You only have to take a look around the zoo, swimming pool or soft play centre at half term to see how important grandparents are in children’s lives. Working parents rely on them to cover childcare during school holidays – and new grandparents are often thrilled to take a regular turn at caring for the next generation.
From a parent’s point of view, grandparent-provided childcare is free, flexible and full of unconditional love. From a child’s standpoint it may involve much more ice-cream! Recent research by the Institute of Education has found that while grandparents do more to help develop a baby’s vocabulary, they may struggle to provide the other educational and social experiences that infants need. The Millennium Cohort Study follows the lives of a sample of nearly 19,000 UK babies born between September 2000 and January 2002.
Some grandparents make more of an effort to sit down and talk to children to make up for a lack of physical activity, but there’s also evidence that they are more likely to use better grammar, have better vocabulary themselves and correct children more, unlike other people. However, three-year olds who had been in group settings in nurseries and crèches at nine months were often more ready for school – showing a better understanding of colours, letters, numbers and counting, sizes, comparisons and shapes.
A straw poll of Officrèche members told me that most families use the grandparents in conjunction with our flexible childcare – if they are lucky enough to have them in the same country. This seems like the best of both worlds, because, seeing your own parents revisiting your childhood on your own little one, can sometimes touch a raw nerve…
One mother said “I think it works best when I hand my son over for a whole weekend to my in-laws/his grandparents – this creates an airlock for our different parenting styles!”
Another feels implicit criticism of her own childrearing when her mother comments on manners at the lunch table in the grandparental house “In this house we…”
I’ve heard plenty of stories of conflicting potty training tactics – whether it is standing up to wee, or permissible to go in a swimming pool…..
There’s also the 20 or 30 years of safety and health guidelines that separate grandparents’ knowledge from parents. My mother takes great delight in telling me that she just used to lay us (her 4 children) in the passenger foot well when driving us around in the car….I retort that seatbelts and children’s car seats may not have been compulsory then but it would be really stupid not to use them now!
However, the richness of knowledge and experience that grandparents can add is immeasurable. Grandparents teach little ones to swim, play the cello, to sing, to ride bikes, pick strawberries, feed horses, even select schools. Caring for the next generation is also an experience that can bring back memories of their own children vividly – I hear my own parents call my daughter by my name – and the fact that her curly red locks are very like that of my eldest brother does make Gran and Grandpa a bit of a pushover to her soft little hand. Another grandmother hooks up with all her local friends in half terms – once again they all have kids in tow, this time their grandchildren instead of their children but the same relationships are played out, even the same frustrations!
Many grandparents say the physical contact through cuddles is revitalising. They also gain in confidence as the children in their care thrive. One grandmother who suffered a stroke and loss of speech finds talking and reading particularly rewarding for both her and the little ones, she says she forgets how hard she normally has to try to communicate clearly!
At the risk of sounding patronising, grandparenting is an activity that retired couples can do together (free of the restrictions of parental responsibility), when for years work may have been taking up their separate lives. Sometimes this second chance can be the first time a grandfather has ever changed a nappy?! And children reinforce their learning by teaching grandparents – texting or using an iPad for example.
My children are just two out of my parents’ 12 grandchildren and the only ones born so far to my in-laws. Since they are parents themselves, both sets know all too well the importance of a break from the daily grind of family life. A weekend off from the kids can totally refresh a knackered marriage. Both couples play a vital role in our family’s life – but they also have lots of other things in their own diaries, so there’s a lot of juggling involved in grandparents and childcare too. This means I’m really looking forward to the first grandparent member of Officrèche….