Poker Chips and Friendships: The Babysitting Co-op

How Young Families Worked Together to Provide Childcare for Each Other
Josh Davis

This is an interview I conducted with my mother, Clauda Davis, over Thanksgiving weekend, 2014.  In it, she describes how a group of families living in student housing on the campus of Montana State University (Bozeman, MT) formed a babysitting cooperative with nothing more than some poker chips and a monthly meeting.  Not only did the babysitting co-op provide childcare, it also had beneficial side-effects for relationships between neighbors and within couples.  This simple cooperative framework is one that could be just as useful for families today as it was for my parents in the early 1980s.  With a few poker chips and a minimal amount of organization,  any group of friends or neighbors could have their own babysitting co-op.

Background photo by flickr user Ethan Hein, CC BY 2.0

Transcription by Rob Brown

Josh Davis: So first just tell me a little bit about what your living situation was when you were involved in the babysitting co-op.

Claudia Davis: My husband and I had moved to Bozeman, Montana, lived on campus at Montana State University so he could go to school, and I was working. We had one child, Josh, who was about 18 months old when we moved there. And we lived in what they called “family housing,” and we did not live in the apartments -- we lived in the little houses. They were several streets of small boxes about 30 by 30 [feet], and we moved into one that was furnished, actually, because that’s all that was available. And my husband started school, and I started to work, and Josh went to a babysitter.

Josh: So when did you decide to go through the babysitting co-op rather than just have a babysitter for me?

Claudia: Well, I don’t really remember -- since it’s been 30 years -- how I heard about it, but I heard about a babysitting co-op through neighbors, I believe, and was asked to join, go to a meeting. And I think the group was either just forming or maybe had been in place for a small amount of time, and it sounded like a good idea. And the whole point of it was to provide babysitting services to students who couldn’t afford to pay for it, and it gave us an opportunity to get out of the house for various different reasons, whatever we needed, and without cost in money.

Josh: So how many people do you think were involved in the babysitting co-op -- your best guess?

Claudia: I think there [were] about 12 or 13 families that were in it when I was involved. We had a monthly meeting, which usually involved the wives and daiquiris, and we would sit around. We would tell everybody what our chip amount was. We used poker chips for currency. That was a way we could track how much time we had, or to give, or if we needed to earn chips then we would, you know, of course volunteer to babysit other peoples’ kids. If we needed to spend chips, then we would -- you know -- find somebody that needed chips. And that was what the monthly meeting helped us with, was kind of keeping a little bit of control just knowing who to call this month if you needed daycare or childcare. And one of the nice things about it was it wasn’t just the mothers. The fathers were involved. It was mostly couples, anyway. And if you were going out after the kids were in bed, then a lot of times it was  whoever was the student would come over to your house and stay there and do their homework in a nice quiet atmosphere, and you’d have a break and get to go out.

Josh: Ok. So tell me a little bit more about how your token system worked. Was it that you got poker chips per hour or something like that?

Claudia: Yep. When you joined, you were given a set number of chips. And I don’t remember the exact number, but I think we had two or three colors of chips and they were worth like 50 cents, a dollar, five dollars, that sort of thing. [...] They weren’t worth money, actually, they were worth hours. And that’s how we did it. Quarter hours and half hours and full hours. And you’d get a set amount of hours when you’d joined and then you just paid with these colored poker chips and that’s what you exchanged. And so you just paid by the hour.

Josh: So when you took care of somebody else’s kids for an hour they would give you the relevant amount of poker chips for that, and then you could use those poker chips to spend to get babysitting for your own kids?

Claudia: That’s right. And the nicest thing about it was you know if you just did it amongst friends with no poker chips or you just, say, had one friend or something, you always felt obligated to that one person, where this way you only felt obligated to the group. So you didn’t have to feel like just because you babysat for Joe and Sue’s kid that they had to babysit back for you. That wasn’t the way it worked. You could call anybody. And you might have kids that you especially liked to take care of, and then you might have a couple that you preferred to take care of your kids. And it didn’t matter, nobody’s feelings were hurt. All you did was, you know, you were working with the group.

Josh: Did you do any other kind of bookkeeping or accounting besides just using the poker chips? Did you write anything down? Or was it just through the token system?

Claudia: No, it was just through the token system. But we did have a set of rules. I remember that there when you joined there was an actual written set of rules because everyone needed to know how the program worked, and that’s pretty much what the rules were. And then on our monthly meetings we would, you know, usually jot down peoples’ names of who needed to use chips and who needed chips so that you knew who to call first.

Josh: Right. And do you ever remember there being any problems with people who tried to take advantage of the system? Maybe just used their chips and then never paid back any?

Claudia: Well, we had people that seemed like they always were in need of chips. So yes, they were definitely using them up, but I don’t remember that there [were] ever any forgeries or any problems. You know, there were some people that needed to use chips. They didn’t go out enough! And people would call them and all of a sudden they’d have a lot of chips. And we’d tell them, “You need to go have some fun!” But on the whole and whole, I don’t really remember any problems.

Josh: What you said just there was pretty interesting about how this [...] functioned not only as a system for making sure people had adequate babysitting when they needed it, but maybe also to make sure that couples were getting out and having enough time for themselves that maybe they wouldn’t have been forced to do if they weren’t part of the co-op.

Claudia: That’s true. That’s right. And I think they forget that they need to do that. You know, you’d find ways to do things without spending money, but just getting away and having some time as a couple together was important. And you forget that sometimes in your busy life. So yeah, it was a way to say, “Hey! you guys need to go, we’ll take your kids. I need chips, you got chips.” Yeah, that happened, and we made friends. Just not too long ago, I was working at a job and I saw this name come through my office, and it was people that lived over [...] in Sidney or some place in eastern Montana. And I recognized the name, and they were part of our babysitting co-op. So I reached out to her, and we had a nice little e-mail chat and it was just kind of fun.

Josh: So is this kind of system something you would recommend for mothers today to do in their neighborhoods or with their friends?

Claudia: I actually recommended this system to a lot of friends, a lot of young mothers that I know and have met over the years. I have suggested that to them that they should do that within their own friendship circles or their neighborhoods, that in this day and age when finances can just be a struggle, [...] you still need a break, you still need time to be a couple and rejuvenate your relationship. So I have recommended it often. I don’t know that it’s ever gone anywhere, but I’ve definitely talked to people about it because I do know it can be successful.

Josh: Great. Well, thank you for sharing your story with us!

Claudia: You’re welcome!
 

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About the author: 

Claudia Davis: I was born in Texas, but halfway through childhood moved to Colorado. Met my future husband while in high school, and moved to his home state of Montana to marry. Will be celebrating 40 years of wedded bliss in February. We have 2 exceptional children, Josh and Jessica. My husband decided to take advantage of the GI Bill and attended MSU from 1979 to 1984 where we were members of the “Babysitting Co-op”. I have lived all over Montana and even spent 5 years in Alaska. I currently work for Prickly Pear Land Trust as the Administrative Services Coordinator in Helena, Montana where we enjoy outdoor activities such as fishing, boating, camping, and skiing. I’m active in United Methodist Women, bowling league, and love to sew. But the joy of my life is being a Grandma!


Josh Davis is the Content Manager for Grassroots Economic Organizing.  He received his BA in Economics from the University of Montana in 2004, by which time he was thoroughly disenchanted with the mainstream approach to economic questions.  In 2009 he helped found a small community school in Challing, Nepal, where he visits as often as possible.  He is interested in grassroots and solidarity economics and is a member-owner of his local food co-op and credit union.  In his off time he can be found wandering the mountains of beautiful Western Montana, or curled up at home with his cat and a good book.