Do you accept delivery of a grandbaby as you sip your morning coffee? Are you one of those in the car line, picking up your grandchildren for after-school care?
If so, you have a lot of company. Grandparent child care is a going and growing concern in the United States and many other countries. And while grandfathers occasionally participate, grandmothers provide the bulk of the actual care.
Sometimes the arrangement is born of necessity. Child care costs from 10 to 20 percent of an average family's income. Many young families can't part with that much cash without hardship. Also, shift workers and those who work extended hours may struggle to find conventional child care arrangements.
Sometimes modern grandparents jump at the chance to take care of their grandchildren, simply because they want to be with them.
Most of the time, grandparent child care is good for both sides. The children benefit from being tended to by a loving family member. The grandparents benefit from closer family ties and often from being more active mentally and physically.
Still, the arrangement can have its downsides. Most of these can be overcome with clear communication from all parties.
The Job Dilemma
Since the average age of becoming a grandmother is around 47, many women are in the work force when their first grandchild is born. For them, providing child care may mean quitting a job. Before giving up a job in order to take charge of grandchildren, grandmothers should look carefully at the income and benefits they will be losing. They should be especially careful not to give up health insurance without a good replacement.
Other benefits of working are less tangible but also important. Jobs commonly provide social interaction, mental stimulation and a sense of accomplishment, and these intangibles may be sorely missed by those who give up their employment. Also, those who quit with an eye to returning later may have trouble finding a comparable position.
Sometimes circumstances conspire to make all of these considerations less important. Christy Reeves said that when she became pregnant, her mom wasn't quite ready to give up her job. But Reeves suffered through a difficult pregnancy involving bed rest and toxemia. The day after the baby was born, her mom wrote her resignation letter while sitting in her daughter's hospital room. Over 20 years later, she is still keeping grandchildren.
The Question of Pay
When grandparents are paid, they usually charge less than other child care providers. Most of the time, grandparents donate their child care services. Generally they feel that they are richly paid in other ways.
Calling her child care gig the “best 9-to-5 job I ever had,” Texas grandmother Karrell Hargrave said that the job isn't always easy, but the perks are “awesome.”
“I get paid with all the hugs, kisses and laughter I can handle!” Hargrave said.
Some parents assume that since grandparents love their grandchildren, they never mind spending extra time with them. Most grandparents are happy to see their grandchildren come over, but often they are also happy to see them go. Sometimes they are ready to rest, relax and enjoy their hobbies, or their hubbies. Sometimes they have housework or other things to do.
Parents should treat grandparent babysitters with the same consideration they would extend to other child care providers. They should pick up children on time and never assume that extended hours are okay without asking. Grandparents should spell this out before taking the job.
Babysitting and Healthy Aging
A recent research project, the Berlin Aging Study, shows that grandparents who take care of children live longer. The cause-effect relationship is not clear, but some researchers believe that being with grandchildren lowers stress and promotes physical activity.
Other studies show that social interaction is also important to healthy aging. Grandparents who keep grandchildren are likely to have closer ties and more frequent interaction with other family members.
Friendships are important, too, so babysitting grandparents should continue participating in book clubs, service organizations, church groups and other activities involving peers.
The Parents Are Still in Charge
Another issue in grandparent child care is deciding who gets to make the rules. Grandparents who keep grandchildren in their own home may have some house rules that are different from the ones their grandchildren are accustomed to. That's okay. Adapting to different standards of behavior in different settings is a vital part of growing up. No child will be scarred by having to eat at the table or not being able to jump on the sofa.
Still, grandparents will need to follow the parents' wishes about how their children should be disciplined. They must strive to follow the parents' instructions about diet, naptime, bedtime, screentime and a host of other topics.
Following the parents' rules is harder than it might seem, since it involves a generational role reversal. Grandparents are the ones who made the rules for the parents, when they were growing up. Having to take instruction from them is a bit of a paradigm shift.
Also, grandparent babysitters are playing a hybrid role. They are the grandparents, but they are acting as parents during the time they are in charge of the children. Sometimes they may not know which hat to wear. It can be tempting to be the “fun grandma” when a firm grandmother is really what is needed.
How to Make the Situation a Win-Win
Most parents who have the option of grandparent child care are appreciative. Reeves said that since her parents cared for her children, she never worried about their safety or well-being.
“I knew they'd be loved, fed, entertained and, more importantly, taught,” Reeves said.
Some grandparents choose to take care of grandchildren because they know that there is a “sweet spot” for bonding and building memories. Grandchildren do grow up and move on with their lives. That's one reason Hargrave is so happy taking care of her grandson.
“The memories we are making will stay with me forever,” she said. “Yes, even after he is grown and too busy to call or come by. These are my special memories and mine alone. No one can ever take them away.”
Grandparent child care is usually a win-win, but some grandparents feel that the scale is tipped in their favor.
As one grandmother sitter said, “I would probably pay my children to keep their children!”
This article was written by Susan Adcox, a writer specializing in generational issues. She is the author of Stories From My Grandparent: An Heirloom Journal for Your Grandchild.