Baby Care

Using family members for child care: The pros and cons to consider

Many parents choose to include relatives in the everyday care and raising of their children, and it’s often more than a practical matter. “There’s a unique joy that can come from a family member getting to watch your kids,” says Sarah Epstein, licensed marriage and family therapist, pointing out that it’s the norm in many cultures outside of the United States. 

Still, enlisting family as caregivers can come with challenges. The relative intimacy of the dynamic could make it hard to enforce boundaries, for instance. It can also make it difficult to pull the plug on a child care arrangement that isn’t working for everyone.

If you’re considering bringing in a family member to help with child care, in whatever capacity, it’s important to consider the ways it’s beneficial, as well as some common pitfalls that may arise. Below, experts and parents offer advice about some of the pros and cons of having relatives care for your children.

Benefits of having family members care for your children

1. Trust

Handing over the care of your child can be nerve-wracking for parents, so it’s no surprise that many report their main reason for having relatives watch their children is trust. Jessica Wu, a mother of two in Philadelphia, says she hired her mother because she felt uneasy about letting someone she didn’t know watch her baby when the COVID-19 pandemic began. “One of the best benefits,” she says, “is knowing that we can trust her and don’t have to second guess.”

Epstein believes that a shared sense of trust can allow all parties to loosen up a bit about the overall care. If you’re confident that grandma is keeping your baby healthy and safe, you might feel more OK about the fact that she doesn’t stick to a strict nap schedule.

2. Strong relationships

Epstein notes that having a connected support network with loving family members can be “a vital staple in a child’s life.” While conflicts can arise in any caregiving situation, knowing that you’re fostering an important relationship between your child and a beloved family member could help keep you from getting hung up on disagreements. 

Janice K., a mom in Lorton, Virginia whose in-laws help watch her child, says that even when she feels frustrated with them, she’s happy that her son is forming a deep bond with his grandparents. “They love him and adore him so much, and he loves them so much, too.”

3. Shared culture

Spending time with relatives can give children a connection to your family’s cultural roots and traditions. They’ll grow up with the same food and rituals that you did. In some cases, this benefit could extend to language. Jenny Craven, a mother of two in Victoria, British Columbia, says that one of the nice things about having her mom watch her children is that they’re learning Vietnamese from their grandma. 

4. Potential cost savings

With the majority of parents reporting that they’re more concerned about the current cost of child care than in years prior, having a relative offer to work for free might seem like a blessing. You may also choose to compensate relatives in ways beyond a paycheck, such as inviting them to move in with you, buying them groceries or helping them with errands. 

That said, your relatives might not be in a position to work for free. Wu, for instance, pays her mother $3,000 per month to watch her child, clean and cook, which she feels is fair.

Potential challenges to consider before having family members watch your children

1. Generational and ideological differences

With parenting norms changing over time (and varying widely across cultures), it’s very common for family members to clash. Wu said that she has to catch her mother up on the guidelines around safe sleep because they differ from what was “best practice” several decades ago.

What experts say: Kristi Yeh, licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Parent Self Care, advises communicating your boundaries in advance to set expectations and to consider putting these in writing. “This will serve as a reminder to revisit as needed when issues arise.”

Discuss your philosophies on topics such as:

  • Sleep schedules.
  • TV and tech.
  • Food and sugar.
  • Discipline. 

Yeh believes it’s helpful to decide which rules are truly non-negotiable to you and to limit these to two or three to avoid overwhelming the caregiver. 

2. Difficulty enforcing boundaries

Just as it’s common to have different styles, it’s common for relatives to push back on boundaries. Craven says that her mother questions a lot of her parenting decisions (for instance, her effort to limit screen time). 

What experts and parents say: If you’re raising your children with a partner, Epstein stresses that the first step is to make sure the two of you are on the same page. “What you don’t want is any uncertainty to show through,” she says. “Be a united front. That way there isn’t a scenario where the daughter-in-law is blamed for being the rigid one.”

Moreover, know that you don’t have to engage in a debate. Sometimes, a person is just not going to be convinced, so what it comes down to is, whose choice it is? In a child care situation, it’s the parent’s. Epstein suggests saying something like, “This particular issue isn’t up for discussion.” You can state your case warmly, calmly and firmly.

For Craven, having a parent in the picture is still worth any disagreements. “At the end of the day, she’s my mom, and there’s only so much in my control. It’s brought my mom and I closer together even if she drives me crazy at times.”

That said, if boundary-pushing is a major source of stress for you, the arrangement may not be worth the cost to your mental health.

3. Past issues can resurface

One thing Epstein cautions parents about is that, “All of the best and worst parts of growing up with a particular parent are going to come out again with a grandparent.”

If there are elements of your childhood you struggled with — like that your mom was a perfectionist, or your dad had a bad temper — those dynamics could be replicated with your children.

What experts and parents say: For mom Angela D. and her husband, becoming aware of childhood issues in therapy is what solidified their decision to enroll their child in day care despite pressure from their parents to do otherwise.

“We both became very aware of generational trauma and toxic behaviors,” she shares. “It was important to us that we break the cycle.”

Epstein advises parents to be realistic about how much they can expect people to change. “You might be asking someone to shift things that are pretty fundamental, and it might touch on sensitive subjects for you.”

What you want to avoid is a scenario in which there’s long-term damage to a relationship, so the best option may be to keep family relationships and child care separate. “Sometimes, separation can be really healthy and allow you to maintain a better dynamic.”

4. Feelings of guilt

If you feel guilty that your family members are unpaid or aging, you might feel uncomfortable making requests that are critical to the way you’re choosing to raise your child. 

What experts say: Epstein advises talking openly about these feelings with your family member. “You can show your gratitude and still make clear that the way that it will work is if certain needs are met. Say, ‘We love you and here’s what I expect.’”

The bottom line

You need not take an “all or nothing” approach — a relative could watch your child for part of the week, or only on occasion, with a professional filling in at other times. 

And it’s OK to switch things up if need be. Yeh notes that, “Grandparents are often excited to watch their first grandchild, and may find they don’t have as much energy as they hoped and might need to scale back their commitment.” 

Ideally, you can find an arrangement in which everyone feels their needs are being met. Epstein explains that sometimes, having a relative be a full-time caregiver just isn’t conducive to the whole family’s long-term health, and urges parents to take any issues seriously. “Otherwise, you could end up with resentful, hurt parents, which the kids pick up on,” she says, adding that children might feel caught in the middle of a conflict.

While she acknowledges that hiring professional care can come at a high financial cost, she points out that ongoing friction within a family can have high costs in other ways – such as damage to mental health and relationships – and it’s important to pay attention to those when making the decision that’s best for you.

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