AU PAIRS Au Pairs belong to a specialized group of childcare providers. They are not nannies or babysitters, but rather live-in caregivers from abroad who are part of an exchange program in which they must complete academic coursework. Sarah G. Webb, public relations manager at Cultural Care Au Pair, a program that matches au pairs and families, points out that the training required by an au pair is radically different from other childcare givers. “Au pairs are the only form of regulated in-home childcare in the United States; their programs are regulated by the U.S. Department of State. Nannies, or the agencies that oversee them, are not currently regulated by any form of state or federal government,” says Webb. “Because au pairs are regulated, there are strict guidelines and references that must be completed before the au pair is accepted into the program. These include criminal background checks, a secondary education, a health certificate, three non-family references, and at least 32 hours of child safety training. Additionally, if the au pair is being placed with an infant, he or she must have at least 200 hours of proven experience caring for an infant.” Au pairs cannot exceed 45 hours work per week and are guaranteed two weeks of paid vacation during their stay with the family. There are many fees that must be paid upfront to an agency; these can exceed $6,000. The au pair receives a minimum weekly stipend (currently $139.05). Au pairs may not care for infants younger than three months unless there is a parent or other responsible adult home, and if they care for children under the age of 2, they must have at least 200 hours of documented infant childcare experience. The advantages of choosing an au pair are flexibility and convenience, says Beth Lehmann, community counselor with EurAuPair. “You and your au pair can schedule her childcare duties over 5.5 days a week and up to 10 hours per day in any way that is convenient for you,” she explains. Make sure to be clear about your childrearing rules, Lehmann points out, because “childcare rules are not universal and an au pair usually arrives not knowing how parents in the U.S. raise and educate their children.” Keep in mind that since au pairs are generally young, they can become a burden if they live out the active social life of a teenager while in your house. Request an au pair with a certain maturity level who will not encumber your household. Tracy, a mom of two on the Upper West Side has had a very positive au pair experience. “An au pair is less expensive than many other forms of childcare, and the agency offered a replacement fee if there were issues. My children are young (2 and 3) and they generally rise at the same time. On occasions when they get up earlier, our au pair can help them get ready so I can still get to work in a timely fashion.” She advises parents to take their own preferences into account when selecting an au pair. “Language was a key factor for us. We speak French at home and have had only French-speaking childcare for our children. We have been able to find native French speaking au pairs.” Investigate which countries the agency recruits from if you would like a similar setup, adds Tracy.
For next summer? It’s too late for 2004, but here’s something you might want to consider for next summer: A pilot summer program launched by Cultural Care Au Pair is not only a convenient alternative for working parents, but cost efficient. The cost for the summer is $2,495; this includes recruitment, round trip airfare, and financial support while the au pair is employed. This fee also includes a training session in New York for six days prior to starting the position. An au pair arrives anywhere from the end of May thru early July, and can stay on until the middle of September. For more info, call 1-800-333-6056; www.culturalcare.com. — Rebecca Stolcz
DAY CARE CENTERS Daycare centers in New York are regulated by the New York City Department of Health. Technically, they are defined as seven or more children being cared for in an institutional setting. The Bureau of Day Care recommends allowing at least three months to find a good daycare facility for your child, and offers the following questions that parents should ask themselves to help select the right licensed program:
Is group daycare what I really want for my child? On the upside, there is more room for interaction and group activities, but there is also the greater chance of exposure to sickness, and more generalized care.
Do I want it to be close to home or work? Some parents prefer to have their child in their own neighborhood and close to home, while others enjoy having their children close to their workplace — in case the child gets sick, the parents are close by. This also makes for fun impromptu lunchtime visits.
Do the hours fit my schedule? Parents should remember to make allowances for travel time to and from work, with enough time for traffic jams and other unforeseen delays. Some centers charge by the minute for late pick-ups.
Would I feel comfortable leaving my child there? Parents should visit the center beforehand and be alert for good and bad signs. Check licensing, experience, staff-to-children ratio, indoor and outdoor supervision. Ask if parents can drop by without calling at any time — this is a state law. Look for warm staff and child interactions (does the staff treat the children with respect?), cleanliness of the facility, safety precautions (window guards, etc.), and any possible safety hazards. Ask for names of parents to call as a reference; again, ask open-ended questions when you call.
Can I afford it? The average rate in Manhattan can range anywhere from $900-$1600 a month, or more, for full-time care (5 days a week, 8am-6pm). This usually includes mealtime and snacks. The younger the child, the higher the rates. If your child is not yet toilet trained, expect to pay more. Most centers also offer part-time schedules. It is not uncommon to figure that the costs of daycare eat up most of a parent’s weekly income.
Visit many centers and compare them in order to pick the one best suited to you and your child. Remember that a parent’s gut reaction is a great indicator — if you feel that something doesn’t quite add up, pass on that center and continue your search. For a list of reputable and licensed centers in your area, call the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Bureau of Day Care at (212) 368-9600; or visit them on the web at www.nyc.gov.
FAMILY DAY CARE Another option is family childcare — programs that operate within a home and often have a varied age group of children, where siblings can be together. Family daycare providers must be registered or licensed by the NYS OCFS and are limited by state regulations. Registered providers may provide care for as many as six children if they are all older than 2, or up to five children if any child is younger than 2. They cannot care for more than two kids under 2 years old. Other rules allow for school-age children to be cared for in addition to the child-number limit. Licensed group family childcare providers are permitted to care for more children. For instance, these home-based centers can provide care for as many as 12 kids if they are all older than 2, and as many as 10 if any child is younger than 2. For more information, visit the NYS OCFS website: www.ocfs.state.ny.us.
Coops, online If you’re considering setting up or joining a babysitting coop, check out www.babysitterexchange.com, the brainchild of John Simpson, a father of three. The free site, which automates the administrative functions of traditional babysitting coops, allows parents to trade babysitting hours with other parents within their coop group. Parents earn points by babysitting other members’ children, and can redeem their points for free babysitting by other members. All babysitting points are tracked online, and members can email babysitting requests to other members of their group and respond to members’ requests electronically as well. Joining an existing babysitting coop group or starting a new one is free, as is ongoing use of the site. As a safety measure, new group members must be approved by at least two existing members before being invited to join a particular group. Michelle Myers, a member of a neighborhood coop, describes the group of about a dozen families as a "circle of friends" she trusts and turns to quite often to arrange babysitting for her 22-month-old son, Benjamin. As Myers notes, "I don’t know everybody in the group. But everybody knows somebody in the group." For her, that equals peace of mind — as well as substantial savings. — Lisa Lewis
The college connection The difficulty of finding an occasional sitter is legendary — some parents troll orthodontists’ offices or Kaplan study centers. To find college students, savvy parents go to the Barnard Babysitting Agency, a student-run organization that is an intermediary between parents and students. Parents in need of steady or sporadic childcare post their needs, which registered students then check. There is a huge database; last year over 800 Barnard students were listed with the program. Parents have to pay a minimum of $7.50/hour and have their pediatrician sign a release form. Registering with Barnard sitters is $20. For more information, go to http://eclipse.barnard.columbia.edu/~bbsitter/skipintro.html. —J.A.
Drop the kids off for a night of quality time
By Sarah-Beth White
Tired of scrambling for a sitter when you need quality adult time? The McBurney YMCA on 14th Street has a great solution. “Parents’ Night Out” merges with “kids’ night out” every Saturday evening, offering busy parents a unique alternative to traditional sitters. The weekly event provides a group babysitting service from 6-10pm for 3- to 12-year-olds at a surprisingly affordable rate. Open to members and non-members alike, the only pre-requisite is that the child be potty-trained. Experienced caregivers occupy your child with a range of activities for all age groups. “It’s better than a babysitter because your child is not stuck in the house,” says Tara Rizzolo, the YMCA’s school-age childcare coordinator. “We provide a great service. The children get to socialize and learn in a stimulating environment while the parents can enjoy an evening out.” (For the adolescent set, the YMCA offers a Teen Center that entitles students to use its entire state-of-the-art facility for free on Saturday nights). A pizza party launches the evening activities and helps break the ice, encouraging the kids to mingle. After dinner, young artists can explore their creative side with arts & crafts instruction. Children experiment with brightly colored collages and swirling paper sculptures. Later the children participate in sports in the facility’s cavernous gym. “We offer fun, supervised activities like red light/green light, dancing, and ball games that are age appropriate,” says Aletha Gordon, early childhood director. Gordon has over 10 years of child education experience, and oversees the “Parents’ Night Out” events. In its initial season, McBurney offered “Parents’ Night Out” only once a month, but the response has been so overwhelming that they now offer it every week. “Children benefit from the social interaction. Many start out shy, but begin to bond and make friends by the end of the night,” says Gordon. Manhattan mom Margo Drucker agrees. “I loved it!” says her son Jonah, 5, as he runs to greet his parents following his first experience with “Parents’ Night Out”. “He seemed happy when he came in,” she says. “The other kids helped put him at ease.” “And it’s certainly more economical than your average sitter,” adds her husband, Michael Drucker. Swimming in the YMCA’s collegiate pool is the major treat of the evening. Trained lifeguards are on duty and flotation devices are available for novice swimmers. “My daughter wants to come every week,” says Anne Finkelstein of Manhattan, who is a regular patron of “Parents’ Night Out”. She confesses that sometimes she calls it “Parents’ Night In” because you can hire a sitter and go out, but you rarely have the opportunity to spend a cozy night at home with your significant other. As the evening winds down with popcorn and a movie, the children relax in a comfortable recreational room. With pick-up time comes a mixture of warm hugs and protests. Many kids urge their parents to stay just a few minutes longer. Promises of return visits are dangled, coaxing the children to depart for home. “The parents are enthusiastic about our program,” says Rizzolo. “Many couples work long hours during the week and don’t have the time to connect. They look forward to spending quality adult time together and we offer them an easy way to do it.”
And free fun for teens! “Use it or lose it” is the latest buzz about the McBurney YMCA free Teen Center, open every Saturday from 8-11pm. “The more teens who attend, the more services we can provide,” says Sam Hassan, senior program director. “This is an ideal situation. We provide a great opportunity for teens to have full access to our entire facility for free.” The only requirement for entry is a valid student I.D. First-timers must submit an application form, signed by parents, and attend an orientation session. After that they’re on their own to explore the diverse activities available at the YMCA. A typical Saturday night will have 60 to 70 teens enjoying the facility. Two sports are presented simultaneously in the gym. Basketball, volleyball and Double-Dutch jump rope are popular choices. Teens can work up a sweat running laps around the indoor track and then cool off with a plunge in the pool. Certified fitness trainers are on hand to instruct teens on the proper use of the Y’s cardio-vascular and weight-training equipment. For the more cerebral, they offer a computer lab with full Internet access and virtual games. Students can even get help with their homework… and yes, they actually do work on school assignments, confirms Mike Ouziel, the center’s computer specialist. Weekly hip-hop dance classes are available and the center is hoping to add martial arts and D.J.ing classes to its roster in the near future. “We periodically survey the kids to find out their interests and are always looking to find new ways to expand our services,” says Hassan. “We offer a safe environment for teens to hang out with their friends and make new friends. It’s important for us to give something back to the community that sustains us.”
Where: The McBurney YMCA is located at 125 West 14th Street. How much: Parents’ Night Out fees: Early registration: $20 members, $30 non-members; 50 percent off for additional children in the same family. Same day registration: $25 members, $35 non-members; 50 percent off for additional children in the same family. For more info: (212) 741-9210; www.ymcanyc.org/mcburney And more options … Chelsea Piers has a similar Saturday night program, Flip and Flick, for ages 5 and up. Kids are entertained from 7-11pm and given a pizza dinner and popcorn. There are two different sports activities, which might include soccer, basketball, baseball, gymnastics, rock climbing or trampoline. Kids then relax with a movie. Advance reservations are required, at (212) 336-6500, ext. 6582. Fee is $40 per child, $20 for each additional child.
In Brooklyn, two gymnastics studios offer parents’ nights out as well. Power Play usually holds it the first Friday of every month (in July, it will be July 11, however), from 6-9pm. Dinner is not included, but snacks are. Activities include gymnastics, soccer, trapeze, rock climbing, and arts & crafts. The program is for ages 3 1/2 and up; $30 for the first child, $15 for the second. Advance reservations are required; call (718) 369-9880. Power Play is at 428 Third Avenue, between 7th and 8th Streets. Kid Fit, 25 Dean Street in Cobble Hill, offers pizza, gymnastics, games and arts & crafts at its occasional program, which runs from 6:30-9:30pm. The cost is $20 per child. For information on the next night out, call (718) 852-7670. — J.A.