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Enjoy Evenings Out--Set Up a Child Care Co-op

Shel Horowitz's Monthly Frugal Fun Tip for September, 2004

When my kids were younger, we still managed to see a lot of concerts, plays, and so forth, and we did it without spending fifty bucks a night on babysitters--because we shared childcare with another family. By taking turns, we created solid, enjoyable playdates for our kids, under supervision of grownups that we trusted to provide appropriate activities, nutritious food, and reasonable limits. Also, the four kids (their two and our two) got very comfortable with the idea of sleeping over, at a very early age, and that opened up many choices for mini-vacations.

Another lasting benefit in this particular case (although it doesn't always work out that way): My (currently 16-year-old) daughter has a life-long friendship with our friend's child, who has been visiting our house without her parents since she was just a few months old. Last year, they even convinced the two families to overlap our vacations and spend time together in Italy and Switzerland. (Our sons are also still friends, though they don't have the same kind of powerful bond--in part because they are a full two years apart.)

A child care co-op can work really well. But it has to be well-thought-out. Choose people whose values, child-rearing style, and tastes in food are reasonably similar to your own. If one of you uses the TV as an all-day babysitter and the other family focuses many hours on interactive activities such as reading together or doing art, it isn't going to be smooth. It also helps if the two families are within a short drive of each other.

Where do you find such a good fit? The easiest way is to pick people who are already your friends, whom you know from other parts of your life than the playground--people who participate in the same community groups, worship in the same congregation, or share similar interests. If you live in a community where your values are common, you'll be able to find the right people. Before starting to switch, visit each other's households a few times. Observe how the children are disciplined, what the tolerance is for clutter (in our case, both couples had a fairly high tolerance for clutter). Watch what the other family expects of their children. And think--is this a place where my child can have a good experience for several hours at a time? Your instincts will tell you a lot.

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