Family, Kids & Relationships

Grandparents: The Cornerstone of Early Child Care

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Grandparents aren’t just photo snappers and buyers of tiny self-promoting onesies that proclaim “I have the world’s greatest Grandma.” In the U.S., they are a cornerstone of a fragile early child care system. 1 out of 4 children under five in this country is cared for by a grandparent while parents work or go to school; that’s about the same number of kids that are enrolled in formal child care.

This month, ZERO TO THREE released the results of the first-ever national survey of grandparents who provide regular child care to grandchildren under the age of five. They found that grandparents love participating in the care of their grandchildren, but there are often underlying tensions between generations about the best way to do this.

Love and Devotion All Around

Grandparents in the survey had a lot of good things to say about sharing the care. 98% of respondents said that they loved being a grandparent. 94% said they loved caring for their grandchild. When it came to managing everyday details of sharing childcare with their adult children, 86% of grandparents were satisfied with their arrangements. While 8 out of 10 received no monetary compensation for their help, they easily identified the perks of shared caregiving. Those perks include spending time with grandchildren on a regular basis (89%), getting to influence and shape their early experiences (76%), and ensuring that their grandchild gets the best care (74%).

Challenges Exist Beneath the Surface

When they asked about the more difficult aspects of sharing the care, responses were mixed. Almost half (48%) of the grandparents surveyed feel some level of disagreement or tension between generations concerning child care issues like handling tantrums, navigating mealtime, and managing screen time. Two in 5 grandparents say the job of caring for children this age is tiring. (We’re not arguing!) One in 5 say that caring for young children is stressful. When disagreements occur between grandparents and parents, they’re in the areas you might expect:

  • About 1 in 4 participating grandparents says mealtime/snacks/picky eating is an issue.
  • Approximately 1 in 4 says discipline methods are an issue.
  • About 1 in 4 says “screen time” rules (or lack thereof) are a source of disagreement.

The Rest of the Story

“These insights are echoed in private communications with my grandparent friends,” says Kathy Kinsner, Senior Manager of Parenting Resources at ZERO TO THREE. “One new grandma worries that her daughter isn’t properly protecting her tiny grandson from germs—too little hand-washing, too many outings! She’s a bit surprised that this advice isn’t met with gratitude and immediate compliance. Another grandma frequently changes her plans when her adult children ask for help with the grandkids, often with little notice. Her grandkids are a delight, and they are tiring.”

Even in the most loving of families, conversations about sharing the care—what’s working and what changes would make things easier—might benefit all, including the grandchild beloved by both generations.

Learn More

The contributions of grandparents matter to organizations like ZERO TO THREE. Over the past three years, they’ve asked grandparents what they need to make shared caregiving more satisfying and more successful. You can read about their focus group findings, download free resources, and watch their collection of short films starring grandparents (and the parents and grandkids who love them) here. If you want to ensure you’re up on the latest child-rearing strategies, their Grandparent Guide is a great place to start. They’ve covered the basics of safe sleep, healthy eating, discipline and more.

Want more info about their National Grandparent Survey? You can read the full Grandparent Survey report here



Robyn is Digital Content Director at ParentsTogether and is co-author of several NYTimes bestselling anthologies. She lives in southern Michigan with her husband and five children.