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Creative childcare on a budget

It's nice to choose friends who have children the same ages as your kids.  © iStockphoto.com/Carmen Martínez Banus It's nice to choose friends who have children the same ages as your kids. © iStockphoto.com/Carmen Martínez Banus
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By Beth D. Stevens

Parents need timeout from parental duties to keep the spark between husband and wife ablaze. Whether it's a table for two, a concert, movie, or even a sleep over (empty nest or at an inn), quality time as a couple is important to a marriage and family.

If you don't think you can afford these dates without worrying about your kids' happiness and safety, and childcare costs, you're not alone. For this reason, consider a child-swapping network with other couples. It's a convenient, inexpensive, reliable and rewarding alternative to a babysitter.

How to Initiate Child-swapping

  • Casting call.  Choose a couple you know well from your neighborhood, church, or social group.
  • Seek similar ages.  It's nice to choose friends who have children the same ages as your kids.
  • Make a good deal.  Offer to take care of the couple's children in exchange.

The Rules

  • Pick a date.  Select one weekend night a month as a regular date night. Agree on a reasonable time frame -- 5-10pm once a month, with a longer night or sleep over every three or four months.
  • Put it in ink. Record the dates on a calendar and make a copy of that calendar to distribute to your child swapping pals. Suggest placing it in a noticeable spot (e.g., on the refrigerator).
  • Backup plan.  Discuss a cancellation policy. (In case of an illness or emergency, will you reschedule or cancel?) As Lynda Hannan points out, small kids often get sick.
  • Personal preferences.  Create a list of your kids' food preferences, bedtime routines, or favorite activities. Ditto for special needs like medicines and allergies.
  • Trial play dates.  To make sure everyone gets along, schedule a few group play dates.
  • Game plan.  Be prepared to entertain the kids when they arrive. Try games, cooking activities, crafts, or movies.

The Perks for Parents

  • No interruptions.  Parents benefit from time alone. "The time out together was wonderful -- time to talk without having to get up to take care of someone," say Paul and Betsy Bissmeyer.
  • Cost efficient.  Lynda Hannan says, "It is fantastic to get away and not have to worry about paying for a sitter. A night out definitely gets expensive when you add twenty or thirty dollars for a sitter."
  • Support system.  You can share parenting, medical, and discipline tips. And you know who to call in case of an emergency.
  • Rejuvenating.  As the Bissmeyers attest, "We were always refreshed and ready for snuggles again when we got home."

The Perks for Kids

  • Friends forever.  Sometimes the friendships become deep and long lasting.
  • Surrogate parents.  Kids bond with other caring adults, providing someone else to turn to when Mom and Dad can't be there.
  • Improves social skills.  One mother found it especially helpful to leave her baby with a close friend for short time at an early age. "My husband often traveled and my daughter became very attached to me. Once I started leaving my girl with others, even for short time periods, it did us both a world of good."

TAKE IT FROM ME:

Listen to your instincts and your children. Taking the time to find someone that gets along with your family is very important.

Find someone in a similar situation. We tried to get this going with some other families in the neighborhood, but they don't mind paying for sitters and it's more convenient for them. My sister-in-law and I are really trying to save some money since we are not working full-time anymore, so there is some incentive. 

We have some neighbors who share the same [marriage] anniversary. We would leave for a weekend and then they would leave for a weekend the next year. It allowed us to celebrate our anniversaries in a more adult fashion.

--Beth D. Stevens

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