Grandparents Caring For Grandchildren

Posted at 18:47pm on 31st October 2008

Eighty per-cent of children in the UK are regularly cared for by a grandparent, says The Times, with the result that sixty per-cent of all British childcare is undertaken by grandparents. As payment for grandparents is virtually non-existent (92% receive no remuneration) this is at a saving to the economy of £4 billion a year.


Many grandparents caring for grandchildren say that they would find the offer of money an affront. But I suspect that this sensitivity would be greatly diminished if the care they gave were to be officially recognised. However, despite the British government’s commitment to getting mothers back to work, there is no statutory right to payment for grandparents looking after grandchildren. Whilst working mothers are entitled to vouchers in part-payment of nursery places, no concession is made for other childcare arrangements.


The money issue is a relatively unimportant factor in many families. What dominates is the relationship itself. It seems from the GoodGranny forum that when it comes to day to day care, differences of opinion on child discipline techniques are rife, and emotions can run high between parents and grandparents. Judging by some of the comments, that’s hardly surprising. Perhaps what’s needed is a grandparents’ guide on how to discipline a child, when that child is not your own.


Much depends, I suspect, on the relationship between grandparent and parent. I have been fortunate enough to have a deep and meaningful friendship with each of my daughters throughout their adult life. I respect their values. They respect mine. Consequently, they have always taken the line that, when their children were in my care, they were also under my jurisdiction. Having approved the discipline I used in their own childhood, my children trust my methods when it comes to meting out discipline to my grandchildren.


When I took on care of my youngest daughter’s twins, whilst she works two days a week, I made it clear that if I felt it necessary, I would be a ‘smacking grandma’ and joked that if that meant being sent to prison, so be it. That decision met the approval of both parents: my daughter, and my son-in-law. I don’t actually recall ever having smacked my daughters, except the eldest (when she was a teenager) and she laughingly tells me, now, that I broke my best wooden spoon on her bottom. But that isn’t to say that their father didn’t wallop them occasionally, nor that they ever held it against him. If the occasional smack did them no harm, they reason, neither would it do their children any harm.

With the ground rules established, I’m glad to say that I have only once inflicted corporal punishment (in the form of a cupped hand so that humiliation, not pain, was the result) on one of my grandchildren (one of the older ones) – and then in the presence of his mother to whom he was being extremely rude. To this day, we are the best of friends.

Where I would draw the line, is in colluding with a grandchild to flout his parents’ values. I’ve known grandmothers who have deliberately permitted their grandchildren to have forbidden sweets, or watch banned TV programmes, and made it ‘our little secret’. Quite apart from the fact that encouraging children to have secrets from their parents is a dangerous practice (frequently used by paedophiles) it is morally indefensible. One may not agree, wholeheartedly, with the rules imposed by parents, but the wise grandparent does well to remember that these children are not theirs.


Grandchildren are a joy – but also a privilege. Much of the heartache expressed by grandparents occurs when they are denied access to their grandchildren. One of my greatest fears, when my daughter died, was that I would lose contact with her son. Grandparent visitation rights were, to the best of my knowledge, non-existent. Any relationship I might establish with my grandson was at the behest of his father. I’m glad to say that I have never had cause for complaint. On the contrary, my daughter’s partner has been more than generous in ensuring a natural and ongoing relationship.

But it has been a two-way affair, in which I have respected his paternal rights. When it came to telling my grandson how his mother lived and died, I first asked his father if he would be happy for me to do so. It was a very precious moment. An experience I wrote of in my novel A Painful Post Mortem. I made a photograph album for my grandson, full of pictures of his mother from babyhood, through childhood, until she was a mother, herself. Beneath each picture I put a caption, relating them to some feature shared by mother and son: a smile; a touch of humour; a little sulk. As I told him of her death, we sat, the two of us, with our arms around each other, and wept. That album, I hope, will be one of his most treasured possessions.


I have been so fortunate. But I know of grandparents who have had to fight tooth and nail for custody of a grandchild whose upbringing might, otherwise, have been seriously at risk. Children whose natural surviving parent is totally unsuitable; children who have been forcibly fostered by strangers.

And as I look back on the years of story-telling, the mad-cap games and frivolity, the exclusive shared recipes and cooking sessions, the surprises made or purchased for mummy or dad, the holidays together, and the phone-calls finishing ‘love you’, I can’t help feeling that there is something unique in caring for your grandchildren. Precious beyond value, full of joy and laughter, life-enhancing without ultimate responsibility – it almost makes having your own children worth while! :)

Your Comments:

(Sean and Polly)'s Dad
1st November 2008
at 2:53pm

Dear Mel

Thank you for such a thought provoking, common sense blog.
Whilst I agree completely with your views on actual Grand
parenting, I find the thought of an even greater "state
subsidised family" abhorrent. How can you call "grand
parenting", £4 Billion of free care? Free to whom and by
whom? Are you suggesting the State should pay this and make even
more people seek benefits, rather than working through their own
issues and funding their own lives? Gordon Brown has already tried
to replace the family with the State by an untold number of laws,
and funding of "grand parenting" would take it even

The Christian value of looking after people runs up and down the
family tree, and whilst (mostly) a joy does come under the term
filial duty - the key is in the last word. It is also reflected in
children then looking after ageing parents and grandparents and
subsequently their own grand children: we once called this
expression of family values "society". To place a state
sponsored, financial subsidy on this would cheapen it, I feel, and
make care yet another commodity to be bartered. Instead, most
families operate on a "give and take" basis with favours
offered and received in kind, the best ones normally being edible:
naturally, some don't, but that is an other story!

My third point is that if the State paid families to care for
their own, they would also want a say in how you did it. This
brings in the spectre of a "Minister for Grand parenting and
child care" with policy statements, vision exercises,
performance targets, lost data (!), parliamentary questions and the
overall busybodyness exemplified by Nanny State knows best!

In conclusion, I work hard, pay my taxes and obey the law of the
land (and the EU for that matter), and try to take responsibility
for myself and my wider family. This means keeping the State out of
every aspect of my life, wherever I can.

When things go wrong, surely we want people to look firstly in
the mirror for help, then to family and friends: don't we? A
friend in need......Or is first call to Whitehall for a

I feel your theory fails to support the anglo saxon, Christian
work ethic, and if accepted as government policy would further
undermine one of the corner stones of family values: looking after
your own.

Yours provocatively


1st November 2008
at 9:01pm

Dear S& P's Dad,

Thank you for your long and thought-provoking comment. My
introductory remarks were merely the restating of statistics quoted
by The Times. One assumes that they are indisputable!

Nevertheless, although I, personally, come into the category of
grandparents who would find it an affront to accept payment for the
care I freely and joyfully give (and which I consider a two-way
giving and receiving), I stand by my assumption that, were the
State to offer payment, many grandparents would gladly accept. That
is not to say that this is a policy with which I would agree.

Like you, I am of the opinion that State-nannying detracts from
personal responsibility for oneself and one's family. And -
again in agreement with you - I see that only as detrimental to
society at large, and the family in particular. Thanks again,

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