Friends looking after your children

Friends looking after your children

When it comes to choosing childcare, it’s likely that you’ll have more than one option open to you. Your finances may guide you to some extent (although tax credits can contribute significantly to formal childcare arrangements), but if you’re looking at an informal set-up, then ‘friends’ may be worth considering. It may be easy; you may live close to each other – there’s certainly something to be said for having the reassurance of support from someone who knows you as well as they know your child. But what are the disadvantages, as well as the advantages, of entrusting your children to a close friend? 

Everyone has great friends

There’s nothing quite like sharing the ups and downs of life with a good friend. Certainly, when it comes to having a balanced outlook on parenting, a strong circle of friends can be invaluable for sharing insights as well as responsibilities. And the chances are, you’ll either know friends with young children already – or you’ll have an opportunity to build up a network of new contacts, and new friends, during the time you’re pregnant.

National Childbirth Trust classes, or classes at your local clinic are a good example. Even if you’re not the most social individual or couple, it’s relatively easy to stay in touch with those new parents you’ve met as they’re in a similar situation. But if you’re thinking about moving that friendship into a more formal relationship, and handing your child over or even sharing the childcare between you, then there are some good questions you may like to think about in advance.

Is it ‘legal’ to pay a friend for child-minding?

A good question! Of course it is – but there are implications. Much depends on how you’re thinking about ‘paying’ for that care. If your friend is simply looking after your child at home, or in your home, and not being rewarded for doing that then there’s no need to register as a childminder. But if you’re handing over cash, cheques or even vouchers to a friend (‘money or money’s worth’) in exchange for their commitment to looking after your child, then, technically, they need to register as a childminder – even if it’s a one-off payment.

And if you’re contributing towards the costs involved in looking after your child (things like paying a bill, paying for food or repairs or even toys), then that, too, counts as official payment in respect of child-minding services. However, if it’s something like an occasional box of chocolates or flowers to say ‘thanks’ – then that’s fine. The law required people to register as childminders where they provide care for children under the age of eight in their own home or someone else’s home for more than two hours a day for reward.

What are the downsides, then?

Your friends are just that – friends. And not all ‘great Mums’ are trained to deal with emergencies; make decisions about health and safety concerns; plan activities, shop for nutritionally balanced meals, or focus on one-to-one childcare patterns every minute of the day. Working out ‘the ground rules’ is important, if you’re going to consider sharing care responsibilities with a friend. It makes sense to do this formally too, as you never know what could happen in the future.

Do you need to plan for holidays, time off, unexpected emergencies? Yes. Would you want to ‘vet’ your friend’s home for health and safety reasons, or would you trust them to have fridge-locks, oven guards, and cleaning fluids and medicines tidied away in a secure place? Do you need to think about how you’ll deal with differences in opinion, or enduring upsets over toys or television perhaps, between your child and your friend’s child? It’s relatively easy to complain at a nursery if your child comes home with a bruise – but it’s less easy to work out what you could say and how you’d approach things with a close friend.

You know what your children like and dislike to eat; you know what worries them, and what they’re nervous of; you know which TV programmes are an instant hit, which toys aren’t popular, and which special item makes going to sleep SO much easier – and your parents may already know this too. That can be a huge advantage.

But what are the upsides?

There are many varied advantages to asking a friend if he or she can look after your child. Apart from the financial benefits, if you’re not making this a ‘reward’ arrangement’, your friend will know you and what your preferences are for looking after your little one. It’s likely to be a close relationship, maybe even one-to-one care, and you can be sure your friend is genuinely interested in your child’s happiness, welfare and health on a day to day basis. Socially, that could play a really important part in your child’s early development. It’s also likely that you’ll have some input to the places in which your child will spend time, and exactly how they’ll be cared for – which foods, which toys, which activities they can enjoy.

So what’s the best advice?

The best advice is to make a decision you’re comfortable with, and prioritise the welfare of your child over that friendship – every time. But there are a few things we’d advise any parents in this situation to consider:

  • Talk openly to your friend, make sure you’re both happy discussing concerns and areas of childcare you may feel strongly about. Don’t worry about hurting their feelings at any point – it’s got to work for your children first. Say what you think, find out if there are any differences of opinion early on in the relationship.
  • Talk about discipline, ask what their views are. Discuss hours, and activities and schedules for the day – it doesn’t have to be regimented, but there does have to be a plan. Work out what will happen in terms of illness, holidays, and general behaviour – attitudes to crying or misbehaving can vary.
  • Talk about how long you’d like to try things out to start with – don’t be tempted to make this a ‘permanent’ arrangement until everyone’s happy with how things are going. Make plans to catch up regularly, not only on how your child’s doing and ‘how was everything today?’ – but also so that your friend can air general concerns or questions freely.

Whatever the reason for choosing a friend to help you out with childcare, make sure you don’t fall foul of the legislation that exists to protect children. It’s there for a reason: looking after a child is a significant responsibility.

We say this: the quality of the childcare you choose is the most important thing. And he or she may be your absolute best buddy, but it’s still important to work through the practical aspects of childcare arrangements first, and make the decision with your head not your heart…

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