Lifestyle: How to be a caring grandparent

A young girl with grandfather and her parents in the background. PA Photo/thinkstockphotos.
A young girl with grandfather and her parents in the background. PA Photo/thinkstockphotos.
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Many parents turn to their own parents for help looking after the kids. But such arrangements aren’t without challenges, reports Lisa Salmon.

Grandparents looking after their grandchildren should be something to be treasured and enjoyed - but it is increasingly something that’s also essential, and plagued with difficulties.

A new report shows UK childcare costs have risen by 19% over the last year, while the most recent figures from Grandparents Plus and Age UK suggest the hours of childcare provided by grandparents have risen even more - by 35%. Another study by vouchercloud.com found 39% of parents rely on their own parents for assistance to minimise childcare costs.

On the surface, this sounds like an obvious, convenient and free pay-off, but dig a bit deeper and you realise it doesn’t always come without a price.

Indeed, far from parents being grateful for the help, many say grandparents interfere with the way they bring up their children. An alarming 71% agreed the grandparents had ‘too strong an opinion on how I should raise my child’.

Thankfully, it’s not all negative.

Sam Smethers, chief executive of Grandparents Plus, a charity championing the role of grandparents, points out the survey also found how 54% of parents said they’d trust the grandparents more than outside childcare.

“That trust in the childcare that grandparents provide is fundamental,” she stresses.

“Even if they are seen to be interfering, I suspect parents may tolerate that more because of the trust element. It gives them peace of mind when they go to work.”

Grandparents Plus and Age UK have estimated the economic value of grandparental childcare at £7.3 billion, but it’s not about money for grandmas and grandads. Smethers stresses the overwhelming motivation for grandparents is to help their children, and also, simply, because they love their grandchildren.

“That’s why so many of them do so much, for so little financial benefit,” she says.

So, assuming everyone has the grandchildren’s best interests at heart, how can you ensure the childcare arrangement progresses as smoothly as possible?

It’s important to set boundaries early on, Smethers says, through a proper conversation between the parents and grandparents to establish what they do, and don’t, expect.

“I think one of the reasons families might have differences of opinion, where parents think grandparents are interfering and grandparents think they’re helping, is simply because they haven’t had that conversation about how it’s going to work.”

The Grandparents’ Association, another charity which supports grandparents, suggests families prepare a family childcare checklist including how many days a week are covered, where the childcare’s taking place, times of pick-up, suggested activities, and who’s going to pay for nappies and food.

Once all this is established, it’s important to keep talking about the arrangement is working, discussing issues when they arise - and before things get out of hand, warns Lynn Chesterman, chief executive of the charity.

“Before you agree to take on childcare, talk it through and decide who’s responsible for what,” she advises.

As for the issue of interfering, she points out that this can depend on the interpretation of the word; if the grandchildren are at the grandparents’ home, swinging from the curtains, for example, reprimands may be seen as necessary by the grandparents, but be seen as interfering by the parents.

Another perceived ‘interference’ is also actually based on jealousy. If the parents are out at work all day, it may be the grandparents who witness many young grandchildrens’ ‘firsts’.

“It may be grandma who sees their first steps, first smile etc,” says Chesterman.

“Parents need to go to work to pay the mortgage, but equally they’d love to be there to see those first moments. Sometimes that can be quite heartbreaking, and it can come out as jealousy, upset and resentment.”

But she stresses: “Most of the problems are down to lack of communication. It’s important to be fair to the grandparents, and don’t take advantage of them. Try and treat them the way you’d want to be treated yourself.”

Chesterman stresses it’s important, too, for parents to empathise with how much looking after grandchildren can disrupt a grandparent’s routine.

“It can be extremely lonely and isolating, and I don’t think people take that on board,” she says.

“Your friends like looking after their own grandchildren, but they don’t want yours, so you can become very isolated, especially if you were quite sociable before you started your childcaring.”

Justine Roberts, chief executive of the social networking sites Mumsnet and Gransnet, adds that Gransnet forums show many grandparents admit to finding the responsibility of childcare challenging and exhausting.

“What’s very clear from everyone involved is that setting out the parameters of what grandparents are happy and able to do from the very start is the real key.”

:: Information: Grandparents Association helpline, 0845 434958, www.grandparents-association.org.uk; Grandparents Plus advice line, 0300 123 7015, www.grandparentsplus.org.uk.