Grandma in Charge: When Grandparents Care for Kids
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Grandma is doing a lot more than baking cookies these days.
After raising her own children, she is stepping in and caring for grandchildren while their parents work. In the process, she is helping forge bridges between generations and strengthening family bonds.
Grandparents caring for young children is an increasing trend in the United States. Not only does this arrangement seem like a natural solution to daycare, it also suits many members of the family for financial and emotional reasons.
Dr. Janiece Pompa has seen many different family arrangements in her years as a psychologist at the University of Utah. She believes grandparents caring for their grandchildren can be a positive situation for everyone involved.
“Having grandparents care for their grandchildren can help form a wonderful bond between generations,” Dr. Pompa says. “A child’s development and sense of security is enhanced by having as many positive, caring relatives and adults in their life as possible.”
Dr. Julia Pezzi, a child psychologist in Kentucky, also understands the benefits of this arrangement.
“These parents have first-hand experience with the grandparents’ parenting style,” she says. “This allows them to be comfortable with the grandparents’ handling challenging situations with the grandchildren.”
Dr. Pezzi also acknowledges one huge benefit of having grandparents in charge: “No one is going to feel that unconditional love that a grandparent feels for the children, and the grandchildren know it.”
Brett Sember’s grandparents provided daycare for her when she was a child. Because of that, she still has a very close relationship with them.
Sember, a mother of two living in Clarence, N.Y., chose to continue the tradition.
“When my children were infants, I could not conceive of leaving them with strangers,” she says. “My mom took a sabbatical when my first was born and has continued to care for them at least one day a week.”
In order to avoid conflicts, Dr. Pompa has a few suggestions.
“There should be firm agreements between the grandparents and the parents regarding the child’s routine, disciplinary practices and the type and amount of supervision,” she says.
The agreements might include everything from detailed information on acceptable foods to whether or not spanking can be used.
Grandparents must make sure to respect their own child’s parenting decisions.
“The grandparents should be very clear about their child’s values and the parenting principles that are followed in the home. Discipline will be most effective if the grandparents’ and parents’ parenting and disciplinary practices are similar between both households,” Dr. Pompa explains.
Respect is required of both parties.
“The parents will feel supported and respected if the grandparents honor their decisions with regard to parenting and disciplinary practices,” Dr. Pompa says.
“If the grandparents and their child have differences of opinion, they should be discussed and settled prior to placing the child in daycare with the grandparents.”
Although Sember did not discuss the guidelines with her parents before they began caring for her children, she and her parents work well together.
Sember points out that her parents understand what her rules are. But when a unique circumstance arises at the grandparents’ house, they are free to decide how to handle it on their own. She adds that, in the end, the two parenting parties mostly agree.
To Pay or Not to Pay
Should children pay their parents to tend the grandchildren? Dr. Pompa doesn’t believe it is always necessary.
“It depends on the grandparents’ financial situation and the psychological meaning of money in the family,” she says. “If the grandparents need the money, or feel that being paid would represent a tangible symbol that their efforts are valued, then they should be compensated at a level that is mutually agreed upon by both parties.”
Although the loving concern of grandparents is a bonus, it can go too far. Dr. Pezzi acknowledges that it may be difficult for the grandparents to let the parents take control again once they arrive home.
“At times the boundaries can become fuzzy and cause friction with regard to discipline issues,” she explains.
Dr. Pompa warns that if the grandparents do not respect their child’s decisions about child rearing and vice versa, the grandchildren may learn to play both parties against the other to get what they want.
There are inherent challenges with this situation. “There may be conflict if grandparents are more lenient with grandchildren, and the parents feel the children are being ‘spoiled’ when they are at the grandparents’ house,” Dr. Pompa says.
Dr. Pompa also believes that the different focus of parenting styles in the past may cause problems to arise. She theorizes that grandparents, especially grandfathers, who were not physically and/or emotionally available while raising their own children, may attempt to overcompensate for the absence by buying the grandchildren lots of material items and going light on the discipline.
The opposite also may be true. Dr. Pompa believes sometimes grandparents feel their own children are not raising the grandchildren to behave properly, and they may impose stricter limits in the daycare situation.
One thing is for certain: The influence of grandparents is timeless. Michelle Smith of Chico, Calif. is proof of that.
“My grandparents cared for my sister and I during our early toddler years and on through grade school,” she says.
“Most of my happiest childhood memories took place with my grandparents, especially my grandma. We spent so much time singing. She taught us how to sing songs from the musical ‘Oklahoma’ and how to sing in rounds.”
Her grandmother also took time to create special memories. Smith recalls how they used to get dressed up and go out to a restaurant called The Copper Penny for “girl cheese” sandwiches.
Together, her grandparents were able to make her childhood magical.
“Grandma and Grandpa had a pool in their backyard and we swam and swam and had barbecues and ate shrimp cocktail,” she says. “Grandpa built a waterfall in the corner of their yard and we would take the stone path around the back of it, pretending to be explorers.”
Although Smith’s grandmother, Ardith Wilson of Montague, Calif., was not financially compensated for her help, what she gathered from the experience was priceless.
“The best part of taking care of my grandchildren was watching them grow up. I was there as they began to talk and communicate,” Wilson says.
Perhaps all parents considering this arrangement should listen to her words of advice. “The best place for children is with their grandparents rather than with a baby-sitter or in a daycare facility. Grandparents are able to give the children real love, as well as attention.”
How Old Is Too Old?
How does an adult child know when grandparents are too old to care for the grandchildren?
Dr. Pompa believes that if grandparents have any of the following characteristics, they are too old to care for small children.
- A grandparent with health problems who cannot keep up with the normal physical demands of caring for a child.
- Grandparents who feel emotionally stressed at the end of the day.
- Grandparents who feel irritable and end up yelling at or hitting the grandchildren.