Should Abuela Be Your Babysitter?

She loves your kids as her own and will do anything for you, but is Grandma the right person to be your babysitter? 

Grandmother holding granddaughter outside Maria Teijeiro/Getty Images
When Melissa Lopez was preparing to return to work after maternity leave, she started searching online for a sitter for her daughter Sophia. As she scrolled through pictures of different nannies on a popular babysitting website, her fears got the better of her: "All the photos looked like mug shots," says the mom from Valley Stream, New York. "I couldn't come to terms with having a stranger watch her." So Lopez shared her concerns with her mother and mother-in-law, and both women immediately signed on as part-time sitters and have been Sophia's caregivers for the last two years. "I go to work, and I don't worry if Sophia is safe," Lopez says.

The peace of mind that Lopez describes is a huge reason that more than one-third of working Latina moms enlist grandparents as babysitters. "Having Abuela take care of the kids is the next best thing to being there yourself," says Esther Calzada, Ph.D., associate professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin. "There's no one we can trust to do the job with so much love."

There's also no one more equipped to teach our kids about the family traditions and values we hold dearest. As they provide child care, grandparents are able to pass on culture through language and food even more successfully than American-born moms and dads can. For Lopez, who doesn't have a lot of time to cook, having her Puerto Rican mother make Sophia the same Latin dishes she grew up with is priceless. Add to that the potential savings of having Abuela as a sitter, and this arrangement seems perfect, right?

Well, not necessarily—because when things don't go well, long-standing bonds with grandparents can be at risk. It's important to tread carefully to avoid friction, says Lina Guzman, director of Child Trends' Hispanic Institute, in Bethesda, Maryland. Yet, it's still child care, and you have to be clear about expectations. "When you visit a day-care center, you ask about the activities they do, the meals they serve, their TV policy," says Guzman. You'll have to have a difficult conversation about these and other topics with Grandma. Before "hiring" Abuela, ask yourself the following questions—trust us, they'll save you uncomfortable moments and hurt feelings in the long run.

1. Is She Fit Enough?
We all know that keeping up with little ones can sometimes be overwhelming, especially when they depend on us for their every need. And some grandparents providing child care are also juggling regular jobs on top of maintaining their own home, so chasing after a toddler can be downright draining.

To assess if Abuela has what it takes, have her help you out with the baby, so that she can see what the job entails, Dr. Calzada suggests—"especially in those cases where there's a physical demand, like taking the stroller down steps." If your kids are older, she adds, you can also invite her to join your family at the park on Saturday morning. "Then you'll see how hard it is on her, and how much she can give. If her fitness level isn't where it should be, you may decide to be flexible and have her turn on the music at home and have a little dance-fest, rather than walk ten minutes to the park."

Even if grandparents are in relatively good shape, studies have found that caring for young children might adversely affect their health. Not only can the day-to-day demands of the job take a significant toll, but they can also leave grandparents less time to relax, exercise, and visit doctors. To counteract that, be on the lookout for any health problems that crop up. "If they seem more tired than usual, talk to them about it," Guzman suggests. "They may need to take care of the kids fewer hours, or maybe they can't do as many physical activities with them." That's a concession Lopez is willing to make for her mother. "There are days when she's exhausted because she's also caring for my 88-year-old grandmother. So instead of taking Sophia to the playground, she'll paint with her."

2. Can She Live By Your Rules?
You've heard the saying "Mom knows best." Well, chances are, Grandma will tell you different. "Abuelas are so invested in their grandchildren that they're going to have very strong opinions on how to raise them," Dr. Calzada says. "You'll have to deal with more child-rearing negotiations than if you hired a stranger." And because our moms were raised in a different country, there are bound to be cultural clashes.

For Melisa Mendez Chantres, of Miami, whose mother has been caring for her daughters—Nina, 10, Lia, 8, and Milla, 3—since they were born, the biggest disagreement is about nutrition. "Milla, the baby, is petite, whereas the other girls were gordas," Mendez Chantres says. "Imagine a Cuban grandma with a skinny grandchild—if they're not chunky, they're not healthy. So she's been after me to talk to the doctor about opening up her appetite." While Mendez Chantres doesn't necessarily agree with her mother, she's willing to keep an open mind.

"Grandparents have a lot of wisdom," Dr. Calzada says. "Ask yourself, 'What can I learn from the way Abuela wants to do this, and what are the benefits?' If there are things that we can let slide, even if it's not the way we would do it, let Abuela have some say." Guzman recommends that you pick your battles carefully. "If Grandma is turning on the TV for the kids, counterbalance that by not having TV at home, or outline what the kids are allowed to watch." Just be explicit about the nonnegotiables—those things that are so important that you're not willing to compromise—from the beginning, Dr. Calzada advises. If you don't want Grandma to spank the kids when they misbehave, say so at the start. "You want to be clear on what she has free reign over, what's nonnegotiable, and what you decide together," Dr. Calzada says.

3. Does She See You as an Adult?
In your mom's eyes, you'll always be her little girl, but if she still treats you as such, she might find it especially difficult to do what you wish with the kids. That's what happened to Nicolle Vega, of Allentown, Pennsylvania, when her headstrong Puerto Rican mother moved in to care for her children, Xavier, 16, Elijah, 14, Joshua, 9, and Isabella, 8. "She'd question my authority because I'm her daughter," Vega says. "If I told the kids they couldn't play video games, she'd ask me why. They were starting to see that if they went to Grandma, they could do whatever they wanted." The situation eventually took a turn for the worse. "She confronted me about something that she shouldn't have," Vega says. "I said, 'Enough is enough, you have to go,' and I told her to pack up." While Vega has since allowed her mother to visit, she still resents her for putting her at odds with her kids. "I feel my blood boiling when she's here," Vega says.

To avoid ruining relationships, be realistic about the dynamics you share with your mother, Dr. Calzada advises. "Our mamás tend to see us as never quite grown up," she notes. "So, think, 'Does she consider my decisions to be mature decisions?' A mother who doesn't give credibility to anything you say won't respect your needs, which will make this kind of babysitting setup stressful on you and tough on the kids."

4. Is She Discreet?
Whether you call it bochinche, chisme, or plain old gossip, if you come from a family in which everything is up for discussion, don't be surprised if Abuela shares more than just the baby's milestones with your tí­as. "That's the way we relate within our families, by telling each other everything," Dr. Calzada says. If Abuela is spending the majority of time in your home, it's only natural that your brood will be a big topic of her conversation.

The "chatter" used to worry Lopez. "My mother-in-law is very vocal," she says. "There have been times when I've thought everyone would know my business. But I can't concern myself with that any more." Dr. Calzada notes that a complete block on sharing is probably impractical. She suggests that instead of asking her to not talk about what happens in your house, bring up specific things you'd like to keep private—and hope that she respects your wishes.

5. Can She Afford It?
Only 19 percent of babysitting abuelas are paid, according to Child Trends' Hispanic Institute, and considering that most women become grandmothers around age 50, way before retirement age, many still need to earn a living. Mendez Chantres's mother, for instance, takes care of her three granddaughters by day and works from home at night as a property manager. "She stays up late, but she wouldn't have it any other way," Mendez Chantres says. "If I paid her, she'd be insulted."

Even if a grandparent won't accept money, you should offer. "It's the most respectful thing to do," says Dr. Calzada. In the absence of pay, there are many ways to show your gratitude. "You can take Abuela to the salon or bring over dinner so she won't have to cook," she suggests. You can also repay them in the long term. While Mendez Chantres can't afford to whisk her parents off on a nice vacation right now, she plans to pay them back when they're older. "My husband and I are going to take care of them when the time comes," she says.

In the meantime, make sure that caring for your kids isn't a financial burden on Grandma. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, second-generation Latinos are better off economically than their immigrant parents. Even if you don't think you're making enough to cover child care, chances are your parents are not doing as well. Make sure you provide diapers, food, and everything else your kids need on a daily basis, so Grandma doesn't have to chip in.

That thoughtfulness extends to being respectful of Abuela's time. "Ask her when she's willing to provide child care and how much notice she'll need if something changes, so she's not just sitting around at home waiting for the child," Guzman says. "Grandma has a life of her own too. And you can hurt her feelings if you take advantage."

As with all facets of this babysitting arrangement, the key is communication. And that goes both ways. "Over time, one's expectations can change, but being up-front from the beginning and continually talking about any issues that come up will ensure that your relationship remains intact," Guzman says. Mendez Chantres, for one, is as honest as possible with her mom to avoid resentment down the line. "She tells me how it is, and I do the same," she says. "My girls have an unbelievable bond with my mother, because she's been looking after them since they were babies. That love is one of a kind."