Grandparents doing childcare: conscripts or volunteers? 35



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It’s politically incorrect for grandparents to complain about the amount of childminding they’re doing. That’s why “Georgia”, like Deep Throat, asked for anonymity: “I have friends who say ‘It’s only for a short stage in our lives,’” she told me, “but my feeling is the stage when you’re fit enough to mind the grandchildren is also when you’re fit enough to travel and study and do the other things you wanted to do in retirement.” Just because most grandparents aren’t rebelling, or even like Georgia, voicing ambivalence behind a pseudonym, doesn’t mean the Productivity Commission should ignore the role played by this army of unpaid workers in propping up Australia’s childcare system, indeed its economy.

The federal government has asked the Productivity Commission to review the formal childcare sector. But the problems of affordability and access will be under-estimated unless the role of grandparents is factored into the equation. “We need to understand to what extent reliance on grandparents masks a problem,” Ian Yates, chief executive of COTA, the peak body for older Australians, told me.

The number of children minded by grandparents on a regular basis reached 937,000 in 2011 up from 660,000 in 2008. Nearly half of under three-year-olds with employed mothers are cared for, at least part-time, by their grandparents, according to a report by the Australian Institute of Family Studies. But to what extent are grandparents happy helpers or unwilling conscripts? And to what extent is this generation of adult children putting the squeeze on parents because they’re tight-wads with a sense of entitlement; or because they themselves are being squeezed in an unprecedented way by steep childcare and housing costs? The high point for childcare costs was back in 2007 but fees have been escalating fast.

One thing is certain: more and more grandparents will be staying longer in the workforce through government pressure, financial need, and a gradually increasing pension eligibility age. It’s already happening. Grandparent care – grandmother care in the main – will be harder to get in future unless grandmothers leave work, and sacrifice their own retirement income so that their daughters and daughters-in-law can accumulate theirs.

Grandchildren are a joy. I’ve seen a few tough careerists and “absent” fathers transformed into doting softies with the arrival of grandchildren. As a report called Looking back, looking forward, by the Brotherhood of St Laurence reveals, many older people contrast the difficulties of parenting with the pleasures of being a grandparent. “Grandchildren,” one participant said, “are utterly perfect.” Academic Bridget Jenkins, from the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of NSW, has found in research based on a small sample of grandparents that they love looking after their grandchildren, playing an important role in their lives, and helping out their children. But ten hours of childminding a week appears to be a threshold. Above that grandparents, ever-mindful of complaining, may express some ambivalence.

“There are definite costs to the grandmothers,” Bridget told me. “They’re not able to see their friends as much; some had withdrawn from the (paid) workforce rather than say to their children ‘find childcare.’” As well, there were financial costs as most grandmothers were not given money for the children’s food, transport or outings. And there were health issues: “Not serious ones but fatigue was an issue for some.” As for grandfathers, many were unhappy about excessive time spent childminding. Their attitude to their wives was, “If you want to do it, you do it,” Bridget said.

Most grandparents do less than 10 hours a week; but about one-third of children being minded by grandparents are with them for between 10 and 44 hours a week, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Is it possible that some of the joy lessens when high-hours carers must act more like parents – disciplinarians, organisers – and less like indulgent grandparents? Georgia, 65, was thrust into serious childminding when her daughter returned to work and needed help to get her two children to pre-school and school. “It’s hard physically, lifting them in and out of car seats, especially if they don’t want to go; then the school hat’s missing, the raincoats are missing; have they got sunscreen, their asthma medication…..?And then in situations where we would have given our children a smack…. well that’s considered a capital offence. I have to say what my daughter would say: ‘Now that’s inappropriate.’ After a certain age children dob you in.”

The oldest of Georgia’s children, who’d missed out on help with childminding, now feels a bit aggrieved; and the expectation is high that Georgia will help out her other children when the mothers go back to work. There are pleasures, especially the relationship she’s built with her granddaughter. But Georgia says, “I’ve been retired three years and there’s so much I wanted to do.”

Bridget Jenkins believes most adult children are reluctant to over-burden their parents: mothers try to limit their work hours as always; men still leave it to their wives; and the cost pressures on young families are real. “This is a nuanced and complex policy debate; both generations are trying to balance work and care,” she said. The generations, I believe, should pitch in to help each other if they can. That’s what families do. But the formal childcare sector is hugely important. It will be more crucial in future when grandparents are less available, either as conscripts or volunteers. It must be fixed.

What’s your view of grandparent care? Tell us in the comments below… 


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Adele Horin

Adele Horin was a journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald for nearly two decades. She reported on a range of social issues, from child care to aged care, and wrote a weekly column. She then wrote a blog called Coming of Age about baby boomers. She tackled subjects as diverse as the love/hate relationship with her Seniors Card, sibling rivalry over elderly parents and their money, suing nursing homes, and how not to dress like an invisible woman. As a baby boomer she lived through most of the subjects she's written about, including when to cut your adult children off the financial drip. Her blog can be found at

  1. I have loved it but it depends very one has different needs and at different ages what we can manage changes. It is not the same for everyone.

  2. In the past families were a close knit community and the grandparents took on the role of caring for the children while the parents were earning a living for them all whether it was in a factory, shop running a farm ….. As time progressed the children took on their responsibilities of bringing home the “bacon” and the parents looked after the grandparents. There was never the question asked so often today “what will we do when grandma/pa can’t look after him/herself anymore” they just looked after gran. Families entire lives were spent working together and caring for each other. I’ve always loved having my grandchildren around and if, in doing so I am able to help my children then so much the better.

    1 REPLY
    • I agree. The Italians, the Irish, the Chinese and other Far Eastern countries as well as UK all did it. The Industrial Age started the trend against it

  3. It was a pure joy to be priveliged enough to mind all five grandchildren from one to school age. We now have an incredible bond and the eldest is now twenty one. Making memories.

  4. The government want more woman back in the workforce, plus people to work longer, so if the oldies are working longer and unable to care for grand children, then obviously more childcare centres are needed, at affordable prices, so that the mothers who wish to work can do.

    1 REPLY
    • Very logic solution to the problem, pity the politicians aren’t smart enough to work it out. Over 50s find it very hard to get jobs so many nanas are babysitting. I still work one day a week and babysit for two. Is a privilege watching the little one grow up and helps my daughter to be able to afford to go to work. Previous generations nanas if they worked outside the home as my mum never did, babysat when their children grew up and they had stopped work, while the younger ones worked. Perfect system, sadly no longer practical.

  5. Yes we look after our grandkids every second weekend as two of our sons are not together with there partners we pick them up from school on Fridays one gets picked up on Sundays and the other two we take back to school on Mondays our sons come around on the weekends but we do most of the looking after we enjoy it and the two cousins who are 6 &8 get on well together

  6. No stranger will love your grandkids the way nana will& there were odd times when my grandchildren were minded by others & they had to go to daycare – I was still working but on my days off I always had them & we had a great time to- get her they are all grown now but the memories we have are Priceless.

  7. I miss looking after my grandchildren now that they are at school, and really look forward to weekends with them

  8. I consider it a privilege to be involved with my grandchildren. I don’t have to do it…. I choose to. I am only sorry that I was working & not able to be involved in my older grandchildren’s school life

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