Opening gran’s daycare

Parents face a difficult dilemma when they try to balance their careers, household incomes, and child care. It can be hard to watch your grown children struggle with different child care arrangements, and many grandparents step up to the plate and get involved.

It’s difficult to pin down exactly how many kids are being cared for by grandparents because these arrangements are often informal — but the numbers seem to be significant.

For instance, a recent study from the University of Chicago found that a whopping 60 per cent of grandparents served as care givers to their grandchildren over a 10 year period. Among that group, the majority of grandparents offered care for two years or more. With more parents working and a rise of multi-generational households, caring for children is becoming a whole family affair.

This arrangement can definitely be a win-win situation: the kids are cared for by a loving family member — often at a lower or no cost to parents — and grandparents get the chance to be a part of their grandkids’ daily lives.

However, there are pitfalls as well. Here are some things to consider before you open your own “granny daycare”.

Don’t say yes without thinking it through. It is so difficult to watch your children struggle that you may leap in to offer to care for your grandkids without considering all the ramifications for your own lifestyle and health.

“My mother offered to help out for three days a week,” says Stacey Hamilton, of Scarborough, Ontario. “So I committed to those shifts at work. But after three weeks she was exhausted. I totally understood but I was still upset that I was stuck for daycare after I had already said yes to my boss.”

Before you say yes, watch the grandchildren for a few days on your own and see how tired you are at the end of the day. Look over your calendar and consider your hobbies and what you will not be able to do if you are providing care — such as church activities, trips, and projects around the house will likely be affected.

Safety first. Obviously the first consideration in any day care situation is the children’s safety. Many grandparents find that it is easier to come to their children’s home to provide care because the child’s home is already child-proofed and has all the clothing, toys, etc.

Others prefer to watch their grandkids in their own home. If you choose the latter option, be sure that you have childproofed. Let your children do their own “safety survey” of your home.

Driving is another safety issues so be sure to read up on provincial safety laws. Make sure you have a certified car seat, that it is installed properly and the straps are tightened appropriately. Crash data and developments in car design have really changed even over the last five years, so don’t assume that what worked when your kids were growing up will still work now. With airbags, for example, children no longer ride in the front seat of most vehicles.

And consider brushing up on or taking a first aid course in child and infant CPR. These courses really do save lives, and often don’t take longer to complete than a few evenings or a weekend.

For more information see, Safe Kids Canada and the Canada Safety Council

The devil’s in the details. It may seem obvious, but questions like what will happen if someone has to work late, or who will provide care if the child — or you — is ill can become flashpoints for friction. You may want to discuss and write down a contract similar to a day care provider so that everyone is on the same page. (Here’s an example.)

Some issues to consider include:

• Back up care: is it all right if you leave your grandchild with a friend or neighbour for a few hours if you have an appointment?

• Will you be taking your grandkids to other activities? Who will choose them and pay for them?

• Who will cover days off from school and holidays?

Some families find that having a meeting every few weeks to talk about how things are going is important — especially at the beginning. Other families schedule a half hour of “transition time” at the end of each day to find out how things went and to address concerns. It is important to keep the lines of communication open.

Respect parents’ wishes. As a grandparent and parent, you may have some strong ideas about raising children — and strong feelings if your child chooses to raise his or her child in a different way than you did. You may also see this as your chance to spoil your grandkids!

But as a care provider, you have a responsibility to follow the parents’ wishes for their child — even when you don’t agree.

“I really don’t think a bit of candy or a Popsicle can hurt a child,” Amanda Riley of Toronto, who watched her granddaughter, India, daily for over a year until the family felt she was ready for a larger daycare situation. “But my daughter is very anti-sugar and doesn’t want India to have any. At the start I would sometimes let her have a taste or two, and it upset my daughter tremendously.”

Her daughter, Lauren, nods emphatically in agreement, and says, “I had to threaten to fire her before she would listen.”

Amanda and Lauren still don’t agree on the amount of sugar, but Amanda realized that it didn’t matter. “The point was that it wasn’t helping Lauren to be at work worrying that I was giving India something she didn’t want her to have. So I stopped… even if I am sure it wouldn’t hurt her,” she can’t help adding. “Lauren is the mother and she has to be able to make the decisions.”

That’s really the key: unless there is something that is really unworkable, it is important to give parents the respect that you would expect any other caregiver would give them. You may find that over time as everyone becomes more comfortable there will be room to make changes.

To be paid or not to be paid. Perhaps surprisingly, an AARP survey of grandparents found that the majority of them provide child care for free. But for some grandparents, it’s important to charge at least a nominal fee –- either because of the loss in income or related expenses, or just to keep the feeling of being used at bay. One particularly creative grandmother in Richmond Hill, who did not want to be identified, is banking her “salary” as a university fund for her grandchildren.

Whatever you decide, make sure that it is clear, and think through what you will do if your child does not follow through.

And of course, if things are not working out, don’t hesitate to work with your child to find alternative daycare. Although being a caregiver gives you the time and space to be an essential part of your grandchild’s life, there are advantages to “just” being a grandparent.

“I’m just as glad to see India on weekends now,” says Amanda, “I don’t have to be so into the discipline and I can just spoil her.”

Photo © Jacob Wackerhausen

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