Babysitting and boundaries: my 5 rules for watching friends' kids

July 19 | Guest post by Kathryn Albert
Photo by evilerin, used under Creative Commons license.

The parallel of children and gifts occurred to me after I visited a website this past Christmas, to determine the "proper" protocol for gift-giving.  I realized that these same rules apply to getting out. Here it is — my "insight" into the rules of asking your friends to watch your kids.

The rules of gifting/babysitting are as follows:

Get a gift, give a gift: gift exchanges must be reciprocal

This was my favorite.  All of my friends seem to be conscious of this point.  We know better than to tip the balance.  If you only have one kid, I will not ask you to watch my three.  Or even my two.  If you have three kids?  You're screwed.  Especially when all of your friends have fewer.  And good luck on the "reciprocal."  One of those kids is staying home.

The get-a-gift rule also applies to communicable diseases.  We know what "Well, Bianca's been coughing" means:  it means we'd better pick up the cough medicine on our way back from the bar tonight.

Even-Steven: gift exchanges must be of equal value

You'll see this one in practice when you have kids of un-even ages.  Yes, your five- and eight-year-old can come play with my four- and seven-year-old.  It's close enough.  But your baby with my ten-year-old?  HA!  I think not.  I gave up diapers years ago, and I'm not going back! 

Once begun, not undone: gift exchanges, once established, must not change

Now this is where it gets tricky.  My girlfriends and I have all discussed the idea of "traditions" — you know, date nights, anniversaries, school-night sleep-overs, taking a yoga class. My mom and her friends had an exchange going that didn't change for almost my entire childhood.  It's a great idea, in theory: you get your date night, I get my yoga class, everyone's happy, and our kids get to play.

At some point, we all decided we'd kind of like to do things with each other, too. Each other minus the ten screaming kids of widely varying ages at our heels.  There weren't enough margaritas to mask the fact that we just weren't getting any of that quality girl time we used to have. 

The fact is, there is no room for traditional or un-changing in this job.  Nope, no time for "you get Wednesday" and "I'll get the kids today if you get them tomorrow."  The fact is, today, tomorrow, and probably Wednesday, I'm still going to be convincing myself that I want my OWN kids.  Yours?  Well, they're yours.  Catch me after a few margaritas.  Chances are, I'll commit myself to something I won't want to do, but I'll do because I said I would.  I love your kids — especially because they're yours.

Come one, come all: gift exchanges must extend to every member of a relationship category

This one means that if you watch one girlfriend's kids then be prepared for your phone to ring, sister.  Your phone's ringing already. Friend number one knows you watched friend number two's one, and friend number three's two, and she's just dying to ask you to watch her three — after all, you've proven yourself capable enough.  You gonna get that?

The best way to avoid the contingencies of this rule are to do what our good friend Nancy Reagan said — JUST SAY NO.  Don't feel bad — if you say no to everyone, you won't have to feel guilty for not taking those urchins with bent halos.  Yeah, there's kids you like, and kids you… well, kids whose company you would prefer not to keep without the assistance of a bottle of wine and some Valium.  Just say no to all of them.  If your friends really want to hang out, they'll hire a babysitter — like they should.

Because the fact is all of my friends and I are in our thirties now.  I don't find babies irresistible anymore, and I'm certainly not volunteering my services like I used to, in a desperate attempt to get a baby fixI'm fixed.  I'm so fixed, if I were a junkie, I'd be near dead of an overdose.  I like kids like I like pets — when they are well-behaved and accompanied by their owners.

My kids are the exception to this rule.  I love them unconditionally, and I reserve the right to not be able to stand them without guilt because I take care of them on a daily basis. They're not like an unruly housepet you can kick outside when they irritate you with a food bowl and a chew toy.  And yes, I know this from experience.

My advice? Do your friends a favor

Set up a network of babysitters outside your inner circle.  Share their names and numbers (and don't forget to mention that yours is only available when you're NOT at yoga, the bookstore, or the Doctor on the 21st).  Share horror stories about how you got home and your top drawer was rifled through, your Ben and Jerry's was gone, and there's a mysterious stain on the davenport — THIS is the stuff of friendship as parents.

I figured out semi-recently that if you want to keep your friends, never mix business with pleasure.  I'll loan you my books, my clothes, my make-up, and my cd's.  That makes me your girlfriend.  I'll keep my kids to myself, and the paid staff, and I will follow the above rules faithfully til death do us part.  Don't think of it as an insult — I'm doing it because I like you.

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  1. I think I'm on the other side of this article – maybe it's where I know lots of people with multiples (which skews with the first rule), or that support system and friendship is more real, but my mentality is a much more relaxed one. We're all in this together, and we'll all take care of one another when we need it. I'm glad the author has drawn necessary boundaries, but I don't think they're mandatory for everyone.

    4 agree
    • Totally agree about the last part — I changed the title to be "MY 5 rules …"

      1 agrees
    • That's honestly a relief to hear… halfway through the post I was actually starting to wonder if our "plan" to have 3 kids was ill-advised, since most of our friends plan to have smaller families. I'd still like to see my husband once in a blue moon.

      1 agrees
  2. Ya i have a lot of major disagreements with this post. I think that reciprocity is not a one-to-one thing, that people without kids can babysit, that 10 year olds can watch babies (with adult also around), and that one need not take exact note of who watched who when and where. That's ok, different people are different, but these are rules i don't think I would ever personally apply.

    also any thoughts why do my comments never show up when i post them under my usual name and email address? (Megantron)

    6 agree
    • Hey, just wanted to let you know I'm looking into the comment issue! I'll email you today when I have it figured out.

      1 agrees
  3. This post has perfect timing for me! So thank you!!!!! I don't have kids yet (and not for the lack of trying), but all my friends have kids. It seems that they all think because I lost my job and don't have kids that I should be able to watch their anytime because you know, I have nothing else to do. I say no, but sometimes I feel cornered and cave. I like kids, but I don't like to babysit outside my family. Now maybe I'll be able to bring up this article and maybe post a link…maybe they'll get the hint… I look forward to see other tips or things commentors have to say. 🙂

    3 agree
  4. Disclaimer: We don't have kids yet, and aren't planning to for another two years or so. But I don't agree with a lot of the stuff here. Once my close girlfriends start having kids, I don't mind babysitting so they can have occasional date nights or whatever. Sure, if it shifts into being taken advantage of (I'm probably not going to watch your kids every single Friday night), then that's a different story… but I feel like it's part of that whole "it takes a village" idea. If I have one kid and you have two, I'm not going to refuse to ever babysit because it will tip the balance. Totally have outside babysitters too so that you and your friends can spend time together, but that doesn't mean friends can't help each other out.

    6 agree
    • I agree with this. When I was in college I watched my neighbor's kids at least once a month for them. I did it because they were my friends and it was a nice thing to do to give them a chance to get out of the house sometimes. If they had started calling me on a weekly basis, or if their kids were simply awful, things would have been different but I never felt slighted because I was watching their kids and I had no kids for them to watch.

  5. Maybe it's because I don't have a lot of friends with kids, but this kind of makes me sad. My husband and I both work out of the home, and without the support of my friends (without kids or with older kids, this past year would have been so hard. I'm glad that I have a circle of people that I can depend and not feel like a burden. I understand boundaries, and I certainly never assume (and always try to give an out when I ask my friends to babysit – it's okay to say no, really!) I have certainly done my faor share of helping my friends out when they needed it. I guess I saw that as part of what friendship to me is. I don't have time in my life to maintain casual friendships, either. That may make a big difference too.

    1 agrees
    • Clarification – it makes me sad to think that I may have been burdening someone else. Totally happy that the author is in control of her life and boundaries. 🙂

      1 agrees
  6. iI love the line about how you like children like you like pets-when they are well behaved and accompanied by their owners! That's exactly it.

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  7. I'm not sure how I feel about this article, like some of the other responses. I respect your boundaries and agree we all need to have some…I certainly would never want to take advantage of my friends asking them to look after my kids…But I would rather ask my friends for help on occasion, even if there's an imbalance of children (which is going to be my reality soon, since I have a 3.5 yr old – and twins on the way) than to ask essentially a stranger to babysit for me. I feel uneasy about finding a babysitter, say through Craigslist, as opposed to someone I already know and trust. I'm lucky to have family close by and my son has never been looked after by anyone but family or close friends. But once we have 3 kids, there are going to be times where we'll need help, and I would like to think my friends would WANT to be there to help, just as I would be happy to do for them.

    2 agree
    • My mum went through so many rotten babysitters when we were kids because she worked full time and there was no one to help her. (3 kids in our family, too.). Babysitters that dropped me off at school 2 hours early so that they could hang out at the mall.
      She still feels the guilt 20 years later.

      Happily she eventually found a lady who we totally adored and was wonderful. But, yeah , strangers as babysitters can be such a nightmare… I'd rather help out a friend in a pinch than have them go through that… or at least offer the services of a niece.

  8. I'm the person who has a kid, who I adore and want to be with most of the time, but in general doesn't really like kids. (I know it's probably weird) I think it's good to have some personal "rules" about baby-sitting, whatever they are. I don't really ask my freinds to baby-sit because in my mind it's this huge annoyance to have other people's kids around, and I don't want them to aske me either. Wow, I must be a real grouch! It might be the phase we are in, (20 months) but the thought of more little babies and kids around me just stresses me out. Maybe when my toddler is older, I will be grateful for more kids around for him to play with.

    7 agree
    • Two toddlers/babies is about 4 times the work. Once they hit 4-5 two (or more) kids that play well together can happily entertain each other for hours as long as you keep feeding them.

  9. This post was off-putting for me. I fully understand the need for rules and boundaries; they are necessary for relationships to survive. However, I'm glad the title of the post was changed to reflect the author's personal stance.

    In my opinion, childcare doesn't really have anything to do with gift-giving rules. One is a service and one isn't. I personally feel that equating care for children to giving Christmas gifts isn't respectful to children.

    Also, this post was categorized under "It takes a village," but I don't feel like that's what this post is saying. In my mind, a village is available–you have 2 kids and I have 1, no problem, it takes a village; but not according to the author's rules.

    Again, I fully understand the need for boundaries. I think they're great to have and to understand. But I suppose that the main difference I have is that the friends I am friends with wouldn't care if our children aren't even in numbers. The value of friendship for me goes deeper than equal reciprocity.

    3 agree
    • Changed the category to "It worked for me." Thanks for the feedback! 🙂

  10. I definitely agree with the last point. A network of babysitters that you and your friends share is great for you, and I can safely say, as a former babysitter, that they love it too. More work!

    I think the thing that is getting people about this post is the tone. It's very forceful. Not necessarily in a bad way, but it comes across as someone who knows how they feel about something and thinks you should feel the same way. More power to you for knowing what works for you, but I guess I don't agree with some of the points.

    I guess in general I don't like to ask my friends to watch my kid… I did once and it didn't go well. My child wouldn't stop crying and my friend felt so bad, but ended up calling me because she couldn't take care of hers and mine. And that's fine. The friend thing makes it weird though. I don't want to ruin our friendship by saying I won't watch your kid, or by saying I can't handle him/her.
    Best to just ask someone else…

    2 agree
  11. What I see here is boundaries. If you adore children and have actual give and take with your fellow baby making friends then it's not really an issue. But if you feel overwhelmed by extra kids around or your friends kids happen to be bratty it's not going to work for you.

    We have an awesome grandmotherly person who watches our son for date nights, non kiddo parties and other adult only adventures. Who we pay. But we usually call on friends for those short trips to the dentist for a cleaning or vet trips. And it's more of an open ended trade. Most of our kid friends are sweet and honestly if I already have two kids and you have three it's already a herd. The diff between four and five seems small to me at this point.

    Finally saying no is fine. You don't have to say no to everyone at all! Many a friendship is saved by the tiny white lie. When they call just tell them you're busy. You have a prior engagement. Oh sorry bud I can't. Maybe there is another way I can help you?

    If you find a sweet grandmotherly sitter, never share her number. Dear god cherish her all to yourself. Ours watched our very young son on NYE and I made her a mini party basket with a tiny champagne, crackers, cheese and chocolates. She loves us.

    1 agrees
  12. I love this. Most of the time I have the "we're all in this together" attitude of your first commenter, but recently I was feeling more like you… Probably because all my friends have one or two more kids than me but it feels like I'm often the one called upon to babysit or host group gatherings in my tiny apartment cuz I only have two!! Argh!!! Plus I have such a hard time saying no. 🙁

    2 agree
  13. "Givers need to have boundaries, because takers rarely do." I find this quote applies to every woman who has asked me to babysit. Learning not to overextend yourself by saying "no" is crucial. I am a single mother, raising three children of my own, and I am often perplexed as to why someone would even ask me to take on their child. I am often approached for "favors" by the same two women and it is becoming exhausting to our relationships. Things like "needing a break" "grocery shopping" or "going to the gym" are not valid reasons to put your child off on someone. I have three children and if I can manage to workout, buy food and have alone time after the kids go to bed without calling in a babysitter…why should I do it for them? Oh, you don't want to take all of your kids to the doctor's office? Um..well either do I, but I get through it. Nothing irritates me more than someone who calls me and asks me to sit for them for things I manage to do with my kids in tow or because they need a break from their children. Even more so, I am at a 1:3 ratio, so if they have a husband or another adult in their life responsible for those children, I am sure the two of them can work something out. You need a break? Sure just let me ask the three I am already juggling if they want to share the last thread of my sanity. I truly find it selfish that a friend would want to sit at home and relax while I am managing 4-6 kids on my own. As far as my babysitting requests go, I really would only ask someone in a bind or in the event of an emergency.

    12 agree
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  17. Friends might be saying "yes" only out of obligation to the friendship and not because they actually want to be responsible for the offspring of others. And, perhaps they don't say so because they don't want to offend their parent-friends.

    As a childfree woman in her mid forties, it really ticks me off when my friends or family ask me to mind their children on short notice (1-2 days notice). It's as if they assume that just because I don't have children of my own that I magically have loads of free time, or that actually want to spend my free time supervising other people's kids. What an assumption!

    I have watched my friends and siblings' children because I care about THEM, not because I love having kids in my life. They know this, but still ask/expect far too often anyway – and I become the jerk for saying "no" most of the time. It's as if they've never considered that fact that they are imposing their children onto me—-it's just take, take, take—as long as their needs are being met, they assume everything's gravy. Even when payment is offered, I still feel like I'm being taken advantage of.

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