Top 10 Tips for Finding the Right Child Care
In 12 years raising three kids, I've sent my children to four different day-care centers in three states and hired at least 25 babysitters. I used full-time day care when my children were infants, as well as a patchwork of relatives, friends and paid in-home care. Our primary babysitter moved from Minnesota to D.C. with us, staying for seven years total. Finding -- and keeping -- good child care is one of the hardest, most critical, least understood components to working parenthood. You simply cannot go to work, or do a good job once you get there, without it.
Here are my (and On Balance readers') top 10 tips for finding -- and maintaining -- high quality child care.
1. Spend the time to figure out what kind of care you need. The costs, advantages and disadvantages vary: day care, home-based center, live-in nanny, live-out nanny, nanny share, au pair, your mother, you. Take time to prioritize your wishes and your family's needs. Make a chart of costs and the pros and cons, to figure out which options are best for your family. Ask parents you respect for recommendations and visit several options. Finding good care is a process that's rarely accomplished within a few days or weeks. Accept that there is no "right" answer, and that your needs may change over time as your family grows and your work/kids juggling act evolves.
2. Trust your instincts. I once walked out of an acclaimed, accredited day-care center after five minutes, knowing from the looks on the children's faces that I couldn't leave my kids there. Don't overlook the obvious: Make sure the care facility is clean, well-organized, and safe, and look for signs that the staffers actually like children. Spend time there without your child(ren) to see how parents, employees and kids interact. When you've done your research, make your own decision. Don't rely too heavily on anyone else's opinion, experience or an agency's rating. Everybody has biases, and your situation is unique -- no other family will have the same combination of baby's temperament, your work situation, your partner's work situation, where you live, where you work, your expectations of child care, etc. At the end of each day you need to be comfortable that your choice is the right one for your family -- not the right one for someone else.
3. Trust your children's instincts. If your child doesn't bond with a caregiver, the arrangement won't work. Ask your child about their caregiver(s) -- as soon as they can talk! If your child likes a caregiver, weigh that heavily. I once hired a babysitter my son loved at first sight, even though I knew she wasn't terribly industrious or punctual. But she was sweet, responsible and loving, and since my son was only two years old, that mattered much more than whether she folded laundry while he napped or showed up 10 minutes late each morning.
4. Pay as much as you can. Child-care workers, whether they are day-care employees, private nannies, or the teen-aged babysitter next door, are rarely paid well. They deserve fair wages for providing such important care. Plus, your call will be the one they return first if you make a habit of paying and tipping generously.
5. In addition to financial respect, treat good caregivers with other kinds of respect -- and look for a center with low turnover, a clear sign of a respectful workplace. Pick up your kids or come home when you say you will. Thank caregivers often and with sincerity. Work out a generous vacation plan and sick day policy if you have private care. Pay on time. Treat them as a partner in raising your children. You will save yourself -- and your children -- the tumult of turnover. And you send a signal that caring for children is a job worthy of respect.
6. Convenience matters, especially in a place you will be going to and from twice a day. Find a place that is as close as possible to your house and both spouses' work places. When evaluating options, think about your child's temperament, schedule and habits, any plans you have for more children, and your workplace requirements. Don't assume that all places can adjust to your schedule. You have to be flexible to a certain degree, too; but you should find a place that is willing to work with you on the most critical issues, such as a need for early or late pick up, a sibling preference policy, or any slightly unusual needs, like allowing a favorite grandparent or aunt to visit. Some places are fine with flexibility, others thrive on a tight organization.
7. Have a back-up childcare plan. Stuff happens: Nannies quit, your child gets sick, centers close, day cares have teacher training days. Figure out in advance what you're going to do when your child-care arrangement implodes, for a day, a week, or longer-term basis. Keep a list of phone numbers and e-mail addresses at home and at work. A good backup plan will minimize trauma for your child and your balancing act.
8. Get to know all caregivers, parents and kids. You learn a lot about parenting from talking to them about what's going on at day care. Also, if you need backup care on days the center is closed or at night, or when your caregiver is ill or on vacation, other parents, nannies or employees make a good network to tap into.
9. Get organized. Take a few minutes each night to make sure your child's bag is packed, bottles are made, snacks are set, etc. There are few more disruptive annoyances than getting a call on your way to work after drop-off telling you that your child doesn't have formula, a change of clothes, or field trip permission slip that he needs that day.
10. Excise your guilt. If you feel badly about using child care, your child will internalize your guilt and possibly presume it's his or her fault. Studies show that quality care helps children bond with other caring adults and children in productive, healthy ways that strengthen a child's self-esteem and self-reliance. Teaching your child to trust others (and himself) is part of good parenting. Watch out for surprise guilt -- it's OK if your child is the last one in his room to get picked up sometimes; one-on-one time with the teacher can sometimes be a special treat. Remember to make drop off -- and pick up -- a joyous transition in your and your child's daily routine.
Next week: Send me your Tips for Not Losing Your Sanity The First Few Weeks of Motherhood so I can include them in next Monday's Top 10 Tips.
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