Parenting Resource

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Grandparents: The Cornerstone of Care for Children Under 5

ZERO TO THREE recently set out to find out what “sharing the care” is like for families using grandparent-provided child care, and what can be done to make this experience easier for both generations.

by Kathy Kinsner, Senior Manager of Parenting Resources, ZERO TO THREE

Grandparents offer young children the support and love of an additional adult, a relationship different in tone and texture from their relationships with their parents. Grandparents don’t have the role that parents do to set limits, create rules, or offer consequences. According to focus groups with grandparents hosted by ZERO TO THREE, grandparents enjoy the fact that they can “just love” their grandchildren—a sentiment grandchildren share. My oldest nephew, now a father himself, fondly recalls his grandmother’s turkey sandwiches and the many hours spent at her kitchen table. Most important, he remembers the consistency that that spot and those conversations provided.

Consistency. It’s one of many factors that make grandparents a cornerstone of child care for kids under 5. According to a 2013 report by the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 25% of children in this age group are cared for by grandparents while parents work or go to school. That’s 4.8 million children, which is 37 thousand more than were enrolled in formal child care when this data was collected.

For these young families, grandparents provide a sense of trust and safety, as well as a way of passing along family language and culture. The willingness of grandparents to fill a gap by providing child care that is consistent, loving, and affordable allows parents (especially those who earn the least and may be unable to access formal child care programs) to participate in the workforce.

ZERO TO THREE recently set out to find out what “sharing the care” is like for families using grandparent-provided child care, and what can be done to make this experience easier for both generations. With support from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, we conducted three focus groups (two in English, one in Spanish) of grandparents who provided at least 15 hours of care a week to children under 6 years old. Here’s what we learned:

Love and Commitment

Experts characterize the experience of grandparenting as “transformative,” and that’s what we heard. Grandparents said caring for their grandchildren was a joy, “like eating chocolate without getting fat.” Grandparents also talk about the pleasure of a re-do—that is, parenting without the worry, and with the experience and perspective earned over a lifetime. Grandparents were happy to spend time with young grandchildren—time they didn’t have as parents. One grandfather told us how delighted he was to explore the neighborhood at his toddler grandson’s pace.

Sometimes adult children asked for help with child care and sometimes grandparents saw a need and offered, but help was typically provided without compensation. “My grandson is the [compensation],” a grandfather explained.

Negotiation of Roles

Most grandparents agreed that sharing the care is not always easy. One grandmother expressed mild resentment that her youngest daughter dropped her kids off without regard to the grandparents’ schedule. Another had a long commute to care for grandkids 6 days a week. But complaints of this type were few. Most grandparents were happy with time spent with grandchildren and recognized from their own parenting experience how quickly childhood passes. Even the mildly resentful grandmother expressed amazement and joy at her grandkids’ development: “These are little people with their own identity. And I didn’t get to a chance to see it [with my own children] because I didn’t have time.”

Many families had difficulty navigating roles and boundaries. Although it was clear in theory that the parents were the ones in charge, this played out differently “in real life.” One grandmother advised that a grandparent’s time is over, and that “it’s not your duty” to raise your grandkids. Most grandparents acknowledged that they tried to coach their adult children’s parenting from the sidelines, offering advice that—they believed—would make the long learning curve of parenthood less painful.

Confidence in Parenting Skills

Grandparents were confident in the experience gained as parents as a guide to helping raise their grandchildren. Some felt they needed no further instruction to do this job. Others were avid users of the Internet, looking for advice on everything from car seats to potty training. Several conversations pointed to a need for up-to-date information on topics such as discipline and safe sleep.

Based on what we heard from grandparents, ZERO TO THREE created infographics and a discussion tool for organizations that serve this audience, as well as a grandparent guide that provides the latest info on setting limits with love, keeping the peace at mealtimes, creating a safe space to sleep, and making the most of time with grandchildren.

We encourage you to take the opportunity to share these resources widely, and to tell your own stories on Twitter and Facebook at #GrandparentsCare.

For more information, see our literature review and an executive summary of our findings.

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