Five questions to ask yourself before hiring a relative to take care of your children

May 7, 2014

Given the benefits, it’s no wonder that close to a third of all families use a relative to provide childcare coverage. “Kith and kin” care—another word for using family members as childcare providers—is popular for two big reasons: the opportunity to save money and the peace of mind that parents get from knowing their children are with someone they implicitly trust.

Says Anna, a full-time working mom of two children in Massachusetts, “Financially it’s huge. Huge. My mother-in-law has helped us since my daughter was 6 months. Most often it’s been 50% her and 50% daycare. Even with her covering only half the time we’ve probably saved $500-$1,000 per month.” Kate, a FTWM turned SAHM with two young children who are watched once a week by her mother or mother-in-law shares, “It is really so comforting to know that my children are with people who love them as much as I do. Also, I never have to worry about whether or not the kids will be welcome if they are sick or grumpy.” Adds Katarina, another mom of two: “It makes me feel slightly less guilty being at work all day since it’s family helping to raise our children.”

Most of the moms I talked to who enlist the help of relatives to provide childcare agreed that the pros far outweigh the cons. And they all feel extremely lucky to have family close by and willing to help out. With more and more baby boomers living further away from family members than in the past and staying in the workforce longer, not all families can consider family members as a potential childcare option. (In fact, this story recently published in the New York Times tells the sad tale of a family tradition of grandmothers caring for their grandkids abruptly ending due to the need to hang onto a higher paying job.)

However, there were other moms who have decided that the cost savings and pre-existing relationship aren’t enough of a draw to invite a family member in the form of Mary Poppins—and potentially other problems—into their lives on a regular basis.

Helen, New York mom to baby boy Charlie, calculates her family would have saved close to $500 a month by allowing her mother-in-law—who lives next door—to assume the role of Charlie’s caretaker. But, she says, “Personal family politics got in the way. The short of it is: she doesn’t like me and we have a history that isn’t so rosy.” She ultimately decided to put her then-13-week-old son into full time family daycare.

Danielle, a single mom living in Colorado, admitted that “Although my mom didn’t expect to be paid for taking care of my daughter Maddie, she felt that she because she was doing me such a huge favor she deserved to spend all holidays and free time with us. If Maddie and I went on vacation with friends instead of her, she would actually get passive-aggressive and pouty about it. It got to the point where it wasn’t worth it anymore. Even though I saved money and my daughter loved spending time with her grammy, we ended up getting an au pair. It works much better for us.”

So, how do you determine whether choosing your family member over another provider will turn out to be a childcare dream or nightmare? To start, ask yourself the following 5 questions and think carefully about the answers:

1. Does your relative want the job?
Enlisting the help of a relative to care for your children may sound like a great idea to you but you need to make sure the person you have in mind truly wants to take on such a big responsibility. In the case of all of the moms I spoke to, their relatives were more than happy to care for their children and in some instances, had specifically requested the gig.

Says Anna, “In my mother-in-law’s [Eastern European] culture, it’s what you do. She definitely feels like this is her purpose in life right now, and she’s excited to be able to spend time with her grandkids whenever she can.” Rachel, a mom in Massachusetts whose son Cole is in a home daycare WThF, relies on her mother-in-law for coverage on Mondays and Tuesdays. She says her mother-in-law, “put the offer out there originally. The largest driving factor is to spend time with her grandson and that is great.”

2. Can you tell your relative what to do? (And will she listen to you?)
Giving specific directions to a daycare center, au pair or nanny about how to care for your children is easy. You are paying them for a job so that makes you the boss. It’s not so easy with a family member. With a relative, it’s often harder to give orders and as well as deal with the consequences if she doesn’t follow them.

Helen says, “I wasn’t convinced [my mother-in-law] would do it ‘my way’. She was raised in a different time and place. I wasn’t sure she would follow the latest practices when it comes to raising children—putting him to sleep on his back, ensuring proper restraints in the high chair/stroller/car, feeding schedule, etc. I felt that she would scoff at these measures, calling them over-protective. Several of my friends who have older family members care for their kids struggle with this issue.”

Rachel’s sentiments are similar. “I can tell her what to do…but it’s hard. She agrees to do everything the way I want her to do it but she will passively question me. Or quietly do otherwise. For example, she will change [Cole] because she thinks I dress him in clothes that are too small. Instead of just bringing up with me, she just changes him on her own. I know she’s thinking, ‘I know what I’m doing, I raised 4 kids.’ I knew it would be hard. But it’s harder than I thought it would be.”

“There were compromises that were difficult for me in the beginning,” says Kate, another Massachusetts mom with two young children. “We use cloth diapers but [my mother-in-law] doesn’t want to use them at her house, so she uses disposables there. I don’t allow the boys to fall asleep in the car because they won’t take naps at home if they do, but she sometimes lets them fall asleep on their way here or there. Overall, though, the pros for us have far out-weighed the cons when it comes to the favor that this super-grandma has extended to us.”

Even Anna, the mom who can’t seem to say enough positive things about her situation says that her mother-in-law lets her kids eat more candy than they should and doesn’t restrict computer screen time like she’s been asked to. “She doesn’t want to say no to the kids. She wants to spoil them all the time.”

3. Is your relative physically capable of caring for your children?
Your childcare provider should be healthy and strong enough not only to keep your children safe and fulfill their basic needs but also to really get down on the ground and play with them and engage them in outdoor activity. This is especially true for babies and toddlers. Sometimes it’s hard to be an impartial judge when assessing your own parent’s capabilities so consider this question carefully and ask for second opinions. If you have any doubts, it’s a smart idea to set up a trial run before committing to a long-term arrangement.

Helen said she felt pretty sure her mother-in-law, in the condition she is in, would just have her son playing inside while she watches TV. On the other hand, Anna was pleasantly surprised to find that her mother-in-law’s health actually improved after she started caring for her two children. “I never questioned her physical ability to begin with. And now, she’s younger and in better shape from taking care of our kids. I think it’s actually been good for her health.”

4. Is your relative committed to the job?
An unreliable childcare provider is every parent’s worst nightmare. So make sure your relative recognizes the importance of showing up every day on time so you can get to work. Even if she’s not being paid (although we recommend otherwise), and you don’t operate under a formal contract (another no-no), family members who agree to watch your children should know that it’s not ok to bail on their responsibilities if something better comes along.

Anna laughs as she admits that, “my mother-in-law lives on the top floor of our house, so it’s kind of impossible for her to play hookie.” On the other hand, Kate shares, “Now that I am not working and use the childcare coverage as time to get things done around the house, it’s not uncommon for my mother-in-law to cancel. I can’t really say I blame her—she has a life and a home and a job of her own.”

5. Is your relative willing to respect your family’s limits?
When parents arrive home, au pairs and nannies are usually ready to end their shift and get on with their own personal lives. Family members? Some of them prefer to linger a bit more. If you crave private time at the end of the day with your family, you have to be willing to set limits and be ready to confront a relative who doesn’t respect those limits.

Anna feels her situation is unique in that, “[my mother-in-law] lives with us but when I’m home, I hardly see her. She’s done and she goes and does her own thing. Even if she’s made dinner she disappears. I may see her for two minutes tops. So we definitely get enough privacy. I should also mention that we don’t speak the same language so in that case, it may be a little easier.”

Rachel’s situation is a little bit different. She explains, “For the first few months, [my mother-in-law] was watching [my son Cole] Thursdays and Fridays and staying over on Thursdays. She absolutely loved it. But for me, it was way too much together time. Part of it is that she made it really hard for me to take over. She has a hard time stepping away and letting me care for Cole when I’m back in the picture.”

Danielle had similar challenges when her mom was caring for her daughter Maddie. “My mom would have stayed over every weeknight and all weekend if I let her,” she laughs. “My mom also knew there were certain things that I wanted to do with Maddie first. Like take her to see the Nutcracker and buy her the American doll that that she wanted. My mom felt that she had the right to do these things because she did so much for us. Now that she is just a occasional visitor again, my mom doesn’t have as much opportunity to hijack the experiences that should be mine. We are all happier for it.”

At the end of the day, the mothers I spoke to who use relatives to provide childcare were all extremely grateful that they had family to step in to help.  Even those who chose not to use willing relatives recognized that they were lucky enough to count family as an option. However, hiring a relative to care for your kids can be a tricky business. Think carefully beforehand about whether having a relative provide childcare is a solution that would benefit your family, not cause more stress in the long run.

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