It's true. I don't pay for babysitting. No, I don't have extended family in town, and yes, I do let other people watch my children. I may be cheap frugal, but the real reason I don't pay for babysitting is that my family belongs to a babysitting co-op.
What is a babysitting co-op, you may ask? Just like any other type of cooperative, members participate by doing their share of the work in exchange for some benefit. So, in a babysitting co-op, we agree to babysit for other families with the understanding that they will babysit ours. Kind of a "I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine" mentality.
Before I get into the nuts and bolts of how it all works, let me begin by saying that we love our co-op. Our girls love going out on "sits" as well as hosting them. Honestly, it becomes like a glorified playdate. My husband and I can go out--or rip up the tile in our shower like we did on one of our "dates"--with the knowledge that our kids are in the care of trusted adults who are also parents. And an added bonus is that our daughters get to experience another household: another family's rules, procedures, and traditions.
I had actually heard of babysitting co-ops a while before we joined ours in Midtown. Several years ago, we visited some dear friends in the Washington DC area. A casual mention of their co-op turned into a full-blown tutorial. I was so intrigued by the idea that I immediately tried to start one when we returned home.
I cast a wide net of all the parents we knew and invited them all over to our house to introduce the idea of a co-op. Everyone who came was very enthusiastic and eager to begin. I collected contact information and relevant details and our co-op was born.
Except that it totally failed.
Upon reflection, many of the reasons for this failure are precisely why our current co-op works so well. For starters, because we were friends with all of the prospective members, our kids were all the same age, which at the time was between one and two. Babysitting a toddler is just as challenging as entrusting a toddler to someone else's care, and no one was quite ready to impose that toddler craziness on another family. Another problem was that because we had met our parent friends through various activities around town, we were scattered throughout the metro area, from Midtown to Southaven to Shelby Forest. Spending half of the sit driving to and from the sitters' house was not very practical.
So, the co-op slowly fizzled away, and we resigned ourselves to occasionally trading sits with friends and neighbors for special occasions. Until a chance meeting at the park changed all that.
One afternoon we ran into some friends, and while chatting, I learned that they had plans that night to attend a party for their babysitting co-op. My ears immediately perked up, and I pressed for details. They belonged--and still do--to the Midtown Babysitting C0-op, which has been around since the 1970s.
To make a long story short, we joined and have been happily exchanging sits ever since. The group is very laid-back, but there are specific rules that keep the whole thing organized and running smoothly. We follow a manual that was established by the charter group in 1977, which includes the following highlights:
- There are geographic boundaries that ensure no family lives more than ten minutes away (preserving that precious sit time!).
- Another family must sponsor each prospective new family. This ensures that everyone is appropriately vetted, which is important because not everyone knows everyone in advance.
- Sits are "paid for" with scrip (kind of like Monopoly money), so that no one takes advantage of the system. The rates are different depending on number of children and duration of the sit. For example, a three-hour sit for two children would "cost" 9 scrip.
- One member serves as President for a year; this individual oversees the co-op and processes new members.
- The secretary position rotates monthly; this individual is responsible for receiving and sending out sit requests via email and communicating with members when a sit has been filled.
- Sit requests are anonymous, with only the date, time, and number of children listed (this helps prevent bias).
- Brief meetings are held every other month to discuss how the co-op is operating, and two parties (one just for adults) are held each year.
Pardon me for gushing, but we have had a great experience so far. My husband and I have gone out more, I have been able to attend meetings and book clubs while my husband is out of town, we've all made some new friends, and we've saved a TON of money. Plus, we're building social capital that makes our neighborhood feel even more like a community.