When Grandparents Function as Parents

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An increasing number of grandparents are assuming the role of full-time parents for their grandchildren and acknowledging that it certainly involves adjustments on both parts. Oftentimes, this has happened to families because the parents are dealing with health concerns, death, divorce, substance abuse, and/or abandonment issues. Finances may be affecting an increase in such situations, as well.

In this article, we are going to look at a potential dilemma that could arise from grandparents-as-parents. In this scenario, both parents chose to continue working, maintaining their rightful parental roles but preferring that a family member take care of their little one until the child turns two, at which age the child will go to daycare. So, the adult children ask the retired grandfather to consider providing child care for his grandchild. This family made arrangements beforehand, talked about expectations, how often, how long and when they would meet again to see if this arrangement was working out. The one thing they did not discuss was taking a look at the ingrained traditional beliefs each had about the role of grandparent and how it might be challenged when grandpa starts taking care of the grandchild on a regular basis.

The grandfather took care of the grandchild five days a week for two years and overall it was an enriching experience. When the grandchild got closer to being a two-year-old, there were times when grandpa had to set behavioral boundaries and act more like the actual parent.

Now the grandchild is in daycare, and has come over to visit grandpa. While visiting, the grandchild starts to act out and, the grandpa steps in to discipline (as he had done in the previous arrangement). Grandpa says, “I’m not pleased with your behavior right now.” The child responds positively, doing what is expected. However, now the daughter is upset because her father reflexively took on a parenting role, which the child’s mother believed to be her domain. She takes him aside and tells him that he shouldn’t have said what he said because that is her role when she is present, that he is supposed to be the grandfather not the parent.

The daughter leaves upset and the two grandparents began processing what had happened. Were there boundaries that were overstepped? The grandpa acknowledged that it certainly didn’t feel good to do the parenting, but something needed to be done?

In time, the two families discussed the incident and realized there was a different relationship between the grandchild and grandpa because of all the time they had spent together. They didn’t just have the traditional grandparent/grandchild relationship. There was something more there. They are still working out this revised role definition of grandparents for their family, since now their second child is being taken care of by grandpa for the first two years of his life.

There are no right or wrong answers, only answers that make sense for your family. Here are some recommendations to help mitigate whatever might come up in your family if you have adult children asking you to be involved in the care giving of your grandchildren:

  • Before agreeing to provide ongoing childcare, make sure there is a process and/or system to support ongoing communication between the two families. Either party must feel free to call a family meeting to discuss issues.
  • Have a family meeting to set the parameters of the childcare o How long is the commitment?
  • When do family members reevaluate and determine if this arrangement is working? o How many days a week will childcare be needed, and for how many hours per day?
  • Where does the care giving occur, in the child’s home or at the grandparent’s home?
  • What childcare amenities and safety guards are needed in the care giver’s home?
  • Is there pay involved? o What happens if the child gets sick?
  • What happens if the grandparent gets sick? o What will the grandparent role look like when he/she is also a primary care giver for this child?