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September 26, 2019

Study Points to Importance of Grandparents as Early Childhood Caregivers

The survey findings can help uncover the grandparent experience, and lead to ways to better support and include them in the early childhood development conversation.

Grandparents love being grandparents.

A recent study of 1,000 U.S. grandparents of children aged five and younger is one of the first times such a large sample has been surveyed about their crucial yet often invisible family role.

“Childcare is expensive, and infant and toddler care are harder to come by. Grandparents are filling a gap in a broken childcare system, especially for parents who work inconsistent hours or shift work,” said Rebecca Parlakian, senior director of programs at Zero to Three, where the survey was commissioned and published.

Despite improvements in the economy since the Great Recession, the number of multigenerational family households is at a record high. In 2016, 20% of the U.S. population lived with multiple generations under one roof. That’s up from 12% in 1980 and 17% in 2009, according to the Pew Research Center.

In nonmultiple-generation households, nearly one in four children younger than five is cared for regularly by a grandparent.

With the growing trend toward sharing households and the consistent need for child care, along with the importance of early childhood learning experiences and the adults who shape them, the survey findings can help uncover the grandparent experience and lead to ways to better support and include them in the early childhood development conversation.

“We’ve left them out because they’re not attached to a system and not making the choices. They’re performing a keystone role but doing it outside of systems that focus on parents,” said Parlakian.

According to the survey, when caring for grandchildren, most grandparents relied on their own parenting experience, followed by guidance from their grandchild’s parents and medical professionals.

While the enjoyment of caring for grandchildren was almost universal among respondents, almost half of all grandparents reported tension with their children about child-rearing issues such as screen time, bedtime, and discipline. Among Hispanic grandparents, that number was higher, at 60%.

Overall, two of five grandparents said caregiving is tiring, and one in five found it stressful.

Almost all grandparents weren’t paid for their childcare contributions, and income level didn’t predict their likelihood of doing so.

About a quarter were retired, another quarter worked full time, and others were disabled, worked part-time, or were looking for work.

“It’s not a job, it’s who they are,” said Parlakian.

Most grandparents, 70%, felt confident in caring for grandchildren. Almost half agreed that new research about child development would be helpful, and a little more than a quarter wanted to know more about early brain development.

Parlakian hopes the findings will inform efforts to engage and support more grandparents in their crucial caregiving role and put them in touch with the information they need.

“We recommend partnerships and outreach programs in libraries and friendship centers as a starting point for grandparent recruitment,” she said.

This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire, and engage the community to take action on issues related to Age-Friendly Sarasota, Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, National Council on Aging and the Suncoast Nursing Action Coalition.

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