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Should you pay family members to watch your kids? Parents and experts weigh in

Parents and experts debate whether to pay family members for child care and share tips to keep your budget and relationships healthy.

Should you pay family members to watch your kids? Parents and experts weigh in

It’s a parenting debate that grows more contentious by the day: Should you pay a family member to watch your kids? Decades ago, the answer likely would have been a resounding no. But as the child care landscape grows more expensive and difficult to navigate, more and more parents are turning to grandparents, aunts, uncles and other relatives for care they originally would have sought from a babysitter, nanny or daycare.

Forty-one percent of parents say they’ve relied on a grandmother when unexpected child care issues arose, according to a 2023 report by Fortune and The Harris Poll. Others are hiring family members as part- or full-time caregivers. The result is that many parents and caregivers alike are rethinking how these child care arrangements should function. “You have to think about the financial implications of all involved,” says Abbey Sangmeister, a therapist, life coach and founder of Evolving Whole. “The amount of hours, what is expected during that caregiving time — acknowledging there is labor involved in caring for children is the first step to having a successful relationship.”

So, is it time to start logging hours every time your sister agrees to babysit on date night? And how much should you be paying anyway? Here, experts and parents weigh in on whether or not to pay family members for child care and how to come to a fair agreement without straining your budget or your relationship.

Why some people pay family members — and why some don’t

Traditionally, family caregivers have been viewed as a part of “the village” that parents rely on when raising kids. To some people, that means they don’t or shouldn’t expect payment for participating in child care. “I try to pay my niece, but she always refuses to let me,” says Sarah Shemkus, a parent of one from Boston.

For some, the idea of paying family members for child care is actually outrageous. TikTok user Kaitlyn Wilson recently went viral for a fiery post calling the practice “absurd.” She explains in her video, “I get the opportunity to create a relationship with my nephew by babysitting him and being around him. The fact that other people feel like they would need to be paid to hang out with their nieces, nephews, grandkids… is so messed up.”


I was not even aware that someone would think of charging their family member for babysitting their kid(s) occasionally #fyp #family #ittakesavillage #nephew #auntlife

♬ original sound – Kaitlyn w

But, as Sangmeister explains, lifestyle and community has changed over the years. “Generations ago, it was a village that helped care and raise children,” she says. “We are seeing less of this, and parents are struggling.” Add to that the rising cost of child care and a growing understanding of just how much labor is involved in caring for kids, and it becomes hard for many parents to justify a return to the old model of relying on family for free care. 

Instead, many are creating a new “village” — one in which loving family members still help out, but their time and labor is considered and compensation isn’t off the table. “I pay my stepsister to watch my kids when our usual sitter isn’t available,” says Natasha Burton St. Clair, a parent of two from Santa Barbara, California. “She used to be a nanny, and she’s fabulous with kids. Also, I would have paid our usual sitter anyway, so it wouldn’t feel right to me to not pay her.”

Jen Hyde, a parent from the Bay Area in California, used an employer child care benefit to pay her mom to watch her kids. “I had a benefit where I was given $3,500 to be used for child care expenses,” she explains. She calculated an hourly rate for her mom based on the amount she had allotted in the benefit, though Hyde says her mom still helped her above and beyond those hours as well. “As she recently explained to me, her priority is to be my mom and to help me because she knows how hard it is to raise kids,” Hyde adds.

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What to consider when determining whether pay is necessary

If you’re trying to decide whether or how much to pay a family member to care for your kids, here are some considerations to factor into your decision.

Time commitment

Some parents only need help with the occasional date night, but others rely on family members to essentially fill the role of a nanny. “It bears considering payment when care is routinely provided and you’d otherwise need to hire outside help,” says Jenn Wert, a parenting coach and educator who specializes in family relationships and communication. “In this way, that family member is taking away your need to interview and find the right person and pay them the going rate. If we depend on the family member, it’s at least worth broaching the topic.”

The scope of the job

Just as with non-family sitters and caregivers, it’s important to consider how much labor is involved. Watching the kids once a month while you see a movie is vastly different from picking them up from school each day and staying with them until bedtime. Consider the following:

  • How many kids need care?
  • How long will the caregiver be with the kids?
  • Will the caregiver need to prepare meals and snacks?
  • Does the caregiver need to drive the kids to activities?
  • Will the caregiver be using their own car, food or other supplies for the kids?

“To ignore the emotional and physical labor you’re asking someone else to do for you doesn’t benefit anyone in that relationship,” says Bonnie Scott, a therapist and founder of Mindful Kindness Counseling. “Further, is this person watching your kid on the regular to help you save money or some other favor to you? Could they be making money another way that they are foregoing to help you? You don’t need to pay them that much, maybe, to help them feel like that action is appreciated.”

“Consider how much money you would pay someone you’re not related to for them to do a similar amount of work. Then, consider if you’re willing to pay all or a portion of that to a family member.”

— Bonnie Scott, therapist and founder of Mindful Kindness Counseling

Going rates for non-family caregivers

“Consider how much money you would pay someone you’re not related to for them to do a similar amount of work,” Scott says. “Then, consider if you’re willing to pay all or a portion of that to a family member, or consider other options for offsetting possible costs.” Use a cost of care calculator to figure out the going rates for child care near you.

Other ways to compensate family members for care

If a family member doesn’t expect to be paid or if standard payment isn’t in the cards, here are some alternatives to consider.

Covering expenses

Even if you don’t pay a family caregiver an hourly rate, it’s still a good idea to cover any expenses associated with watching your kids. “I don’t pay my mom or sister, but I leave them money that I hope covers a dinner out, the extra gas running my kids around, etc.,” says Kelly Burch, a parent of two from Concord, New Hampshire. “They’re happy to help and spend time with the kids, but I don’t want it to cost them anything.”

Trading favors

“Is there something parents can trade for child care, like if I watch your kids today, can you watch mine next week?” Scott suggests.Trading on your skills is a great way to repay someone for their help. Swapping babysitting duties is one option, but you might also help out with a home improvement project, craft, maintenance on their car or anything else they could use a hand with.

Gifts and other gestures

Sometimes a family caregiver might appreciate a special gift or even something as simple as having their favorite snacks on hand whenever they come over. Shemkus, whose niece refuses payment for babysitting, says she “compensates” her niece instead by “preparing a tasty vegan dinner” whenever she babysits.

Some other thoughtful gifts for a loved one who watches your kids might include:

  • A gift card to a favorite store.
  • Dinner at their favorite restaurant.
  • Flowers and a nice card.
  • Handmade gifts from the kids.
  • A gift certificate for a spa day or haircut.
  • Tickets to a movie, concert or other event.

How to talk about money with a family caregiver

Regardless of what you decide about payment, talking about it is essential, Scott advises. “Nothing injures a relationship faster than unexamined expectations,” she notes. “If they think you might pay, and you never intend to, it’s better for everyone to know that so they can make decisions that won’t lead to resentment.”

Be direct

“If anyone, and most especially family, is going to be watching your kids, you need to establish a working relationship with very direct and open lines of communication from the beginning,” Wert says. 

Will it be awkward? Possibly. “But you’ll no doubt have to address meeting your children’s specific needs, discipline, tech use and any other expectations you may have that aren’t being met,” she adds. “So, set the stage for communication from the beginning and be sure to speak honestly and openly.”

“If anyone, and most especially family, is going to be watching your kids, you need to establish a working relationship with very direct and open lines of communication from the beginning.”

— Jenn Wert, parenting coach and educator

Negotiate fairly

“Relationships that are sturdy and healthy are [also] honest and respect everyone’s boundaries,” Wert says. With that in mind, she advises coming up with a plan you can both agree to before letting your family member watch your kids. During the discussion, focus on these goals:

  • Be honest and open about your needs.
  • Acknowledge your family member’s time, labor and point of view.
  • Focus on what you are willing to offer.
  • Approach the topic with love, respect and openness.

“If you’re not willing to pay any money, make that clear at the beginning,” Scott adds. You might say: “I really need help watching the kids every day this summer. I’m unable to pay anyone for this service right now, but I’m hoping maybe you can help me out. I can buy some groceries every week.”

Consider a contract

“If it’s an official agreement, it needs to be in writing, and it needs to outline what you’re paying for and what they’re doing,” Scott says. A babysitting or nanny contract can help lay out the guidelines for everything from pay and hours to how to handle sick days.

“If you expect very active child care, that needs to be stated,” Scoot adds. “If you expect a specific structure for the day or a plan for behavior management, that needs to be in writing just like it would be with anyone else you would pay to do this work.”

The bottom line on paying family members for child care

Child care is essential to many families, but limited openings and astronomical costs have only highlighted the importance of being able to rely on family members for care. Maybe it’s only during an emergency on a date night here and there. Or maybe you have a family member watching your kids full-time while you’re at work.

Either way, it’s vital to consider their time, labor and the quality of your relationship when setting up a child care arrangement with family. Having open communication around these factors will ensure not only great care for your kids, but also the health and strength of your relationship with your loved one. They may or may not expect payment, Wren concludes, but it’s only considerate to acknowledge the work and commitment it takes to provide loving, quality care.