The Sitter Down the Block
Q. A woman in my neighborhood watches children in her home. I was thinking of hiring her to take care of my 2-year-old when I go back to work, but I heard that she isn't licensed. Should I write her off completely?
A. Not necessarily. Having a license does provide a little reassurance: It means that your neighbor has had some kind of training in childcare, that there are limits on the number of kids she can care for, and that her home has been inspected to make sure it meets health and safety standards. But only 10 states actually require licensing for all childcare providers, and even among those, the requirement doesn't apply to people who watch fewer than four children. So just as having a license doesn't make a sitter Mary Poppins, not having one isn't reason enough to cross her off your list.
Still, take this as a sign that you need to be doubly diligent about checking her out. The first thing to learn is what kind of background she has: Ideally, you want a sitter who's had at least some training in child development and who has a track record in taking care of kids. (Many in-home caregivers are moms themselves, so talk to them about their thoughts and ideas on raising kids and make sure they're compatible with your own.)
Find out how many children she watches at any given time. According to the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies (NACCRRA,) a home daycare provider should never have more than six children total under age 5 -- with no more than two of those kids who are under age 2.
So far, so good? The next step is to visit her home to get a firsthand look at what goes on: Is the house neat, comfortable, and totally childproofed? Are the kitchen, bathrooms, and diapering area squeaky-clean? Are there enough age-appropriate toys for everyone?
Watch how she acts around the children. Is she calm or stressed? Is the television on all the time? Does she get lots of phone calls or visitors who distract her from the kids?
Then sit down with the sitter and really grill her. Ask what a typical day is like: Does she plan activities and structure the kids' time? Ask specific questions: How does she handle temper tantrums and squabbles over toys? What does she do if a child is cranky and crying? If she's also caring for her own children, how does she safeguard against favoritism? If her kids are older, who picks them up and drives them around after school?
Finally, talk to other families whose kids she's watched: Do they seem enthusiastic? Did their children like her? If they no longer use her, why did they stop? What do they consider her strong and weak points? If they're reluctant to talk, or if you suspect they're not telling the whole story, trust your gut and find someone else.
If you do hire this woman, continue to keep an eye on things, especially in the first few months. Drop by unannounced from time to time to get a real idea of what your child's day is like. And watch for clues about how your child is adjusting. If he consistently cries and begs to stay home, you might need to reconsider the arrangement. But if he's happy and thriving, you'll know that -- license or not -- you've made a good choice.