Should You Ever Pay A Family Member To Babysit? The Dos & Don’ts

Should You Ever Pay A Family Member To Babysit? The Dos & Don’ts

Ask a parent, any parent, and they’ll tell you that scoring free childcare from family members is up there with winning the lottery. It’s why I literally can’t believe my luck when my mom offers to take my kids off my hands for even one hour.

While she would never expect anything besides hugs from her grandchildren as compensation for her time, I can’t help but wonder whether I should be paying her or other family members who babysit — say, my 15-year-old cousin, who would probably welcome the cash.

I don’t want my kids’ relationships with their family members to feel transactional. Also, I’m not made of money. But would I pay pros like my sister (a former teacher) for tutoring or my husband’s cousin (a swim instructor) for swim lessons? Sure. And as I know all too well, taking care of kids you’re related to is very much a job, too.

Mostly to clear my own conscience, I asked etiquette expert Lizzie Post, co-president at the Emily Post Institute and co-author of Emily Post’s Etiquette, The Centennial Edition:

Under what circumstances, if any, should you pay a family member to watch your kids?

The long and short of it: “Providing relief by taking care of someone’s kids for free can be monumental for young families, but the reality is that some people can’t afford to,” says Post, who’s not a parent, but lives five houses down from — and frequently babysits — her nieces and nephews. For Post, she finds babysitting family members easy (lol) and enjoyable. “It’s time I offer them, so I don’t charge for it,” she says, although she admits she’d rather take her sister’s kids on a fun afternoon outing than sit home with them while their parents go out on a Saturday night. “It depends on what works for you and your family,” she concludes.

That said, here’s what Post has to say about the do’s and don’ts of navigating payment when your family members pitch in.

When They Incur Costs — or Miss Work — to Babysit Your Kids

DO: Assuming you can afford it, offer to reimburse for costs or offer compensation that’s commensurate with what you’d pay any other sitter — and don’t factor in the joy part of sitting, she says. (That doesn’t always warrant a discount!) Do you have to match the salary your family member could be making elsewhere? Nope, says Post. “Offer what you feel comfortable paying, and give family members the opportunity to speak up if your offer doesn’t seem right,” Post suggests. “It’s fine to negotiate and talk about it.”

If you can’t afford to offer family members a competitive hourly rate — and honestly, who can these days?! — think of something you can swing that they would appreciate, like a $50 gift certificate to your mom’s favorite salon in exchange for childcare that would have otherwise cost you $100, Post suggests. Alternatively, you can cover meals during the time they spend babysitting.

Or, if none of this is in the cards for you, just be open about your circumstances with language like, “Things are tough for me right now, and I could really use some relief,” Post says.

Regardless of your budget and willingness to share the nitty-gritty of your financial circumstances, you should always show appreciation by making things extra easy for family members who babysit. Deliver your kids fed and/or with snacks, diapers, toys, and even a planned activity when possible, Post says — it’s good etiquette.

DON’T: Feel like you *have to* reimburse for meals, experiences, or gifts that a family member initiates purchasing for your kids while they are with them. “It’s on them,” Post says, adding that these costs are best to figure out ahead of a visit lest expectations differ. (For instance, you can always offer cash in advance if you know your kids are going out to lunch with their sitter.)

When You Need Coverage for a Specific Event

DO: Offer the compensation they feel comfortable accepting. “Try, ‘let us know if you want cash, dinner, or something else in exchange,'” Post suggests, since this lets the person decide what feels right for them. After all, she explains that requesting childcare at a specific date and time is different from scheduling casual, quality time for your kids to bond with family members.

DON’T: Assume a family member wants to be compensated the same way every time they lend a hand. The deal they make isn’t the deal they’ve got to stick to, Post explains. “If there are times when the sitter could use a little extra cash and other times when they’d prefer to cash in on takeout, it will all balance out,” she says.

When They Do Childcare for a Living

DO: Offer to pay them their regular salary — or prepare yourself for a hard no when you ask for a hand. See, while it might seem like good luck when an aunt who’s a teacher, a cousin works at a daycare, or a grandma who nannies full-time lives nearby, Post says they could feel burnt out by their day jobs and/or undervalued if you assume that they will pitch in for free.

DON’T: Assume anyone with experience watching kids is available or willing to spend their time caring for your children. As much as we want to think grandparents, aunts, uncles, older cousins, and siblings will help us with childcare, “it’s asking a lot,” Post points out. It’s ever the more reason to have an open conversation about what kind of help you’re looking for and how much family members can and want to provide.

When You’re on Vacation Together or a Guest in Their House

DO: Be forthright about the help you need — be it 15 minutes to shower, an hour to take a run, or an evening to hang back from a group outing, Post says. And while you can open up the conversation about compensation, it’s pretty safe to assume that the time your kids spend with their family will be filed under “freebies.” “When you’re all under the same roof, it’s nice when family members offer parents some kind of [complimentary] relief,” she says.

DON’T: Drop-kick your kids and disappear. “Parents should still be responsible for their kids. They shouldn’t assume that everyone is a babysitter all of a sudden,” Post says.

When You’re Working vs. Going Out for Fun

DO: Offer compensation regardless of your agenda. See, when you ask a family member to babysit, it doesn’t really matter what you’ll do with the kid-free time they give you, Post asserts. “It’s up to you whether you cash in your chips on a date night or a work thing,” she says.

DON’T: Let a-n-y-o-n-e judge how you spend your kid-free time. Parents need breaks, people! Besides, “you’re asking them to watch your kids, not whether they approve of what you’re choosing to do in the moment,” she says.

When the Family Member Could Be Helping Other Family Members With Childcare

DO: Let grandparents (or other family members) decide how to divvy up their own time — regardless of compensation, or in light of it.

DON’T: Get into a bidding war with your sister, or start with the you-help-them-more guilt trips. The time, Post explains, belongs to the family member helping, not the other family members who need help. As such, she suggests operating on a first-come, first-served basis where the family member positioned to help offers equal time to all parties, i.e., five hours a week.

When You Need Help With a Playdate or Birthday Party

DO: Assume your family members will set up out of the goodness of their hearts.

DON’T: Assume family members you’ll need to monitor or execute the party will do so for free. After all, what you’re really asking is for childcare for kids they’re not related to. “You might hire a younger cousin as a parent’s helper,” Post says. “Lay out the tasks and the fee you have in mind, then ask if it sounds good to them,” she suggests.

When the Kids Ask to See Their Grandma/Aunt/Cousin

DO: Get consent before dropping off your kids — and be transparent about your ask. “If it’s actually you who needs a break, call and ask by explaining, ‘I’m at wit’s end, and I need to get these kids out of the house for two hours. Is that something you can provide?'”

It’s not just proper etiquette to get a babysitter’s consent before a drop-off; it’s in your best interest. “If your mom doesn’t know what kind of break you need, you might not get enough of a break,” Post says.

And if you typically compensate your family member for watching your kids, Post says you should respect the same arrangement when you drop them off for social visits without you.

DON’T: Surprise grandma by dumping your kids. Not ideal, emphasizes Post.

The Bottom Line

Every childcare arrangement is nuanced and worth discussing to avoid any awkwardness or feelings of underappreciation. “If you’re thinking about asking family members about compensation for watching your kids, chances are they have thought about it too and have an answer ready for you,” she says. “There’s no one situation that’s right for everyone.”

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