If you’re considering grandparent childcare, you’re not alone. In the U.S., almost 25% of children younger than 5 are cared for by grandparents regularly while their parents work or attend school.
Avni Novotny of Brooklyn Center, a mother of 3-year-old twins, Raina and Bodhi, is grateful that her family is willing to help watch her kids.
“Childcare can be so expensive. We have twins — double the cost!” she said.
Novotny said her parents and mother-in-law have been able to provide care from the time her children were babies. Her mother-in-law signed up to do three days a week and her parents offered to do one day a week. Her husband was able to rearrange his schedule to be home on Mondays, allowing them to work out childcare at no extra cost.
Besides being financially helpful, the arrangement gave Novotny peace of mind: “Especially in the beginning, when they were so little, it just felt right that they were with family,” she said. “We knew they were loved and safe.”
Jake Klis of Bloomington, father of Frances, 10 months, echoes these sentiments. He said having his parents watch his daughter relieved some of the financial stress of having a child.
“They’re free and not expensive!” he joked. For the first few months, his parents watched his daughter four days a week and his wife was able to be home one day. Klis and his wife, who are both teachers, changed the arrangement slightly later.
“Now we use my parents a little less and got my brother-in-law involved, too,” Klis said, adding that his parents would be willing to watch his daughter every day, but he doesn’t want to ask that of them.
Who benefits most?
Grandparent-provided childcare isn’t just a lifesaver for working parents. Such an arrangement can be deeply formative for grandparents and grandchildren alike. Developmental psychologist Marti Erickson, co-host of the local podcast Mom Enough and grandmother of five, said it can be an ideal opportunity for children to build attachments to grandparents, which can be a major asset for lifelong health and development.
“It’s a privilege to be such an important person in the life of a grandchild — and a benefit to both child and adult to be able to build such a close relationship,” Erickson said.
If you’re wondering why grandparents would be willing to spend their days performing the sometimes grueling routine of feed/change/sleep/repeat, just imagine what it’s like from a different point of view.
“Being with a young grandchild can be energizing, an opportunity to play, explore, see the world through new eyes,” Erickson said.
With her own grandchildren, Erickson has enjoyed taking rambling walks around Lake Harriet and Minnehaha Creek and observing “all the little things we don’t always stop to notice.”
Erickson said she cherishes the “opportunity to contribute to the development” of all her grandchildren, while easing “some of the pressure parents experience in this fast-paced world.”
Klis and Novotny said there are some extra perks to having their grandparents watch their kids. Novotny’s mother-in-law sometimes watches the kids into the evening — so that Novotny and her husband can go out for date nights.
Klis said he enjoys seeing his parents when he picks up his daughter at the end of the day.
“They’re constantly giving me food,” he said. “That’s a perk.”
Setting up grandparent childcare takes some planning. Is one parent able to reduce their workload or flex a day of work? Of the remaining days, how many sets of grandparents want to be involved? Do you want to add in some other form of childcare? How long will the arrangement last?
Klis and his wife have a spreadsheet where they track each day’s plans. They give everyone involved copies and find substitutes when needed.
Another consideration for grandparents is how a childcare commitment can affect their lifestyle. Many grandparents who have enough flexibility to provide childcare for their grandchildren are retired. Erickson recommends grandparents consider how other responsibilities or activities could interfere with their ability to be consistently available to provide care.
Klis said he and his wife really thought about how doing childcare would affect his parents as first-time grandparents.
“We want them to be able to say no if they can’t do it,” Klis said. His parents schedule their travel around their granddaughter’s care. If they need a day off, they plan it in advance and Klis updates the family’s care spreadsheet and looks for backup care.
Childcare arrangements change over time, so a family might consider setting a date when they’ll reassess any arrangement based on the ages of the children and everyone’s careers, health, finances and comfort level.
Similar to the Klis family, the Novotny family’s arrangement has morphed over the years. Her 3-year-olds are now in daycare two days a week and with her mother-in-law two days.
Who’s in charge?
Before grandparents enter into a childcare arrangement, they should consider how compatible they are with the child’s parents in terms of childrearing practices, nutritional standards and general values and beliefs, Erickson said.
Potential areas of conflict could include behavioral expectations, disciplinary strategies and nutritional choices.
“It’s crucial the grandparents realize parents are in the driver’s seat on these things,” Erickson said.
“Clarify ahead of time the big values and issues that matter most to the parents and agree on a common way to handle those,” she said. “Present a united front to the kids so they are not tempted to play one set of adults off of the other. Remember that parents have the final say, especially on the big things.”
It can be awkward for some adult children to have an open conversation when they’re worried about offending their parents — on parenting topics, of all things.
Klis said that, in the beginning, it was hard for both him and his wife to tell his parents want they wanted. After all, the grandparents raised children of their own successfully.
Klis tries to balance the fact that his parents know what they’re doing with the idea that he and his wife may want something slightly different.
If parents question a choice a grandparent has made, they’re caught in a difficult situation because they want to be respectful, Novotny said.
“They’re doing you a favor, so you don’t want to be ungrateful,” she added. “It’s a tricky thing to balance.”
One example of something that’s changed over the years is water consumption for babies. Pediatricians now recommend babies don’t have any water until they’re 6 months old.
Grandparents, who gave their babies water at an earlier age with no ill effects, may find this new recommendation bizarre.
Other issues that could arise include sweets, screen time (such as the TV being on in the background all day) and the child’s nap/sleep/eating schedule.
“Without open communication,” Erickson said, “relationships can become tense and children may be caught in the middle.”
Her recommendation for these potentially difficult conversations? Listen and gather more information.
“When there are disagreements, listen, listen, listen. And be willing to learn together, reaching out to credible sources for information on child development and effective parenting — so you all are figuring out together how to support the children’s healthy development,” she said.
What about compensation?
Should grandparents be paid for their contributions?
That definitely depends on the grandparents. Some are emphatically against any form of payment and will say they would never accept payment to spend time with their grandchildren. They find the very idea insulting.
Others, however, may feel taken advantage of without some form of trade or compensation, especially those providing full-time childcare or care for multiple children.
Be prepared to have an open and honest conversation before the arrangements are made and then leave the door open to adjustments to reevaluate what feels fair.
Factors to consider include the amount of care per week, the financial situation of all parties involved and the day-to-day feelings of parents and grandparents. Also, if the money is reported as a childcare expense or income,
it may affect the income tax returns of both parties.
A happy medium
Grandparent childcare, of course, isn’t for all families.
While providing care for little ones can bring joy and meaning to a grandparent’s life, there’s another factor to consider: “Babies and toddlers are exhausting!” Novotny said. “They run around and require lots of attention. Are the grandparents physically able to chase after kids?”
Klis said doing care full-time, five days a week “might be a bit much, for anyone of any age.”
Even if it starts out fine, burnout can occur over time.
Erickson said grandparents should make sure their own health and energy levels will be compatible with this responsibility.
Zol Heyman of Arden Hills — grandfather to Caroline, 5, Leon, 3, and Ari, 8 months — said he and his wife never even considered caring for their grandchildren in lieu of childcare.
“We were extremely lucky that our children were in a great position to handle the financial pain of nannying and daycare,” he said. “Had there been exceptional circumstances — because of finances or medical needs — the choice might have been different.”
Heyman doesn’t want to commute to his children’s houses, which many grandparents do. Mostly, though, Heyman said, “I have a life. I’ve been lucky to be able to retire and enjoy my time and not be constrained by anybody else’s schedule.”
Heyman feels lucky to live in the same city as his grandchildren and enjoys a close relationship with them. Every Tuesday evening he and his wife care for their three grandchildren so that Heyman’s grown daughters and their partners can participate in childfree activities such as soccer club.
“We’re always available on short notice if one gets sick and has to stay home from daycare,” he said.
The Heymans also take their grandchildren to the aquarium, bring them to shows at the children’s theater and host them for sleepovers at their house.
For Heyman and his family, this was the right decision and there are benefits for all involved.
“The biggest is that we’re not exhausted. I’m almost 70, my wife is 68, and it’s much tougher physically on us. There’s a reason parenting is primarily done by the young,” he said. “For them, they don’t have to listen to our extremely wise, but unwanted, advice all the time.”
Another bonus, according to Heyman: “The grandkids get a lot out of daycare in the right setting. Our kids are lucky: They both used the same great daycare, so the grandkid cousins have interaction every day.”
Part of the team
Though the context in which grandchildren get to know their grandparents may differ dramatically from family to family, one thing is clear: If your children are lucky enough to develop healthy relationships with their grandparents, it’s a win.
If you do take advantage of grandparent childcare, enjoy the benefits for you, your parents and your children.
If not, that’s OK, too: Choosing another option doesn’t mean that the bonds between grandparents and grandchildren won’t be strong.
Erickson said: “With open, respectful communication, parents and grandparents clearly become part of the same team, working to raise happy, responsible, caring, curious children.”
Carissa Jean Tobin is an elementary Spanish teacher, parent of a toddler and blogger living in Northeast Minneapolis. Her family is the grateful recipient of regular childcare from two sets of grandparents. See what’s amusing in her life at goodworkgreatlife.com.