a good friend, so that there is an established trust.

“Before inviting them in, members can trade sit a few times to see if there is a good fit,” Meyers says. “Then the leader of the group goes to their house to talk about rules and do a safety check.”

Finding a babysitting co-op online can be a challenge for exactly these safety reasons. The foundation of a successful co-op is built on trust among a group of parents, and strangers simply do not belong.

Websites such as www.babysitterexchange.com aim to provide a space where like-minded parents can connect, but all you really need are some other like-minded parents.

Offer to sit for your friends one evening, if they will do the same for you in return. If your kids are wary of having someone else put them to bed, do it yourself before you leave and have a late dinner.

The key is to eliminate the why-I-can’t excuse and just get to it.

“It is such a simple idea,” Meyers says. “All you need is one or two other moms you trust, who live close to one another and you can start a co-op.”

His website, www.babysittingcoop.com, is full of great information and tools, including a free start-up kit that you can download and print. It covers all the procedures and policies required to get a co-op up off the ground with ease.

The babysitting co-op is a way to build communities, particularly in large cities like Toronto where it can be hard to connect.

“I have heard from co-ops in New York City high rise apartments,” Meyers says. “You can really create a community out of nothing.

“It is self-starting, self-sustaining and self-governing.”

And for time- and money-starved parents, it can be a way to get more of both back into their lives. Best of all, it creates a network of friends for both the parents and their children.

According to Meyers, the biggest problem with co-ops like his wife’s, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, is that “members love them to death and don’t want to leave!”

About this article:

By: Sue Wakefield
Posted: Mar 29 2011 1:27 pm
Filed in: NEWS
Edition: Toronto