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Using Relatives as Childcare Givers

This article discusses the pros and cons of using relatives as childcare providers.

Using Relatives as Childcare Givers

Even as recent as a couple of decades ago, members of extended families were likely to live in fairly close proximity to one another, making it easy to share the burden of caring for each other's children when necessary. As modern society becomes more and more transient, however, many families find themselves in unfamiliar cities with no relatives around to help out with childcare needs.

Working parents who are fortunate enough to be surrounded with relatives willing to care for their children during the parents' work hours have yet another option for childcare, but they need to consider all angles before jumping into such an arrangement. It is crucial to the child's safety that the parents objectively evaluate a care-by-relatives arrangement. While it may seem to be a perfect solution at first glance, the reality of relying on a grandparent or other family member for day care may not be as favorable as it seems. The following factors are a starting point for appraising such a situation:

  • the availability and reliability of the relative to provide care according to the parents' schedules;
  • the ability of the relative to provide adequate care;
  • the safety of the relative's home (if care is to be provided there);
  • the relative's philosophy concerning discipline; and,
  • whether the relative can provide safe transportation to and from school or activities.
Availability and Reliability of the Relative
Availability and reliability are actually separate—but related—concerns. Availability refers to whether the relative is able to care for the child when the parents need her to, while reliability is whether the relative actually does care for the child when she is supposed to. A relative who often has other obligations in her life that cause her to cancel on days she is supposed to provide care is not reliable. Even if she is providing care for free or for much less than a professional childcare provider, it is no bargain if the parents often find themselves having to find backup care because the relative has other demands on her time. In such cases, the parents may feel that they cannot complain because of the deal they are getting on childcare. They may feel resentful toward the relative, placing strain on the extended family relationship.

Ability of the Relative
The ability of the relative to provide the childcare is the most important consideration in a care-by-relatives scenario. The relative who is to pro­vide care must be physically and emotionally fit to look after one or more children on a regular basis, often for many hours at a time. In the case of a grandparent, this may be the greatest obstacle to retaining a relative as the care provider. With parents waiting longer and longer to have children these days, the pool of grandparents caring for children is aging as well. Advanced age brings on issues of both physical and mental health that must be addressed if a grandparent is to care for young, energetic children.

Even younger relatives (aunts, uncles, and so on) need to be evaluated before entrusting them with the care of children. Sit down with your relative and honestly discuss the demands of the job. Consider not only the physical work involved, for example, in caring for infants and toddlers. Also discuss the emotional toll that may result from watching older children who are getting to the tween years of 8-12, when the problems of peer pressure and the onset of puberty present challenges for kids and parents alike.

Do not only look at the emotional stability of your relative. Her personality is important to assess as well. Will she provide a nurturing environment for your child? Will she be patient with him or her? Just as significant is her ability to accept suggestions from you. Will she take offense if you ask her to handle a parenting issue in a different way from what she is used to? Take a hard look at these considerations before leaving your child with the relative.

Another requirement you might have is that the relative be able to transport your child to his or her activities. For this reason, you will want to ascertain that your relative has a valid driver's license, current automobile insurance, and the ability to operate a motor vehicle in a safe manner. If you have an infant or small child, you also should make sure that the relative knows how to install a child safety seat and knows how to secure your child properly in the seat.

All of these issues will require you to ask your relative questions that may make one or both of you uncomfortable. Always keep in mind, however, that your child's safety is the primary consideration. Because of that, you should be prepared to ask whatever questions are necessary to establish that your child is in good hands.

Family Issues
Another potential sticking point that you may not have thought of is the possibility of family conflicts boiling over with the childcare arrangement. The discord may result directly from the relative care situation, such as a disagreement over a parenting issue. A different possibility, however, is that some other prior source of strife between you and the care-giving relative becomes aggravated because of the new relationship the two of you share. For example, if you feel that your mother was always less than responsive to your worries and problems when you were a child, you may become upset with her if you perceive her as distant toward your own children. If you feel that your mother-in-law is overbearing or bossy to you and your spouse, it may make you bristle to hear her dole out orders to your children, even if it would be perfectly acceptable to you if a babysitter did exactly the same thing.

The issue of compensation for the relative's care-giving services can be another obstacle in this type of childcare arrangement. Some relatives (such as grandparents) will insist upon watching the children for no charge. Unless you truly are not in a position to pay anything for child­care, insist that your relative take some sort of compensation. This may help avoid the relative obtaining real or imaginary leverage over you in some later family situation.

    Example: Your in-laws care for your children full-time in your home at no charge. As a result, they now expect you and your family to spend every holiday with them, rather than splitting time with your own parents, because they feel as if you owe them.

Discuss payment for services rendered before you actually start the caregiver arrangement with your relative. Try not to be embarrassed or feel awkward bringing up the subject. The more you are able to keep this a business relationship, the better the chance of the arrangement being successful. If your relative is offended by the offer of money, phrase it in terms of her doing you a favor—if she will accept money for the services, it will make you (or your spouse) more comfortable with the arrangement.

If you are unable to pay in cash, you might attempt to work out a barter system. For example, in exchange for childcare, you spend one weekend day per month running errands for your relative or doing odd jobs for her. If your caregiver is a relative with young children of her own, offer to watch her children during some of your time off so that she can attend to her own business.

In the end, the key to having a successful childcare partnership with a family member is good communication. This means you need the ability to discuss issues with your relative/potential caregiver in an honest and open manner. All of you, including yourself, your significant other, and your relative must have this capability. If you are not comfortable addressing possible problems with your family member ahead of time, your child (and perhaps your entire family) probably will be better off if you make an alternative day care arrangement.

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