Always Tip the Babysitter, and 29 Other Unspoken Parenting Rules to Live By

Getty / kate_sept2004; Photo Illustration by Aly Lim

Whether you follow an authoritative or gentle parenting style or somewhere in between, there are many unofficial, unwritten rules that every parent tries to adhere to. While many of these “rules” might seem like common sense, you’d be surprised at the instances where proper parenting etiquette may not always be obvious, and you may question what is the right way to do things.

Take play dates and birthday parties, for example. They’re a great opportunity for your kid(s) to interact with others and for you to have an adult conversation with another grown-up in the room. But as a guest, should you offer to bring extra snacks and toys? Are siblings invited? What about best practices for dealing with a babysitter or childcare? Do you order them food too when you go out on a date night, and what’s the deal with tipping when you get back home? Here, I’ve shared some of my own parenting rules as a mom and consulted other parents and caregivers to come up with an unofficial set of “rules” for navigating the lesser-talked-about side of parenting.

Don’t worry, there are bound to be a few parenting etiquette blunders here and there. But hopefully, this list will help you avoid some of the minefields when it comes to interacting with other parents, kids, caregivers, and teachers.

Childcare/Caregiving Rules

1. Order Food for Date Nights

If you have a nanny, babysitter, or grandparent taking care of your child for a date night, offer to order a dinner of their choice and ask what other snacks or drinks they like so that’s one less thing to worry about. Plus, there are minimal dishes and clean-up at the end of the night, says Raena Boston, founder of The Working Momtras and co-founder of Chamber of Mothers. Be clear about what foods they’re welcome to enjoy in the fridge or pantry.

2. Offer a Car Ride Home

Attending a work or social event that runs late into the evening? Ensure your child’s caregiver arrives home safely by offering to pay for their lift home if they don’t drive. You or your partner can also drive them home if you’re able to.

3. Tip Extra if You’re Running Late

It happens to the best of us. Sometimes you just miss the train or bus ride home, a work call goes overtime, or you hit some major traffic. Whatever the case may be, make sure to give your child’s babysitter, nanny, or daycare caregiver a heads-up that you’re going to be late for pick-up, and pay for the additional time they’re caring for your child.

4. Pay for Vacation and Sick Days

Everyone deserves paid time off and sick days, including your children’s babysitter or nanny. Whether they are taking a few vacation days or are feeling under the weather and need to stay home, it’s best practice to pay their daily rate. At the same time, make sure you alert them well in advance about vacation days your family is planning to take so they can plan for it.

5. Give a Monetary Gift During the Holidays

Whether it’s teacher appreciation week or the holidays, nannies and teachers don’t want another mug or candle. Give them a monetary gift, Boston says. This can be cash or even a gift card. And don’t forget to pair it with a handwritten note! What’s even better is if you or another parent in your kid’s class can organize the classroom community to pool for a gift with a bigger impact.

6. Respect Your Nanny’s Boundaries

Avoid texting or calling your kid’s babysitter, nanny, daycare caregiver, or teacher outside of usual business hours. No one wants to get calls and messages at 10:30 p.m. – unless there’s an emergency, of course. Allow them enough time to respond before following up.

7. Get On the Same Page About Responsibilities

Before you hire a babysitter or nanny, discuss their daily responsibilities. For some people, it means your nanny is doing some light housework, like washing baby bottles and preparing your baby’s meals, in addition to caring for them. Or maybe you would like your nanny to strictly focus on watching, feeding, and playing with your child. If there are some days when other kids will be joining your child for activities, let your nanny know ahead of time and ask them if they feel comfortable watching multiple kids at a time.

8. Let Them Know if You or Child Is Sick

In a post-COVID world, it’s best to always communicate with your babysitter or nanny when your child is sick and offer a sick day for them if they aren’t comfortable caring for your child. Many caregivers work for multiple families at a time and want to avoid putting themselves, other children, and immuno-compromised people in their orbit at risk for illnesses.

9. Include Your Partner in School Communications

If you’d like a partner to be included in school communications and/or calls from the school or camp, establish that early in the school year and loop them into your emails with their teachers, Boston says. “Reinforce that they can come to dad as well as mom. I make sure we’re both included on all communications so that juggling the mental load isn’t just a mom problem and it normalizes shared responsibility.”

10. Have Emergency Contacts On Hand

Write down the phone numbers of other family members, neighbors, or close friends your babysitter, nanny, or kid’s teacher can contact in the case of an emergency. Let me know where they can find the first aid kit or medicine, like allergy medication.

Play Date Rules

1. Ask About Food Allergies

If you’re hosting a play date at your house, make sure to ask if any of the children – and adults – coming over have food allergies or preferences. Stock up your kitchen with approved foods and serve similar or the same foods to all of the children to avoid fights and cross-contamination when sharing snacks. At the same time, you can ask if there are other things needed for the play date, like extra plates, cups, utensils, or booster seats.

“My second daughter is lactose intolerant. I’ve adopted an unspoken rule of always trying to have foods and snacks that are vegan and/or allergen-free at events, and I always ask about allergens,” says Cassie Shortsleeve, founder of Dear Sunday Motherhood and co-founder of Two Truths.

2. Offer to Bring Coffee and Breakfast for Morning Play Dates

Whether you’re attending a morning play date at someone else’s home or meeting up at a nearby park, consider packing some on-the-go breakfast foods for the kids – whether that’s pastries, fruits, or something homemade – and reach out to the other parents about grabbing coffee or tea, says Chesca Dizon, a mom of two girls based in Washington D.C.

3. Parents Are Welcome to Stay But They Don’t Have to

Parents are always welcome to stay at play dates, but the understanding is that if you are hosting, you will be watching the kids. If the other parents decide to leave during the play date, you can let them know what time it makes the most sense for them to come pick up their kids. And if your child is invited to a play date and you aren’t sure who is supervising, offer to stay and help watch the kids.

4. Ask if There Are Guns in the Home and Where They Are Stored

In light of recent mass shootings in the U.S., it’s not out of line for parents to ask other caretakers if there are guns in the home before they let their children come over for a play date. Make sure to ask if the firearms are in a locked safe and that the ammunition is stored separately in a place where kids aren’t able to access them. You can make the conversation more natural by voicing your concerns and asking if there are other things needed for the playdate.

5. Adhere to a Time Limit and Naps

Set a time limit on play dates to ensure that no one’s naptime gets compromised. Most parents stick to two hours, but you can discuss a game plan with everyone attending. “I learned the hard way where we’ve overstayed our welcome and things went downhill. Two hours seems to be the perfect sweet spot,” says Stacey Feintuch, a mom of two boys based in Washington Township, NJ. This is also a good opportunity to bring up whether siblings are invited to join the play date.

6. Bring Age-Appropriate Toys

If your kid is going over to a friend’s house for a play date and you’re offering to bring some toys to share, make sure that the toys are also age-appropriate for their siblings. You want to avoid anything that would pose a choking hazard for the other kids present. Have a talk with your kid about the toys they’re expected to share at the play date to avoid fights.

7. Set Ground Rules for Your Kid

Remind your child that they will be attending a play date and should be respectful of and abide by the other parents’ rules, whether that involves cleaning up afterward and putting toys away together or eating food at the kitchen table rather than on the couch. I tell my child that different parents have different rules and styles of disciplining in their home, and when we’re there, we try our best to abide by them. When we’re at home, we follow mom and dad’s rules.

8. If There’s a Stark Contrast in Parenting Styles or Discipline, Take It Up With the Other Parent

After the playdate, ask your child how everything went and if there’s anything that happened that they want to talk about. This way, if there is something wrong or your child didn’t feel like something was dealt with properly, you can communicate that to the other parent or caregiver.

9. Ask About What Activities Will Be Done

Will your child be doing arts and crafts or swimming in a pool? Asking about what activities will be done allows you to ask about what safety measures will be in place and helps you pack things your child needs. It also gives you the opportunity to let the other parent know what activities your child will need extra help or guidance with. Offer to bring extra supplies for anyone who needs it.

10. Help Clean Up After Play Dates

It’s considerate to pick up toys and other messes after the play date ends, and offer to help with dishes that need to be cleaned and put away. Make sure to thank the host before you leave and talk about entertaining the next play date.

Birthday Party/Social Event Rules

1. Always Bring or Send a Gift

Whether you’re able to attend a birthday party or not, make sure to send a gift. Feel free to reach out to the other parent about what’s on their kid’s wish list and choose something that’s within your budget. If the host specifies that they do not want any gifts, bring or send a card instead.

2. Invite Siblings

If space permits, invite the siblings of your kid’s friends to their birthday party and ask if there are any food allergies or sensitivities. Have foods and activities on hand that siblings can enjoy and take part in, too. Account for siblings when giving out goody bags at the end of the party.

3. Have Allergen-Free Food Choices

If you’re not sure about your kid’s friends’ food preferences and allergies, consider having allergen-free foods on hand so that there’s something for everyone. You can also opt to add a question about food allergies when sending birthday party invites.

4. Include All of Your Child’s Classmates

Many elementary and middle schools encourage parents to invite all of their kid’s classmates to their birthday party so no one feels left out. The only times to exclude certain kids is if there’s a space limit at the venue or if the birthday party has a specific theme that your kid wants to be just for the girls or only for the boys – such as a princess tea party or a day at the spa. Then, you can narrow down your guest list, Dizon says.

5. Help the Host Watch the Kids

Hosting a birthday party can be overwhelming for the parents of the celebrant. Offer to help watch the kids as they do various activities, like swimming, finger painting, playing in the bouncy castle, etc. You can also help with serving food and drinks and storing presents in a safe area.

6. Send Thank You Notes for Gifts – and Have Your Child Say Thanks Before Leaving

No matter how big or small the gift, always send a handwritten thank you note to all of your guests. If your child is older, have them try to write the notes themselves, Feintuch suggests. And if you’re attending a birthday party, thank the hosts before leaving and encourage your child to do the same.

7. Respect the Time Frame of the Party

Parents usually set time limits for birthday parties, especially ones for smaller children. Respect the time frame and avoid arriving too late and overstaying.

8. Double-Check With Party Hosts if Kids Are Even Invited

Attending a wedding or other social event as a guest? Don’t assume your kids are invited! Message the host in advance to ask whether your kids are included in the invitation and defer to their wishes.

9. Ask if You Can Request a High Chair or Booster Seat

If you have an infant or toddler who needs a high chair or booster seat at a party or event, let the host know when you RSVP and ask if it’s possible to request one at the restaurant or venue. If they aren’t able to accommodate your request, bring a portable high chair or booster seat for your child.

10. See if There’s a Kid’s Menu Available – or Bring Foods Your Kids Like

Not all parties will serve foods your kid will necessarily like. Plan ahead and ask if there is a kids’ menu available. If your child has particular tastes or food preferences that aren’t available, bring some of their favorite snacks or foods.

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