Like many moms, Melissa Huff loved being home with her baby — so much so, she began to wonder about ways she could avoid the traditional nine-to-five. When she reluctantly returned to work, as a sales manager for a Calgary rent-to-own business, she put her daughter, Brooklyn, into a home daycare. But after four months back on the job, Huff was looking for a change. She’d long wanted to work with children. If she opened her own home daycare, she reasoned, she’d save on child-care costs and have the freedom to be her own boss.
She decided to go for it. Getting started, she says, was the easy part. She got a police criminal check, bought toys and equipment, and rearranged her living space into activity areas. She discovered that if you’re running what’s called an unlicensed or unregulated home daycare, you don’t need special training or an early-education degree. There are actually very few requirements to meet, even though unlicensed home daycares are legal. She placed ads on Kijiji to attract her first clients, and her adventure began.
Depending on your province or municipality, there’s a longer checklist of qualifications for caregivers who license their homes, which is the route many experts recommend. But by most estimates, there are more unlicensed than licensed daycare providers, says Oakville, Ont., child-care consultant Gillian Doherty. Every province in Canada allows for unlicensed care providers to take in a certain number of children, usually five or six. (The maximum in British Columbia is atypically low — just two kids. Manitoba allows up to four, while Saskatchewan caps it at eight, whether you’re licensed or unlicensed.) Apart from these caps, there are no other rules for unlicensed homes to comply with. “But that doesn’t mean anything goes,” says Doherty. Provincial officials will shut down a home if they deem it unsafe — if the caregiver uses harsh discipline techniques or has poor hygiene practices, for example. But authorities don’t tend to find out about these issues, because they don’t make inspection visits to unlicensed homes unless a formal complaint is filed.
In contrast, licensed homes have to comply with many rules. These range from the size of physical space and the number of meals and snacks served, to policies on cancellation when the provider is sick. Most provinces are pretty demanding. In Manitoba, for example, family child-care providers have to complete 40 hours of training, at a fee of up to $400. They’re also required to set out a code of conduct for everyone in the home, and a safety charter that spells out how to handle emergencies. Licensed homes are monitored by provincial authorities or by child-care agencies, depending on the province. They’ll do both scheduled and unannounced visits during which they’ll observe the caregiver’s interaction with children and look over the safety of the home.
Providers licensed through an agency get a lot of help both with setting up their business, and with day-to-day concerns. They can work through a government-run agency, a private agency such as Wee Watch (in Ontario), or a non-profit group like the YMCA.
Jo-Ann Gillan, the manager of the Home Child Care program for the city of Waterloo, Ont., explains how the process works in her region. First, a provider who calls to register her home daycare with the Regional Municipality of Waterloo’s Home Child Care agency will receive a home visit. The home visitor interviews the prospective care provider to gauge her knowledge of child development and behaviour management, checks to make sure there’s enough space for kids, and that the home is clean. Other items on the checklist include background references and criminal reference checks, a safety inspection and first aid and CPR training. Program staff will work with the care provider to set out lunch menus and activity plans, as well as daily schedules that include outdoor play and rest time. “It’s pretty much the same that’s required of our provincial daycare centres,” says Gillan. Unlicensed home daycare centres don’t get this kind of planning support.
If you’re considering opening a daycare, you’ll have to check your local zoning bylaws, which dictate whether you can operate a business from your residence. At the federal level, there are tax rules to learn. Home daycare providers are considered self-employed, which means you must declare earnings, but you can also deduct business-related expenses such as food and supplies. (Equipment, however, is only partially deductible, as a capital cost allowance.) You can also deduct part of the costs of running a home, such as utilities, property tax and interest on your mortgage.
Parents getting into this line of work will already know about basic baby proofing: gates on the stairs, medicine in a locked cabinet, a secure latch on the backyard fence. But there’s another part of minimizing risk that you might not think about: having enough insurance. In Alberta, for example, provincial authorities advise family day homes to carry liability coverage of at least $2 million per incident in home insurance. The cost of this coverage runs anywhere from $100 to more than $400 a year, on top of the regular home insurance premiums.
If you’re considering becoming a caregiver, Doherty suggests finding a support network and forming mentorships before taking in your first child. Karen Sowman, a mom of two teens and a twentysomething in Barrie, Ont., did just that when she left her job in the auto industry in 2005. She found her network by enrolling in an evening course on child development, aimed at home daycare providers. The course was optional, but the people she met helped her make some key business decisions from the get-go. “One of the gals told me that she operated with a waiting list,” says Sowman. This was intriguing to her. “I never thought that people would wait. I quickly learned that if you have a quality program, oh yes, they will.”
Sowman also learned to be strategic about the ages of the five children she takes in. Some providers like their children to be around the same age so that they can play with each other, but Sowman takes in kids of different ages. That way, she won’t lose half her business all at once when the kids all hit school age and no longer need care. “I operate my business like a business,” she says. “The whole goal is to stay full, and to allow for longevity.”
While Huff says she has no regrets, and finds the job rewarding, she warns parents considering this type of business that it can be pretty tough. She cares for five children ages one to five, five days a week, plus her toddler daughter. It’s a lot of responsibility to take on, and it can get overwhelming. Huff hasn’t forgotten the first time all six kids started to cry at the same time. “I just kind of stood there and asked, ‘Did I make a mistake? I don’t know how to deal with this.’”
Managing her fellow parents, and their differing child-rearing and discipline philosophies, is another big part of the job. While you’re in charge when it comes to corralling the children, parents may treat you as an employee that they can boss around. Within your community, this can be a strange role adjustment. Ottawa mom Kerri Taylor* knows first-hand how what she calls “problem parents” can eclipse the joys of working with kids. In the first few months after she opened her home daycare, she thought about giving up several times. There was one dad who let his 15-month-old nap before coming to daycare, which meant no breaks for Taylor. Then there was the mom who withdrew her child from care with no notice, and without paying for the two weeks she owed. Taylor now insists that parents follow her rules about routines and sleep schedules. She also requires that they pay her in advance and sign a contract (she downloaded one from daycarebear.ca). If you decide to work through an agency, one of the advantages is that their staff may handle some of these aspects of the job for you, including enforcing policies or chasing down late payments.
Merging your business and your home can be stressful. Many work-outside-the-home parents use the commute time to switch gears from office mode to family mode, but daycare providers don’t have that luxury. Huff’s day is long to begin with — the first child arrives at 6 a.m. and the last child leaves at 6 p.m. After pickup, Huff makes dinner, puts her daughter, Brooklyn, to bed, and goes back to work. “I spend an hour or more cleaning toys, cleaning my house and making sure it’s ready for the following day,” she says.
The other complication is Huff’s daughter. Sometimes she doesn’t want to share her mom with the other children, and when she misbehaves, Huff says she sometimes punishes her more harshly than the other kids. “I have high expectations of her,” she admits. “But I wouldn’t want Brooklyn to feel that Mommy is picking on her.” So she tries to give her extra praise for good behaviour — it’s a constant recalibration.
Despite these challenges, Huff feels she’s made the right decision — one that lets her spend more time with her daughter while doing a job she loves. “What’s more important than teaching kids, watching them learn, and knowing you’re a part of that?” she says. “To me, I have the best job ever.”
* Some names have been changed
Here’s what provider Melissa Huff takes in — and spends — in a typical month:
Monthly fees for five children (about $750 per full-time kid) +$4,000
Food - $500
Arts and crafts supplies - $100
Toys and books - $50
Preschool curriculum - $125
Rent, insurance and bills - $1,600 (including costs not related to the daycare)
Net before taxes: +$1,625
Beyond juggling a bunch of little tykes at once, there are several other stressors that come with being a daycare provider. Think about your ability to tolerate the following realities:
Isolation Providers who are not close to community resources might spend entire days at home with no adult contact. If you work alone, you’re on duty at all times — that means no coffee or lunch breaks.
Long hours Parents (as we all know!) are sometimes late picking up their kids.
Health risks Lots of sick and sniffling kids are a reality of daycare. As the provider, you and your family may get sick more often.
Work-life balance It can be tough to keep your home life and work life separate, in terms of the space, your personal time and the needs of your own family.
A version of this article appeared in our October 2013 issue with the headline "Boys and books," pp. 54-9.
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