Our older daughter is not yet 4, and our family is already on its third formal babysitting co-op. This time around, we started the co-op, and now that we are finally settled in a house and neighborhood, we hope that it runs for many, many years.

The babysitting co-op is such an easy and sensible concept that I'm amazed everyone doesn't have one. When I was a kid, I remember my parents handing the sitter a $10 bill at the end of the night, and that included a tip. But parents today know all to well that it's not that way anymore. In the Chicago area, a teen-age sitter who charges only $5 an hour is a sought-after commodity, and I have a friend in the San Francisco Bay Area who charges $25 an hour. (She's a professional nanny, but this is for your typical play with the kids and put them to bed services of the Saturday night sitter!)

Co-op sitting is also better than hiring a sitter, in my view, because I'd rather have other parents watching my kids than a teen-ager. It's also usually fun for the kids. Kiersten Kotaka recently wrote here about swapping childcare with other families. I'm adding my two cents on how to organize a true co-op, with its own currency system and rules. Later this week, in part two of this topic, I'll include the rule sheet to the co-op we recently began in our Chicago-area neighborhood.

 

KINDS OF CO-OPS

The co-ops in which we participated were all for occasional babysitting. We watched other peoples' children on a Saturday night or a weekday afternoon or whenever, and we had at our disposal a pool of other parents to do the same for us. We kept track of our participation through credits: We earned credits each time we babysat and we spent credits when we used a sitter.

A friend of mine has a different kind of co-op: A group of graduate students operate a playgroup at a student center two mornings a week. Each week, a couple of parents take a turn monitoring the group while the other parents go off and study or watch "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" or whatnot.

There are also co-ops of families who exchange the duties of regular weekday childcare, but I do not so far have experience with these.

 

FIND ONE OR START ONE

As a co-op beginner, I recommend that you investigate whether there is an existing co-op in your area. It's easier to join a flourishing co-op than to start from scratch, although neither is all that difficult. If you find yourself dissatisfied with the existing co-op, you can always start a new one once you've learned the ropes.

Ways to find a co-op: Word of mouth, parent centers and schools, local Internet message boards. I found our first co-op on Craigslist, our second on Chicago's Northside Parents Network, and I learned about one in my current neighborhood by e-mailing neighbors. However, the one in my neighborhood wasn't open to me at this time, so I started a new one.

 

STARTING YOUR OWN

There are books out there about forming and running a co-op, but it's actually pretty simple. You need a group of families -- I'd say a minimum of three or four, and as many as 20 families. You need to establish a credit scale and a way of keeping track of it. The first co-op we were in used tickets as currency – the kind of tickets sold for raffles at church bazaars. If I babysat one kid for one hour, I received four tickets. Two kids for an hour earned me six tickets. The second co-op didn't use currency, but instead kept track of credits on a central spreadsheet, held by rotating secretaries. Families kept track of how many credits they'd earned and how many they owed, and then reported them once every eight weeks or so. This group eventually moved to a Web-based reporting method, built by a couple of co-op members who were also computer programmers.

I found the reporting to a secretary method unnecessarily labor intensive, so when I started my own co-op, I suggested a ticket currency system, and that's what we use.

In Part II of this post, I'll discuss drafting your co-op rules, which should at a minimum cover how members can be accepted to the co-op, how sits are arranged, and the rates that families can charge and earn per hour.