Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The North Side Babysitting Co-op in Chicago

Chicago's North Side Babysitting Co-op has been a community fixture for more than 25 years. Originally part of the North Side Parents' Network, the co-op now functions independently and currently involves about 35 families, including families from the South and East sides of town as well.

I had the good fortune to interview Monica Lasky, the co-op's current coordinator. Lasky has been involved with the co-op for nine years, and she has coordinated it for the last four years.

benefits of participating in a babysitting co-op

When Lasky was expecting her first child back in 2003, she felt the need for support. She didn't have any family in town to help with child care or general parenting support, so she began looking for a babysitting co-op before her daughter was even born. She found the family-like network she was looking for in the co-op, and says the co-op has been a way of forging a sense of community in a large city like Chicago. 

Members of the North Side Babysitting Co-op appreciate having other parents watching their children as opposed to young people who don't have any children of their own. That said, Lasky herself uses a combination of co-op parents and hired teenagers and college students to watch her children from time to time.

co-op changes over time

The North Side Babysitting Co-op has fluctuated between 20 and 35 members. Currently the co-op is about at its maximum capacity. But that's not the only change the co-op has experienced over the years.

Like other organizations, the co-op has adapted to changes in technology to make their operations easier. In the past, co-op members attended meetings six times per year to tally up their sits and discuss problems and organizational matters. Lasky reports that this method was time consuming and downright awful at times: sometimes there were disagreements about hours and terms. 

A couple of years ago, the co-op switched to an online tracking system. One of the members of the co-op was a computer programmer, and she wrote a custom system for keeping track of hours. Co-op members would log on to the website and fill out a basic form that would update everyone's hours. It worked beautifully, but unfortunately, this co-op computer whiz moved away, and the co-op didn't have the resources or know-how to maintain the system.

So now, the co-op is in the midst of switching to a pre-fab online program ( for keeping track of their hours. The site isn't free to use, but the North Side Babysitting Co-op charges a $10 joiner fee, and when people withdraw from the co-op with negative hours (which is discouraged), they pay the co-op $8/hour for each negative hour. Between these fees, the co-op should be able to use the pre-fab site without charging members extra fees, although Lasky says they reserve the right to collect annual dues if it becomes necessary.

The co-op has used a google group for communicating and posting sits, and that has worked well. Once their new site is up-and-running, they'll probably migrate to using sittingaround's communication feature.

a real community

Lasky likes to emphasize to members of the co-op that it's a marketplace. Parents can negotiate sits however they see fit. They may decide to pay more for difficult sits, late sits, or hours on New Year's Eve. As the coordinator, Lasky receives additional hours for her administrative services, so sometimes she uses her hours for pet sitting, which I find simply ingenious. 

The North Side Babysitting Co-op has never had any problems with its members as far as people being uncomfortable leaving their children with certain parents. Lasky believes the group is self-selecting; they're responsible, sociable people with a common goal, and they get along great.

The group continues to have meetings six times a year for organizational purposes and to welcome new members. These meetings rotate among the homes of the members, but two meetings per year are potlucks, and these potlucks are fun family events that parents and kids alike look forward to.

If you're just starting your own co-op, the North Side Babysitting Co-op in Chicago is an excellent example to follow. Many thanks to the generous Monica Lasky, a personable woman with a great sense of humor. Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Tips from the North Austin Mother's Club (NAMC) Babysitting Co-op

Children of the NAMC babysitting co-op
Photo courtesy of Nicole Kanda

The North Austin Mothers' Club was founded in 1989 as a chapter of the Austin Preschool Mothers Club, which has been around since 1925! The club meets once a month for socializing and community service, and it offers several sub-groups to meet members' individual interests and needs. One of these subgroups is the babysitting co-op, and I had the privilege of interviewing Nicole Kanda, one of the co-op's coordinators. She discussed the following questions with members of the co-op, and they've generously offered tips and advice from their experiences in their thriving babysitting co-op.

1. Why do you participate in a babysitting co-op? What's your favorite thing about babysitting co-op?

NK - My family moved here with no extended family so I was eager to find/build community.  There are often times I want/need care for one or both of my children - doctor's appointments, date nights, errands, etc.  The Coop has become my community of friends and sitters and friends for my children.  My mom actually participated in a Babysitting Coop when I was a child, so the concept was familiar to me when we formed this Coop from the North Austin Mother's Club (NAMC).   

BJ - I participate in the babysitting co-op not just to have free babysitting but to nurture a community of families with an intentional commitment to the well being of one another's children. I feel that it is one thing to have friends with kids and for all our kids to be friends with one another, but it is entirely different thing to sacrifice one's own time to care for one another's children; it creates a thread of connectedness and even if you are not close friends with all the other families, you feel a sense of security in the interdependence you have all shared.
The children grow a bond between the other families apart from their parents and get to experience what life is like in another family, learn how to get out of their comfort zone for a bit in a safe way.

JC - So that I can have several people that I know and trust to babysit my kids when family members are not available.  My favorite thing about the co-op is the flexibility of the members.  It is easy to find someone to sit for me and I can sit for others based on my schedule.

MP - It's really helpful to have babysitting at no cost, with people we know and can trust, and that our child knows too. 

LQ - knowing that my kids with be with another Mother, some one with experience.    

2. Has your babysitting co-op changed much since it first started? If so, how has it changed?

NK - We haven't changed much yet as we're still less than 2 years old.  We've grown from 6 to 12 members but haven't changed in structure, membership or operations.

JC - Other than adding new members, it really hasn't changed.

3. What have been your co-op's biggest challenges? How have you overcome them?

NK - It's been pretty smooth but we could always use more sits.  Also, we work on a point system and people are sometimes nervous to request sits and go negative.  So we give each new member 20 points to begin with so she doesn't feel hesitant to request her first sit.  We want members to feel free to get a sitter when they need one - that's what we're here for!

JC - Probably getting people to use the co-op more frequently.  We try to have quarterly meetings to remind everyone of their points and come up with ideas for when people might need to use the co-op.

LQ - I haven't noticed any challenges. But, I've only been with the co-op for 5 months. 

4. How do your children feel about babysitting co-op?

NK - My children love the playgroups, especially in the summer when NAMC takes a break in many activities.  Babysitting Coops helped both of my children work through their separation anxiety and stranger anxiety.  I felt secure leaving my sad/crying child with a fellow mom who had helped her own children through the same phase.   

BJ - My littlest one always has lots of fun and loves his friends; he is learning how to play with other kids and getting some time apart from mommy is a great way to begin.

JC - They like it.  All the moms in the group are very nice and my kids have enjoyed having opportunities to play with other kids.

MP- She's fine, and it helped a lot to get her used to be without me. She loves to play with the other kids of the babysitting co-op.

LQ - My oldest son (4) LOVES hanging out with his buddies and playing with their toys when I bring him with me to a sit or he is sat at someone else's house!

5. Does your co-op plan whole-family activities from time to time? If so, which ones have been the most successful?

NK - So far we have not planned whole-family activities because NAMC hosts dinners and parties that Coop members often attend.  We have planned various playgroups, field trips and an Activity Day last summer.  We also have done a few Group Sits where one or more moms offers for other members to drop off their kids around the holidays for shopping/errands/cleaning. 

BJ - Not yet but that would be lovely! Eating out, backyard BBQs, campouts, they'd all be fun!

MP - It will plan some for the spring if I'm not wrong... Picnic at a park for the whole family for babysitting co-op families.

LQ - We are looking at planning a family activities in the summer, when our club is on summer break. 

6. What advice would you give to parents who are just starting a babysitting co-op?

NK - Start with a few committed people who can help guide the formation of the coop.  Agree upon some of the details ahead of time (we have Membership Guidelines) and remain flexible to changes that need to be made as the Coop progresses.  Keep opportunities for members to meet, with or without kids, to get to know each other better.  Give an extra welcome to new members.  Keep it active and fun!  

BJ - Keep at it, and offer to watch kids when the sit requests are slow. Make the first move!

JC - Don't be afraid to be the first one to ask for a sit.  Sometimes it takes some nudging to get people started.

LQ - Have a well organized "head" of the co-op! 

Much thanks to Nicole Kanda and the members of the NAMC babysitting club for offering their great advice and tips! We love to see thriving babysitting co-ops and their great feelings of community. If you live in the Austin, Texas, area, get in touch with the NAMC to learn more.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Storytime: Over in Australia by Marianne Berkes

If you haven't yet checked it out, find a copy of Over in Australia, written by Marianne Berkes and illustrated by Jill Dubin.

This isn't exactly a bedtime story, although you may get requests for it at bedtime. Instead, it's a toe-tapping, knee-slapping rollicking counting book. The rhythm is contagious, and if you read it at a clip, your kids won't be able to help bopping their heads to the rhythm.

It's educational, too. It follows a basic counting book format (one crocodile, two kangaroos, three koalas, etc.), but it also names the animal's babies: hatchlings, joeys, and platypups. Platypups! I had no idea. When you reach the end of the story, there's an extra treat. You're informed that each page harbored a hidden animal to go back and find.

If your kids want more, the back matter of the book gives more information about each animal, and there are links to online treasures like the Australia Zoo and the Great Barrier Reef. You can even find sheet music, which gives you a melody for singing the words instead of chanting them. It's a very fun book, and it has the potential for changing an ornery co-op session to a happy one.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Almond Maple Popcorn Snack

With food allergies multiplying faster than the norovirus, it's nice to have some allergen-free snack ideas in your hip pocket. At my kids' school, the principal mandated that the only food to be served at the Valentine's party tomorrow is popcorn. So as not to sound like a meany, she said it was okay to mix in some sweet stuff like M&Ms and Skittles. Skittles? That sounds questionable to me.

But this recipe is decidedly NOT questionable: almond maple popcorn snack. Now, it's true that some kids are allergic to almonds, so you'll have to check with parents first. But if you have a gluten-intolerant kid in your babysitting co-op, this is a go-to favorite. Here's how to make it:

1/2 cup popcorn kernels
2 Tbs. butter
1 Tbs. maple syrup
3 Tbs. almond butter
Chopped almond pieces (optional)

Pop your popcorn in an air popper or a microwave (if you use the microwave, place the popcorn in a brown paper lunch back and cook for 2 minutes). On the stovetop in a medium saucepan, melt the butter, maple syrup, and almond butter together. You don't have to bring it to a boil, but make sure it's well blended. Pour the sauce over the popcorn and top with extra almond pieces if the kids in your co-op shift are old enough for nut pieces. This is kind of a messy snack, so don't let them eat it on your newly washed slip cover.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Advice from the Garden Hills Babysitting Co-op in Atlanta

The Garden Hills Babysitting Co-op in Atlanta, Georgia, has been operating since the 1970s. It consists of a group of families who live in the Garden Hills, Peachtree Park, Peachtree Hills, and Peachtree Heights neighborhoods, and we got the scoop on how they run things from Sheila Cooper, the co-op's current president.

101: What is the greatest benefit of participating in a babysitting co-op?

Sheila: Greatest benefit is the convenience of having trusted moms in your neighborhood, without having to pay.

101: What organizational challenges has your co-op overcome? How did you overcome them?

Sheila: The biggest challenge is filling sits.  I think it helps to offer your sit to be at the sitter's house.  That way the mom can get a few things done around the house, versus having to be at someone else's.  Another challenge has been some moms staying home with their children for the first year or so and not using sitters.  When this happens, children have a hard time adjusting to being away from their mom.  I say start using sitters when they're 8 weeks old, so they are accustomed to it.

101: How many families actively participate in your co-op? Has this number remained constant for some time? When you want to find more members, how do you find them?

Sheila: We currently have about 20 families, has been as high as 30.  We've been around since the 1970's, so I think it's safe to say our system "works"!  We advertise on the neighborhood websites.

101: Does participating in a babysitting co-op strengthen your sense of community?

Sheila: It does strengthen your community because it's a great way to get to know other families.

101: How do your children feel about the babysitting co-op?

Sheila: My child is only 1, but loves playing with other children of all ages, so I think he really likes it.

101: What advice would you give to parents who are just starting a babysitting co-op?

Sheila: If you are trying to start a co-op, I say keep it simple, maybe start out small.  The less work the moms have to put into it the better.  Have the coupons digital, so they don't have to count the end of the month.  Don't set up too many rules or requirements.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Oh No! Not Again! by Mac Barnett

The full title of this fun picture book is Oh No! Not Again! (Or How I Built a Time Machine to Save History) (Or at Least My History Grade). It's a mouthful, but it sure can pique a kid's interest.

This story is short, but it's a great jumping-off place for a great discussion about history--and maybe even time travel. Preschoolers may have a tough time with the concepts, but kindergarteners and up will enjoy it. The pictures are big and interesting, and there's a great mixed-up timeline inside the back cover that could be the best place to start your post-storytime chat.

The plot goes like this: a student misses a problem on her history test. She says that the first cave drawings were in Belgium instead of France, so she decides that the best way to fix this problem is to go back in time and ensure that Belgium's cave men beat the French cave men to this great achievement. But this causes some new problems...

Test this story out on your older co-op kids. I bet they'll like it.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Keeping Your Teenage Babysitter Safe

Helpful Hints When Using a Teenage Babysitter

While it's always nice to be able to coordinate with your babysitting co-op friends, it is not always practical. Here is a wonderful article which outlines how best to go about finding a great teenage babysitter and steps you can take to ensure a positive experience for all!