The pros and cons of grandparents looking after grandchildren

It’s estimated that grandparents save British families £16.4 billion pounds worth of childcare per year. A third of all working families rely on grandparents to help out with them and 97% of them do it as a labour of love and don’t get paid a penny. They are a veritable army of caregivers, most often stepping in to help out so that parents can get back to work, often sacrificing their own careers, or the ‘freedom’ of retirement in order to do so.

So what are the pros and cons of helping out with (grand)childcare? And how can you avoid the potential pitfalls?


The strain of offering a practical and financial helping hand

Despite government attempts to alleviate the strain on young families, the truth is that childcare often eats up a significant amount of parents’ income, A recent survey showed that a fifth (22%) of parents said help with childcare from grandparents was the only way they could afford to go back to work. Most grandparents are more than happy to help out where they can to ease this burden, enabling their own children to get back to work and continue with their careers.

But what about those who aren’t able to stop working? Although many grandparents may already be retired and able to spend extra time with their grandchildren, others may rely on their income. Giving up work may mean a huge adjustment to their lifestyles and a rushed ‘yes’ while basking in a little one’s gummy smile, might come back to haunt them.

Others may really enjoy their careers and feel torn between ambition and wanting to do what they see as their ‘duty’ as far as childcare is concerned. At the end of the day, it’s up to each individual to decide what compromises they are willing to make.

Quality time

Spending more quality time with grandchildren and developing a deeper relationship with them is, of course, the main advantage of the arrangement and it’s something grandparents cherish. But that’s not to say it’s all smooth sailing… Looking after children (small ones especially) is an exhausting task, requiring sometimes superhuman patience, energy and organisation.

Grandparents often find that they ‘sign up’ to a day or two’s childcare for the first grandchild and then another comes along, two days turns into four, the hours are extended and the first grandchild who needed a bit of rocking and a nappy change has now become an adventurous, boundary-pushing, nap-refusing, carrot-disdaining toddler. Exhausting doesn’t even cover it. As the years go on, health problems may become an issue and grandparents may feel they’re not up to as much childcare as they initially promised. Arrangements that previously worked very well may need to be reassessed to take into account changing circumstances.

What if your childcare techniques differ from that of the parents?

Of course, most parents accept that what happens at granny’s house stays at granny’s house, but it’s a slightly different story if you’re doing regular childcare rather than having them over for an occasional visit.

The main sticking points for parents are usually:

1) Snacks and mealtimes,

2) Rules and discipline

3) How much TV or screen time is allowed

The general consensus is that while grandparents should at least try to adhere to the guidelines set down by parents – they’re usually there for a reason – they are after all helping out and if everyone’s exhausted by mid-afternoon, then an extra half hour of Peppa Pig is unlikely to have any far-reaching consequences.

Avoid being taken for granted

Sadly, the survey also revealed that 20% of respondents, whilst happy to look after their grandkids, did feel that they were sometimes taken for granted. For most, childcare is an unpaid arrangement, but the general feeling is that expenses (days out, treats etc.) should be paid for upfront or reimbursed by the parents. Grandparents love to spoil their grandkids and if you have the means, that is fine, but parents shouldn’t (and for the most part don’t) expect that nappies, all entertainment and other costs are for the grandparents’ tab.

At times, there is also a lack of consideration for grandparents’ social lives or holiday plans, with some grandchildren being dropped off without notice, or being left hours after an agreed pick-up time. It’s important to set your own boundaries from the beginning, so that no one feels taken advantage of. Grandparents need to also be clear that occasionally they will be away on the agreed childcare day (perhaps for a planned holiday) and there needs to be a back-up childcare plan in place when that happens.

All in all, looking after grandchildren can be such a wonderful experience and hugely beneficial to all generations. With good communication, managing expectations, and a bit of flexibility, this arrangement can really bring families closer together.


Lara Crisp is the editor of Gransnet , the social networking site for the UK’s 14 million grandparents.


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