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Grandparents: The Cornerstone of Early Child Care

grandpa gives granddaughter food on couch

Why Grandparents Matter

Grandparents aren’t just picture snappers and the buyers of tiny onesies promoting a favorite hobby (Crawl. Walk. Fish.). 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. To get a sense of numbers, this is as many kids as are enrolled in formal child care (!).

The First Ever in the United States

In late 2018, ZERO TO THREE conducted the first-ever national survey of grandparents who provide regular child care to grandchildren under the age of five. We found that grandparents love participating in the care of their grandchildren (no surprise!), and that there are often underlying tensions between generations about the best way to do this.

Love and Devotion All Around

Grandparents in our 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 the everyday details of sharing child care with their adult children, 86% of grandparents surveyed were satisfied with their arrangements. And while 8 out of 10 received no monetary compensation for their help, they easily identified the perks of shared caregiving: 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

Responses were mixed when we asked about the more difficult aspects of sharing the care. Almost half (48%) of the grandparents surveyed feel some level of disagreement/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 just the areas you might expect:

  • About 1 in 4 participating grandparents says mealtime/snacks/picky eating is an issue.
  • About 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. 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, we’ve been asking grandparents what they want and need to make shared caregiving more satisfying and more successful. You can read about our focus group findings, download free resources, and watch our collection of short films starring grandparents (and the parents and grandkids who love them) here. If you want to be sure you (or your adult children) are up on the latest child-rearing strategies, our Grandparent Guide is a great place to begin. We’ve covered the basics of safe sleep, healthy eating, discipline and more.

Want more on our National Grandparent Survey? You can read the full Grandparent Survey report here. And we’d love to hear what you think about sharing the care across generations—whether you are a grandparent or a parent. Share or post your experiences on social media and tag @ZEROTOTHREE.


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