Raising children can be tough – but some lucky parents have their own mums and dads to help them out. But should grandparents looking after heir grandchildren?

Around nine million grandparents help look after their grandchildren, spending an average of more than eight hours a week as childcarers.

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And research by the insurance company Ageas shows this saves UK parents a total of £16 billion a year in childcare costs, or £1,786 a year per family.

In addition, many grandparents are also supplementing some of the costs of raising a family for parents, by paying for some of the basics like clothing, and toys not just at Christmas and birthdays. Others even stump up for luxuries like holidays for their grandchildren.

But while granny childcare is a great help to parents, what do grandparents get out of it?

Are grandparents happy?

Not surprisingly, research by Gransnet has found that while one in six grandparents have taken early retirement or quit paid employment to help out with their grandchildren. 80% of them say their sacrifice is worth it, and more than half (51%) say they’re happier now they spend time with their grandchildren.

They also found that 51% of grandparents regularly look after their grandchildren all year round, and a further 10% say they help out during school holidays. Most often they’re looking after two grandchildren for 1 or 2 days a week (56% of grandcarers), although a minority (7%) provide childcare 5 days a week.

Gransnet editor Lara Crisp says: “Most grandparents who help out with childcare relish the opportunity to spend more time with their grandchildren and find it helps them build a strong relationship with them.

“They’re also very aware of the demands on modern families – in particular expensive childcare – and are for the most part happy to help out if they can.

“However, it’s clear that in some cases they feel they’re taken for granted, so open discussions should happen on an ongoing basis in order to manage everyone’s expectations.”

grandparents looking after grandchildren
A helping hand from grandad (Thinkstock/PA)

Is free childcare fair?

But while a fifth of parents said help with childcare from grandparents was the only way they could afford to go back to work. Over a third (36%) said the best thing about the arrangement is the money they save. But it isn’t always plain sailing when grandparents care for their grandkids.

“Grandparents provide so much free childcare, often making themselves available at the drop of a hat if the child is unwell and a parent has an appointment,” says Gransnet editor Lara Crisp. “They sacrifice their own holiday time, and often give up work earlier than they would have otherwise. Sometimes they’re even putting themselves in a financially insecure position.”

Some grandcarers (12%) say they’re exhausted by their caring role, or that childcare has had an adverse effect on their physical health. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s the potential rows the arrangement can cause. Because while having grandcarers might be handy and free, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll look after the children the way parents want, or that they’ll agree with the parenting rules.

So what are the advantages and disadvantages of grandparents looking after their grandchildren?

Here’s what some of the grandmas and grandads that use Gransnet forums say:

Pros of grandparents looking after grandchildren

grandparents looking after grandchildren
Fishing with grandad (Thinkstock/PA)

1. The closeness between grandparents and grandchildren. Nearly two thirds (63%) of grandparents say looking after their grandchildren gives them “an amazing chance to spend time with them”.

2. Knowing that their grandchildren are with someone who loves them and being able to give their grandchildren attention their parents don’t have the time to give them.

3. Flexibility, convenience and peace of mind for the parents, who may also be able to save up because of the childcare help their parents give them.

4. Many grandparents say caring for their grandchildren keeps them fit.

5. Another advantage is grandparents being able to pass on their wisdom and experience to their grandchildren.

Cons of grandparents looking after grandchildren

1. Having to curtail their own plans – social lives, holidays etc to fit in with the needs of the parents/grandchildren.

2. Declining health/not as much energy to look after young children.

3. Disagreements with parents on things like discipline/screen time/food etc. However, there may be a solution to this: a Family Childcare Agreement can help iron out problems before they begin, says Family Lives.

4. Expectations or not being able to say no – Gransnet editor Lara Crisp explains: “Some Gransnetters volunteered or agreed to look after their first grandchild, then another arrived, then their other children had a couple, so they felt they couldn’t say no to help them out. And of course in the interim the years may have taken their toll physically too.”

5. Finding out that childcare replaces granny time.

How to make it work

Here are seven things to think about to avoid tensions in a grandcarers’ arrangement:

1. Timekeeping

Parents’ timekeeping is one of the biggest gripes for grandcarers, with 24% saying it causes tension. “You’d think grateful adult children would make sure their parents were not further put out, yet it seems that when it comes to common consideration – like sticking to pick-up times – parents’ timekeeping can be a bit laissez-faire,” says Crisp.

“Looking after small children can be exhausting at the best of times. No matter how much grandparents may love this quality time with their treasured grandchildren, they also value – and need – their own downtime and feel understandably irked if parents mess them around and are late for collecting their offspring on a regular basis.

“Grandparents may also have their own busy social lives and at times this casual lack of consideration suggests parents think their own time is more valuable.”

2. Screen time

Happy Black Senior Man Spending Time With His Grandson At Home,

The second biggest gripe for grandparents is the amount of screen time children are allowed, cited by 18%. So parents and grandparents need to be clear on what’s allowed. Bear in mind there’s a good chance the kids will think they can have more screen time with grandma and grandad because they might be a ‘soft touch’.

“Once grandparents – and the kids – have depleted all their energy reserves, a bit of downtime in front of the telly or on a tablet is completely acceptable,” says Crisp. “The grandparents on Gransnet will happily explore other avenues first – baking, reading with their grandkids etc, but sometimes a bit of screen entertainment is entirely justified.

“Our users are very conscious of sticking to mum and dad’s guidelines, but the truth is that an extra five minutes of Peppa Pig isn’t going to have devastating effects on any child’s wellbeing.”

3. Rules and routines

Parents shouldn’t just assume grandparents know all the rules the children are expected to follow, or their routines. Make sure these are all discussed, and written down if necessary. And if grandparents need to change a rule or routine, checking with the children’s parents that they’re happy with the change will help avoid conflict.

4.  Expectations

Grandparents need to be clear about what they can and can’t do before any childcare starts. If you know being at your daughter’s house for 7am every morning would affect your health/wellbeing, make it clear right from the start.

Crisp says: “Gransnet users say the trick to making this sort of childcare work is for everyone to be really clear about their expectations. Grandparents certainly shouldn’t be afraid to speak up if they realise they’ve taken on too much.”

5. Contingency plans

Make sure you’ve discussed plans for back-up care for when grandparents or grandchildren are ill, or when grandparents go on holiday.

6. Managing grandchildren’s behaviour

Discipline methods have changed considerably over the generations, so it’s a good idea for grandparents to ask the parents how they deal with challenging behaviour, and what sanctions they’re happy with.

And if grandparents want to bend the rules, it’s worth asking the parent first, rather than just telling them later  – or having the grandchildren tell them. A simple, “‘Do you mind if I let him stay up a bit later?” could avoid an argument.

7. Finances

While most grandparents aren’t paid for looking after their grandchildren, the reality is that they’re often out of pocket because of the arrangement. Many grandcarers (21%) give up work or reduce their working hours to look after their grandchildren, and 27% say they’ve become financially unstable as a result. Add to that, 64% say they spend up to £20 a day in the course of providing childcare.

To minimise this financial hit, it’s worth grandparents discussing the possibility of the grandchildren’s parents providing some money for the children’s expenses.

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