When Your Parents Are Your Kidsí Day-Care Providers

By Marie Sherlock

To Grandmother’s House We Go

GrandparentsCarol Cordello works full-time as a teacher. But instead of lugging her 6-year-old son, Matthew, across town each morning for a tearful good-bye at a day-care center, she throws him a kiss as she walks out the door. She doesn’t worry about whether Matthew is being nurtured and loved or about whether he’s getting enough attention or having fun. She knows that he’s receiving all of these things, and much more.

No, Cordello isn’t paying big bucks for a professional, live-in nanny. Matthew’s day-care provider is “Grandpa Charlie,” Cordello’s father. Matthew’s grandfather and grandmother have been his sole day-care providers since Matthew was born. His grandmother passed away last December, but Grandpa Charlie continues to care for Matthew.

The Cordellos live on the upper floor of a two-family house that they purchased with Matthew’s grandparents in 1996. The grandparents moved into the first floor apartment shortly after Matthew was born, specifically to provide care for him. No money has ever changed hands.

The grandparents’ decision to help out with their only grandchild, “was completely voluntarily, never paid,” Cordello says. “It has worked out so well.”

This family is part of “an increasing phenomenon,” according to Dr. Arthur Kornhaber, the founder and president of The Foundation for Grandparenting, a national organization that advocates for and supports grandparents. Kornhaber attributes the growth in these arrangements to a greater need among parents, with more mothers working, and grandparents being more available, as well as living longer.

According to a 1999 AARP Grandparenting Survey, 8 percent of grandparents over the age of 50 are providing regular noncustodial child care to their grandchildren. The AARP survey indicates that the caregivers are often younger grandparents, in the 50-59 age range. In the typical situation, the grandparents accept no pay, says Kornhaber. Some grandparents live in the same house as the grandchildren; others a few miles away.

Grandparents providing day care for their grandchildren is a “win-win-win for all generations involved,” says Kornhaber. “It’s good for the kids because they feel secure and loved and it’s good for the grandparents because it gives them more meaning in life.”

Myra Carlow is an example of a “typical” caregiver. The 61-year-old grandmother provided part-time care for her two grandsons for almost two years until she and her husband moved.

Like the Cordellos, Carlow and her husband shared a two-family home with her daughter’s family and payment – hugs, kisses and memories – was of the non-negotiable variety. “It was a great situation,” she says. “I’ll never regret having done it.”

Trish Donegan relied upon both her mother and her mother-in-law to care for her two daughters until she quit her full-time job recently to stay home with her girls. Donegan’s mother watched the girls two days a week, her mother-in-law took over one day each week and the girls went to a day-care center the other two days.

“It was the only way I could ‘afford’ to work, paying for only two days of day care,” she says. “We were lucky to have been able to do this.”

It’s All About the Relationships

While the “grandparent day care” concept sounds ideal – love and nurturing for the grandkids; free, convenient and trustworthy care providers for the parents; and a chance to bond for Grandma and Grandpa – there are issues to consider.

Myra Carlow says it’s imperative to “keep clear, open channels of communication. You need to address all of those things that come up: thumb sucking, temper tantrums, what the kids are eating. ...” Carlow adds that she respected her daughter’s decisions. “However my daughter wanted to do things, I did them.”

Carol Cordello recalls that her mother sometimes gave her son too many sweets and occasionally let him watch too much TV. But, she says, “compared to the love Matthew was getting, they were pretty minor issues. Generally speaking, my parents’ child-rearing desires and styles were remarkably like mine.”

Donegan’s situation was similar. “We really didn’t have problems. If something came up, we’d work it out.”

Both Cordello and Donegan used the same expression to describe their relationships with the grandparents: “We were basically on the same page on most stuff.”

 This isn’t unusual, according to Kornhaber. “Most of the time, once parents and grandparents have decided to do this, there aren’t any really big issues,” he explains.

Surprisingly, the problems parents think might crop up – like differing parenting styles and lack of boundaries with the kids – rarely surface, Kornhaber says. “When grandparents see the kids daily, they don’t spoil them like they do when their visits are infrequent.”

And, he adds, some grandparents are even willing to take parenting classes to get up to date on more current discipline techniques.

To keep things running smoothly, Kornhaber’s advice is to have frequent family meetings. “You need to constantly reassess how it’s going and keep communicating,” says Kornhaber. Those discussions should include balancing everyone’s needs, including the grandparents’.

Grandparents should also be aware of how physically exhausting caring for young children can be, Carlow says – even if you’re a physically fit 61-year-old like her. For some, part-time care with days off in between is the solution.

All of this presupposes a good relationship between the parents and grandparents, Kornhaber says. “If the parents and grandparents are in terrific conflict, or they can’t agree on rules on child raising, the arrangement probably won’t work.”

This is the pivotal issue for folks considering such an arrangement, according to Cordello. “I would ask them, ‘How well do you get along with your parents?’ It doesn’t have to be perfect, but there must be a basic respect for each other and a reasonably harmonious relationship.”

Donegan echoes this advice. “You need to have a strong relationship with your parents to begin with. It’s not the way to improve a bad relationship!”

These arrangements, however, are the perfect way to foster close ties between grandparents and grandkids. Particularly for Matthew Cordello, the setup was ideal. His mother is particularly thankful that her son had this opportunity with his grandmother before she passed away.

“My mother felt lucky to do this and it was a great experience for Matthew,” she says. “I feel that it was the most incredible gift.”


Here are a few organizations that provide assistance to grandparents and parents considering a day-care arrangement:

The AARP Grandparent Information Center –provides information on many aspects of grandparenting and features resource and book lists and on-line discussion groups.

The Foundation for Grandparenting –promotes the benefits of grandparenting and the involvement of grandparents as agents of positive change for families and society through education, research, programs, communication and networking.

Generations United - focuses on promoting intergenerational strategies, programs and policies.

National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies (NACCRRA) – this Web site features some articles on making “relative care” work.

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