Grandparents are a cornerstone of child care for children under the age of 5.
For many young families in the U.S., finding child care presents emotional and financial dilemmas. Who can be trusted to care for children while parents work? And how can affordable care be found? Enter the heroes who fill in the gaps in child care: grandparents.
Parents often depend on grandparents for child care, particularly when children are too young for school. Grandparent care covers many types of arrangements, from pinch-hitting when other child care falls through to full-time child care for working parents. In 2011, grandparents in the U.S. cared for 4.8 million children under the age of 5 while parents worked or went to school. That’s nearly one out of four preschool children – as many as are enrolled in formal child care!
Grandparents have a lot to say about this role!
Many grandparents gladly drop everything for more time with their grandkids—no questions asked. Others struggle to balance child care responsibilities with work, friends, and the rest of their lives.
To learn more, ZERO TO THREE recently conducted three focus groups with grandparents who look after grandchildren under 6 years of age. They had a lot to say about:
Grandparents described caring for their grandchildren as a happy “do-over” that gave meaning to their lives. They felt more relaxed, confident, and patient than they’d been with their own kids.
They have infused my life with life. It’s the truth…they have given me a reason to live.
Grandparents stepped in because they had been asked directly for assistance with child care or they saw a need and want to help. Most focus group participants stated definitively that their decision to help with caregiving was motivated by love – for their adult children as well as for their grandchildren.
I do it out of love for my daughter as well as love for my grandson. The grandson is the dividend… As a single parent, [my daughter] turned to us and said, ‘Would you like to join us out here, in California?’ I said ‘That sounds pretty good to me.’
While some grandparents reported that they had successfully developed an effective caregiving partnership with their adult children, others found “sharing the care” more challenging. Most challenges arose out of a mismatch in expectations around caregiving roles and responsibilities. At times, grandparents and their adult children clashed over rules about child behavior, especially around discipline and nutrition. Grandparents reported finding it difficult at times to discuss these differences with their children, in order to find solutions that worked for parent, grandparent, and child.
Grandparents described having high hopes for their grandkids’ futures and valued the part they were able to play in helping their grandchildren achieve their dreams.
[My dreams for them?] To me, whatever they set their minds to do…just to work and live out of integrity, to be honest, to be truthful, to treat people right, and to do whatever their hearts desire.
Keep the conversation going.
ZERO TO THREE’s grandparenting research is just the beginning of a larger conversation, one which includes parents, grandparents, and the organizations that serve them. Here are some ways everyone can add their voices to the conversation:
Grandparents: Download free handouts with the latest info on what’s changed and what’s stayed the same since today’s grandparents were parents themselves. These include practical tips on setting limits with love, keeping the peace at mealtimes, creating a safe space to sleep, and making the most of time with grandchildren.
Organizations: How do grandparents navigate the task of sharing the care of their grandchildren? See our Infographics for more quotes and details. Use our If You Only Knew tool to guide families through a conversation designed to share strengths, communicate concerns, and problem-solve together.