Has Grandma offered to watch your little one a few hours a week? Do you have a sister who might be willing to care for your toddler while you go to work? Using a relative for child care has lots of benefits -- as well as a few potential downfalls. "When my mother-in-law offered to watch my three kids one day a week while I worked, I was thrilled," said Courtney Graham, a mom of three in Ventura, California. "It was free and, as she's a retired teacher, I knew she would have lots of educational activities for them. But I was a little nervous how she would react to the special diet that we were on and our expectations about screen time." Before you decide to ask a relative about child care, consider the pros and cons of hiring a family member.
Benefits of Relative Care
Why spend the time and energy searching for a stranger to watch your children when you have a family member who already knows and loves them? Here are a few of the benefits to having a relative provide your child care.
There is a built-in bond. One of the greatest benefits of hiring family to take care of your child is that your child may already know or be comfortable with the caregiver. Having a relative that "genuinely loves your child will allow a great bond to build and [you'll] have someone who is really looking out for the best interest of your child," says Deborah Gilboa, M.D., a board-certified family physician and founder of Ask Doctor G (askdoctorG.com).
There will be no more awkward transition periods. You know that phase with a new babysitter when you're getting to know each other? That awkward stage is usually eliminated when you hire a family member. "If you have a relative you know well and trust to provide child care, you may have a peace of mind you could not get from strangers, no matter how wonderful," Dr. Gilboa explains.
You might be able to save a little. Some parents choose a relative for child care because they think it's free. But don't presume this is the case. "Paying for regular, ongoing child care is a sign of respect for your care provider, and you should assume you'll be paying," Dr. Gilboa says. A grandparent who sees the time as an additional chance with her grandchild might brush off the idea of payment, but a sister-in-law who feels burdened with watching your child and her own might appreciate the offer of compensation. If she refuses your offer of money or compensation, take a moment to give thanks and realize how fortunate you are. Then try to find other ways to show your appreciation, such as dropping off a favorite coffee drink or homemade cookies.
You can be in constant contact. Babysitters come and go. Children outgrow their day-care centers. But a relative is here to stay in your child's life for a long period of time. "That person will be a part of your child's life for many years," Dr. Gilboa says. "You don't need to worry that your child will bond, only to have that person move on out of his life."
Problems of Relative Care
Unfortunately, relative care isn't always rosy. Before you decide to have a family member watch your child, make sure you've considered these potential problems.
There might be a power struggle. Different generations may have different styles or ideas regarding discipline, nutrition, playtime, and other aspects of parenting. You may limit your kids' sugar intake, but Grandma may believe that cookies are for eating -- anytime. If you have an older relative providing child care, there is the potential to butt heads over who knows best. Whether it's how much television the kids are watching or what time they need to get to bed, it may be trickier to explain your expectations to a relative than to a babysitter. "Rules and boundaries can be much harder to enforce with a relative," Dr. Gilboa says.
Your child may not be exposed to enough activities. Most child-care programs offer kids a variety of activities: developing motor skills, learning to take turns, exploring tactile surfaces, problem solving. Consider the types of activities your child will engage in by staying with the relative. Is the family member likely to take your child on outings, read books, or play games? Deb Moberly, Ph.D., an early-childhood development specialist based in St. Louis and the Founder of Children 1st says that children need "stimulation in the areas of creativity, literacy, science, and math experiences" from infancy. "Children of all ages need care and experiences that will help them grow and develop to their potential. At some point, children need peers for socialization and emotional development," she explains. Decide if the family member is willing and mobile and capable of providing your child with developmentally appropriate activities on a daily basis.
There might be unforeseen conflicts. Unhappy with a nanny? You can fire her. Don't like the day-care center? You can leave. But when your mother, aunt, or cousin is providing the child care, cutting ties isn't really an option. Before you decide on relative care, carefully consider your relationship with the family member, her interest and availability, and your ability to handle conflict. Discuss together upfront the best way to handle problems should they arise, and check in regularly with each other to make sure the arrangement is working smoothly.
There might be commitment issues. When you hire a nanny to watch your children two mornings a week, you have the expectation that she'll be there unless she's ill or has requested a day off. Will the family member see her responsibilities as a scheduled part of her week and avoid crowding her schedule? Or will she see this as just a minor commitment and make other plans? Ask her to list any regular commitments to see if she truly has time to provide regular child care. If you'll frequently have to find back-up care because she is sick, booked for social events, or has commitments with her own children, you may want to look into another child care arrangement.