Growth of granny day care

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Many parents who can’t afford the rising costs of childcare turn to their own parents for help looking after the kids. Lisa Salmon reports.

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 per cent 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 per cent. Another study by vouchercloud.com found 39 per cent 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 per cent 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 per cent 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 £7.3bn, 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 is taking place, times of pick-up, suggested activities, and who is 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 grandchildren’s “firsts”.

“Parents need to go to work to pay the mortgage,” says Chesterman. “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.”

It’s also important for parents to empathise with how much looking after grandchildren can disrupt a grandparent’s routine.

Justine Roberts, chief executive of the social networking sites Mumsnet and Gransnet, says: “Setting out the parameters of what grandparents are happy and able to do from the very start is the real key.”

Unions call for time off

A recent report by the TUC said grandparents should be given the right to request unpaid leave as they are so involved with childcare.

The organisation estimates that seven million grandparents provide regular childcare for youngsters aged under 16 and wants the right to ask for time off, which currently only applies in emergencies, to be extended.

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