By Michelle S. Kaplan, LCSW

We’ve all heard that “it takes a village” to raise a child — but how do parents manage the village? How do you make sure your mother-in-law is enforcing the same rules you are? How do you explain your child’s individual needs to the caregiver? Parents often ask me these questions; here are some tips for getting the most from your support network.

1. Review expectations ahead of time. Parents and other caregivers often have different expectations of children. A parent may want homework started as soon as the child is home from school, while Grandma feels it’s important to take a break. A caregiver feels a child should be able to get ready for school by herself, while the parent worries that she’ll forget to brush her teeth or pack her backpack.

I recommend that primary caregivers sit down with family members and helpers to review behavior expectations — ahead of time and when everyone is calm. This is a chance for everyone to share their priorities regarding behavior goals and have a conversation around how to achieve them. Writing out these expectations can be a helpful guide for all caregivers.

2. Set up a clear reinforcement plan. Many parents develop behavior plans that link positive behavior to a reward. For example, if you complete your homework, you can watch TV. This is an effective technique that encourages cooperation from a child.

But what do you do when the plan is undermined, and you come home to find homework incomplete while your child is watching his favorite show? Instead of yelling at the child or the adult in charge, use this opportunity to discuss house rules with the caregiver and ask that they be enforced. Hopefully, this will prevent the situation from being repeated.

3. Be consistent with consequences for misbehavior. In advance of leaving your child with a caregiver, come up with a list of behaviors that are never acceptable, regardless of who is in charge. This list could include hurting others or destroying property. Also make sure you and the caregiver are clear on the consequences; these work best when consistent, so showing the child that the same response occurs every time is important.

For example, “If you hurt someone, there will be a five-minute time-out, whether Mom is in charge or Grandpa is in charge.” It’s helpful to review the rules with any new caregiver in front of the child, and have the child help come up with examples for each so that the rules are clearly defined. Providing a written script that caregivers can use is also beneficial. Planning ahead reduces the chance that threats like “you will never be able to see your friends again” are used.

4. Communication is key. Caregivers, family members and other helpers have special insight into a child’s strengths and struggles. If there is no communication with parents about what is and is not working, that information is lost. To avoid this, I recommend coming up with a communication plan that allows caregivers to share how the day went with parents in a collaborative manner. If there is a specific behavior goal that the child is working on, it is important to track that progress and communicate it to all caregivers.

I always tell parents that you want to highlight good behavior and reduce attention to the bad; a communication plan can help make this happen by allowing you to “catch a child being good” through your support network. I recommend that for every one instance of negative feedback, three positive stories be shared; talking with your “village” of caregivers means this positive feedback is real, authentic and specific. For example, Joey had a hard time cleaning up his room tonight, but he packed his bag by himself this morning, tried a new food and used nice words with his sister.

5. Be realistic and flexible. Sometimes it’s necessary to adapt the plan in order to increase the probability of success (or reduce the likelihood of confusion!). You may not allow screen time during the day, but an exception can be made when Grandpa is stepping in for the week. Just be up front with children. “When Grandpa is here this week, you will be able to play on the tablet.” Sometimes you just need to get through the moment, and that’s okay!


Michelle S. Kaplan, LCSW, is a clinical social worker at the Child Mind Institute specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD, disruptive behavior disorders, selective mutism and other anxiety and mood disorders in children and adolescents. Learn more about her parent and caregiver training workshops.