Should grandparents bear the brunt of the country’s childcare?

Grandparents are providing childcare for six out of 10 working parents. But is it fair they should shoulder the burden? And can you ensure there is no falling-out over ways to look after the children?

Grandparents are saving the British economy a massive £4billion a year by looking after their children’s offspring – mainly for free, according to an Age Concern report.
The expense of regular childminders and high nursery fees is beyond many parents, so returning to work would not be worth it economically unless they could rely on their own parents to chip in with childcare. The vital role of grandparents is now becoming more acknowledged.
From April next year grandparents who look after their grandchildren for more than 20 hours a week while the parents are at work will get National Insurance top-ups to count towards their state pension.
If parents with children under eight want to make the position more formal so that they are entitled to tax credits from an employer or educational institution, grandparents can apply to be registered childminders, but they will need to look after at least one non-related child as well as their own grandchildren and will be subject to all the usual Ofsted checks, such as a CRB check.
However, ’nanny and grandad’ are still mainly categorised as ‘informal care’ providers.

Why choose Granny for childcare
Apart from the financial savings, there are many reasons to ask a grandparent to care for your child while you’re at work. ”The bond between a grandparent and grandchild is incredibly valuable when it comes to child development,” says child psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer. ”A strong link benefits both sides in the longer run. Children benefit from the values and experience of an older generation, and the stimulation provided by grandchildren keeps older people active and healthy. Children with strong family bonds are less likely to suffer from mental health issues later in life, and regular visits to their grandparents will help prevent the social isolation that many elderly people suffer from. The situation also benefits the parent because they are less stressed about the childcare they have chosen, knowing their child is relaxed and comfortable with their grandparents.”

Know your roles
Changing childcare arrangements, e.g. when the mother returns to work after maternity leave, is when the amount and type of care provided by granny and grandad has to be analysed and where problems may emerge. If the grandparents are only doing one or two pick-ups a week from school and a snack before mum or dad gets home, then the pressure to define boundaries is not so critical. But if the childcare lasts for longer and is on a day-to-day basis, then it is important to decide whether the grandparent is seen as ’treaty granny’ or fulfils the more authoritative role of a parent when it comes to setting boundaries. Some families draw up a Family Childcare Agreement, which covers the parents’ views on discipline, food, screen time, etc, but most families don’t have such a formal type of document.
”It’s important to set boundaries early on and to make sure that both the parents’ and grandparents’ views are known,” says Dr Gummer. ”It can be difficult to get a good balance, but it’s important. It is not essential that rules are exactly the same because children are able to adapt to different situations as long as the basic rules aren’t too contradictary . Communication is the key to a successful arrangement. While parents have to appreciate that the grandparents are doing all of this for free, grandparents need to appreciate that times have changed since they were responsible for young children. Agree on the big things, but don’t worry about the little things.”
What are the falling-out factors?
Nutrition is one of the biggest areas of disagreement between working parents and grandparents. Many parents are strict about their children’s diet and want them to be fed organically. ”Some parents can go over the top,” warns Dr Gummer. ”If they were preparing the meals themselves they would probably relax a bit more, but the maternal guilt of not being there can lead to extremes when it comes to nutrition. In the 70s and 80s, the grandparents often brought their children up on processed food, so they don’t share the priorities of the parents when it comes to organic food. It’s important to keep a balanced perspective on all of this and accept that there will need to be compromises on all sides.”
Television can be another potential fall-out  zone. Here, it’s vital to work out specific rules. How much screen time should be allowed and which channels can the youngsters watch? Is there a cut-off time for starting  their homework?
Rules should also be worked out beforehand when it comes to deciding who pays for what. Are the grandparents quite happy to pay for food, sweets, petrol and days out for their grandchildren? A survey by Saga found three quarters of grandparents are not reimbursed for costs. This can lead to feelings of exploitation.
Family fall-out can also be caused by perceived favouritism shown to other grandchildren. ”When the first grandchild comes along the grandparents dote on him or her and there are often arrangements already in place for having grandparents looking after them,” says Dr Gummer. ”This can cause a lot of resentment when more grandchildren come along. What about when a sibling has children – how many days per week is a grandparent expected to give up to look after to care for grandchildren?”

Remember, Granny and Grandad have a life too
Grandparents can feel put-upon and undervalued if parents assume they will always be there to look after their children. While most are willing to help out, some may not want to be tied down to specific days every week. And it’s important parents don’t think granny and grandad will automatically take their own holidays to fit in conveniently with the rest of the family’s schedule.

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