Grandparents helping raise their grandkids is no new thing, but some families are relying even more on grandparents now as they struggle to find safe, open, affordable childcare—especially during the pandemic. For parents and grandparents who are working together to care for young kids, there’s a unique dynamic to navigate.
Madonna Harrington Meyer, a sociologist and author of the book Grandmothers at Work, told the New York Times that the trend of grandparents serving as regular caregivers has increased over the past few decades. During the pandemic, while some grandparents have been unable to see their grandkids, others have been spending all of their time taking care of grandkids. For those who are providing childcare, there are benefits but also challenges. “It’s simultaneously wonderful and too much,” Meyer explained.
Reva Fischner, a 66-year-old grandmother who has been providing more than 40 hours a week of childcare while her son and his wife work from home, summed it up: “It’s been so incredibly challenging for me. It’s just all day. There are no breaks.”
On the other hand, Gabriele LeMond, a 67-year-old grandmother who provided daily care for her daughter and son-in-law’s children for three and a half months during the pandemic, raved to AARP that she felt extremely useful and relished the bonding time. “I took so much work off their hands. I don’t know how they managed after I left,” she said, adding, “I got so much closer to my grandchildren and had so much fun.”
While having grandparents available to care for kids can be a blessing, it can also be a tricky arrangement for families. Here are some tips for making it work for everyone involved.
Build in strategic breaks
Older caregivers might need more breaks from the physical labor and stress of childcare duties, so parents should work with them to figure out the best way to get those breaks each day. While letting little kids watch TV or play on an iPad for hours is not recommended by experts, strategic screen time can be a lifeline for caregivers—for example, an age-appropriate show or educational game allowed at a certain time of day, a weekly online class, or a planned FaceTime session with another relative. Discuss it together and come up with a family media plan that works for everyone involved.
Kids, even at preschool age, should also be helping with household tasks, not just playing or looking on while their grandparent is hard at work. Grandparents and grandchildren can bond while cleaning up toys, preparing meals, or washing dishes together. In addition, parents who are working from home can agree to make themselves available for certain labor-intensive times of the day, like cleaning up after lunch, initiating nap times, or getting a child ready to go outside.
Laying down ground rules
Some grandparents might be used to a role as a fun, permissive grandparent who’s allowed to spoil the grandkids. But when providing regular care, it’s important to follow healthy routines and set limits for children. Other grandparents might be used to telling their own kids (who are now parents) what to do and how to do it—but they will need to follow the parents’ lead when it comes to rules and discipline for their grandchildren. It can be difficult to find the proper balance.
Parents should feel comfortable laying down a set of non-negotiable rules that they expect all caregivers, including their own parents or in-laws, to stick to. However, parents also need to be flexible when it comes to smaller things that don’t matter as much, so that grandparents can find the caregiving strategies that work well for them.
J. Lane Tanner, M.D., a pediatrics professor at the University of California-San Francisco, advised that the child’s parents should be the ultimate authority. But if grandparents are acting as regular or primary caregivers, questions and gray areas are sure to come up. So, when can grandparents make their own decisions regarding discipline and rules? Stanford Children’s Health summarizes Dr. Tanner’s expert opinion: “when parents say they can, when parents are not present, when a child’s behavior directly affects them, when a child’s safety is at stake or when a child breaks their house rules.”
Keep the communication flowing
To keep the childcare arrangement going smoothly, regular communication is key. Find a way that works for both of you to discuss any issues that come up. You could hold a weekly check-in meeting, write in a shared family journal, or simply have a text chain going. But both parties need to be honest and direct about things like the kids’ behavior, important safety reminders, and their own physical and mental health boundaries.
If you disagree about something that you consider a non-negotiable matter, consider referring the grandparent to an evidence-based source where they can learn more about why the issue is so important to you. One good resource is healthychildren.org, which is run by the American Academy of Pediatrics, and has a page specifically for grandparents providing childcare.
Make sure grandparents feel appreciated
Grandparents, like any childcare provider, put in so much of themselves that they deserve to be thanked in more ways than one. Some grandparents are paid to provide regular babysitting for their grandkids, even if it is just a small token fee. Be sure to sit down and discuss their expectations. Many grandparents will probably refuse monetary payment, but that doesn’t mean you can’t give back in other ways.
Nicki Donley, a mom of triplets whose parents provide childcare, revealed, “My parents refuse to be paid. But my husband will cook dinner for everyone, and I try to get my mom’s car washed and fill the tank.” Donley and her husband also help her parents with home-maintenance chores. Consider what skills you can offer the grandparents, from tech support to heavy lifting.
If you’re one of the families who has grandparents around to provide daily or weekly care for kids, you know you’re lucky but you also know it doesn’t come without its challenges. Being intentional about the arrangement should help make it as beneficial as possible for kids, parents, and grandparents alike, so that you can all focus on savoring that special time together.