Are you considering having your mother or mother-in-law care for your child? Check out these do’s and don’ts for grandparent childcare, as we look at the pros and cons of intergenerational babysitting.
When Michelle Obama announced that her primary role in the White House would be as “First Mom,” she raised a lot of eyebrows. This was an Ivy League-educated executive stepping down to be a mom. But when she added that her mother, Marian Robinson, would also be joining the family at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, barely a shoulder was shrugged. After all, Mrs. Robinson had cared for Malia and Sasha during the election campaign, and in the United States half of all American grandparents provide some sort of childcare assistance for their grandchildren.
Having a grandparent provide childcare has myriad benefits. First, the children develop a strong relationship with their grandparents. Second, it often costs less than a nanny or a daycare center. Third, it can cut down on working mother guilt since you’re leaving your kids with a loving family member.
So what should you know if you’re considering having a grandparent care for your new baby? It’s as easy as ABC:
A – Agree on the arrangement.
B – Set boundaries.
C – Communicate, and continue to circle back to A and B.
A Is for Arrangement
Ideally, you’ll talk with the grandparents about the childcare arrangement before you even have the baby. Here are some things you need to think about:
How much care will the grandparents provide? Will it be full-time or just a few days a week? Will you add in a night for a date with your husband? Dan Kessinger, whose in-laws have cared for his children, now four and five, since they were born, keeps extra hours to a minimum and asks for outside babysitting only with plenty of advance notice. “They’re the first ones to know if we plan a trip,” he says. “Of course they say yes, but we want to be respectful of their time and let them know we’re grateful for their help.”
Where will the care take place? If it’s at your home, will the grandparents live in or come over daily? Will they be free to use the kitchen or the television as they wish? If it’s at the grandparents’, is the house properly childproofed? Will your child have a room there? Do you need to buy two of everything—baby swings, bouncy seats, high chairs—or will you bring the gear back and forth?
Will you pay the grandparents? If so, how much? While you can save quite a bit when family provides childcare, you also want to be sure the grandparents don’t feel exploited. Mary Baker*, whose parents care for her sons, ages 7 and 9, after school each day, has never paid them, but she does compensate them in other ways, such as dinners out or expensive gifts at Christmas or birthdays.
With an infant, you need to agree on the nuts and bolts—feeding, napping, bathing. What will the child eat? Have this conversation early and revisit it each time you introduce a new food. What about naps? Do you want the grandparents to keep the baby awake during the day so she will sleep better at night? Will the grandparents bathe and dress the child or will you? Talk about it all; it’ll be a good way for you to review your parenting plans even if you end up deciding to use a different childcare option.
As your child gets older, you need to think about discipline. What’s your style? Do the grandparents agree with the 1-2-3 Magic method or know how to administer time outs? Will they feel comfortable enforcing repercussions? You need to make sure you’re on the same page so your child receives consistent, loving discipline.
B Is for Boundaries
Once you have figured out where, when, and how much care the grandparents will provide, you need to think about setting some emotional boundaries. This is often harder than figuring out logistics. If you’re inviting the grandparents into your home each day, they’ll see your mail, the contents of your refrigerator, even your dirty laundry. How do you feel about this? Is your mother (or mother-in-law) a snoop, or will she respect your privacy? Will she meddle in the details of your relationship? Do you feel judged for the way you clean, how much you work, or how you raise your children? If so, you might want to reconsider the arrangement.
You also need to ask if the grandparents are truly ready to commit to being childcare providers. It’s a very different relationship from the traditional grandparent, who is free to spoil the child with sweets, late bedtimes, and extra TV. Be honest: Are they ready for the daily care of a child, including the boredom, repetition, and stress it sometimes brings?
If you’re the least bit concerned that boundaries will be crossed, consider cutting back on the amount of childcare the grandparents provide. Have them watch the baby one day a week or on a weekend night so you can enjoy a night out; you’ll still be saving money and you’ll also help foster that child-grandparent connection, without compromising your own values.
C Is for Communication
Communication is key to the relationship with your childcare provider, whether it’s a grandparent or not. With an infant, you’ll want to spend a few minutes each morning to review how the previous night was and give any information that might be helpful. At the end of the day, you’ll want to hear how everything went. This is tricky, though—Grandma may spend a lot of time telling you each and every thing your baby did, making pick-up last an hour and cutting into your other family time. So, while you want to listen attentively, try to keep pick-up time short. Finally, keep the conversation centered on the child—don’t let family dramas get played out during childcare time.
Communication is a two-way street, and grandparents need to know they can come to you with their concerns as well. Baker has had to reevaluate the childcare relationship a few times. At one point, she found that her parents resented being called upon to babysit on weekend nights after watching the boys all week. After a heart-to-heart with her mom, she asked a neighborhood girl to watch the boys on those rare occasions she and her husband went out.
Sometimes, though, you need to keep in mind that what you don’t say is as important as what you do say. If the grandparents sometimes feed the kids in front of the TV because it’s the only way to get them to eat, maybe you need to let it go!
As your baby grows and changes, so will your childcare needs. Let the grandparents know about upcoming plans for a change in schedule or thoughts on preschool. Regular family meetings help many people get through these changes, and the relationship is often stronger because of the honest conversations.
Finally, remember the power of two little words: Thank you. While sharing in the raising of a child is often a reward in itself, everyone likes to hear how important they are to you and your baby.