All In the Family – Using Relatives for Child Care

If a relative cares for your children while you work, you may have an ideal child care solution. Who can offer better care than a trusted family member? Like other parents, you may have selected relative care for one or more of the following reasons:

  • Trust: Parents and children often feel most secure when their children are cared for by a family member.
  • Flexibility: A relative may be more flexible about schedules, especially when the parent works unusual hours.
  • Affordability: While some parents pay relatives the usual child care fees for their community, many relatives charge lower rates. A few charge nothing at all!
  • Easier Transitions: Whether your relative provides care in your home or her own, it may seem easier for you and your children to adapt to child care and share details about family life with a family member.

Keys to Making Relative Care Work

Most parents and relatives begin care arrangements with high hopes and warm feelings all around. But relative care can also be complex. It can complicate your relationship in unexpected ways. You are no longer just mother and daughter, or sisters-in-law, but also parent and caregiver.

  • Develop an agreement: Whether you are planning for care now or have already begun care, use this list to create a successful child care relationship. Write down your agreement and provide a copy to your relative-caregiver.
    1. Amount you will pay, and when.
    2. Drop off and pick up times.
    3. Snacks and meals. What will your child eat and who provides it?
    4. Daily schedule. Plan for indoor and outdoor play, nap times, special activities and use of television or videos.
    5. Behavior and discipline.
    6. Health and safety. Your child care referral service can provide a safety checklist for a child care home. If it is awkward to ask your relative to let you check her house for hazards, perhaps you can ask her to help you “childproof” both your home and hers.
    7. Emergency Information:
      1. Name, address and phone number for you or your spouse at work
      2. Name, address and phone number of other emergency contacts
      3. Name, address and phone number of your child’s doctor
      4. Information on your child’s special health issues, allergies, or medication.
      5. Written consent for emergency medical treatment if you cannot be reached.
  • Communicate: It is also a good idea to talk with the caregiver every day about how the day went. Try to have a thorough discussion once a week to make sure things are going smoothly, and to express your appreciation for the love and care your children are receiving.
  • Be clear about how important this child care is to you and your child. You want to be sure that your relative takes the child care role seriously. You should be clear about what you want: Is it okay to run errands with your child along? How much time does the relative spend cleaning house or cooking while your child is there? Talk about these concerns before they become problems.
    At the same time, let her know how much you value her role your child’s life. Pay your relative a fair amount for caring for your child. If you cannot afford to pay for care, discuss what you can offer in exchange. Can you help with transportation, errands, housework or other chores that show how much you value your relative’s help with child care?
  • Help your relative get information and support. Taking care of children is hard work. People caring for children can feel isolated and may not have all the resources they need. Your relative may feel more confident if she has taken an Infant-Child first aid and CPR class. Help her find a convenient time and location and offer to help pay the fees – or better yet – take it together. Encourage her to sign up for training or support groups for in- home caregivers.
    You can also go to the library and look for books on activities for young children. Some parents help connect family members to other relatives caring for children, or find out where parents, grandparents, other relatives and children gather for fun and companionship.

If your relative cares for other children as well as yours, you might suggest that she get a child care license. Although it takes time and effort to do this, she may find it valuable. Licensed family child care providers often can charge higher fees, get more support and training, and may be eligible for food and nutrition programs to help pay for the children’s meals. Your child care resource and referral agency will be able to help you find out more about licensing, food programs, and training or support groups that might be suitable.

How Do You Tell Your Mother (or Mother-in-law!) How to Take Care of Kids?

Even if you share values on many things, you may not agree with everything your relatives do. This can be very tricky when you want to make suggestions about the care your child receives. How can you get the care your child needs without causing problems in the family?

  • Choose your battles. Decide what is really important, and be flexible about other things. For instance, a parent who feels her mother is impatient about toilet training and too strict, might decide to talk first with her mother about how — and when — she plans to begin toilet training, and wait a week before discussing rules and children’s behavior.
  • Focus on your child. Describe your concerns from the child’s viewpoint. Instead of saying, “I don’t like what you’re doing,” say: “Dell is so active, I think he needs to play outside more often.” Or, “At her checkup, Marcia’s doctor suggested that we get her together with other children.” Sometimes it helps to remind your relative that you only raise the issue because you want the best care for your child and a close relationship with your relative.
  • Find a good time to talk. It is important for children to know that you like and trust the relative who cares for them, so discuss problems when the children are not around. Find a time when you are both relaxed. You might call your relative at night, or invite her out for breakfast on a weekend to talk about your concerns.
  • Express your affection and approval even when you disagree. Bringing up a problem is often much harder with a relative than with a non-relative. But, it can also be easier because you have shared history, and shared love for your children. Call on earlier good times or memories to help you solve the problem.

Remember, though, that your wishes about your children’s care should be followed, even if your relative does not agree with you. If you have talked it over, and he or she continues to ignore your suggestions, you might have to find other child care.

How Do I Know It’s Good for My Child?

Even with the advantages, you may worry about the difference between using a relative or more formal child care such as a center or a family child care home. Are your children missing something?

If you have these concerns, relax! If your children are being cared for in a safe and loving way, they are already getting the most important thing. However, if you want to learn more about other child care in your community:

  • Call your local child care resource and referral agency and ask for a booklet about choosing child care, or talk to someone about what makes a good child care arrangement.
  • Visit family child care homes or child care centers in your community, and talk to other parents about why they decided to use a particular type of care.
  • If you feel that your child needs more attention, stimulation, or time with playmates, share your ideas with your relative, and help think of creative activities that will help your child learn and have fun. Offer to help in any way you can.

Let’s face it – you may use relative care because it’s your only choice. If you work an unusual schedule or need very low cost care, relative care may be your best or your only option, and you probably feel lucky to have it.

It offers an opportunity to build a closer relationship with a family member and the chance to work or attend school. Many of your friends or coworkers wish they were in your shoes!

Is It Time For a Change?

For many families, relative child care feels right and works fine. But for others, it’s full of problems. You may not like feeling obligated to a family member. Maybe you get unwanted advice every day when you pick up your children. Sometimes family friction spills over into the child care situation and it becomes a source of stress rather than support.

Children grow and their needs change. Sometimes relative care that was perfect for your little one seems less appropriate for an older child. You may find that your aging parents can no longer keep up with active young children, or sometimes the birth of another baby overwhelms even the most devoted grandparents.

In some cases, you just can’t resolve conflicts about the child care schedule, fees, or other important issues. When this happens, it can be hard to end the child care arrangement without leaving bad feelings in the family.

If you decide that your relative child care no longer works, look into other options. Perhaps a friend or coworker would share the expense of in-home child care for both families’ children. Check on whether you are eligible for a child care subsidy from your state human service or child care office. Call your child care resource and referral agency for information and to discuss your options.

When you talk to your relative, be sensitive and end the child care relationship without blame or bad feelings. By doing so, you maintain a good relationship with your relative, no longer as a caregiver, but as a beloved family member!

For More Information…

About choosing and using child care and before and after school care, call the Child Care Resource and Referral Agency which serves your community. To find the number of the CCR&R in your area, call 1(800) 424-2246.


The Daily Parent is prepared by NACCRRA, the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies.

© 2012 NACCRRA. All rights reserved.

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