A girl and her grandmother lie on the grass laughing Credit: Shutterstock

Are you much-needed emergency childcare? 5 ways to be brilliant (and stay smiling)

With the new school year underway, we salute the grandparents who stepped into the breach this summer, and share some expert tips for coping when those holiday childcare requests roll in.

There’s a beautiful time in all parents’ lives when you become blissfully unaware of the school holidays. With the kids grown up, you’re suddenly free to travel, work and put your own interests first… But beware – it doesn’t last long.  

New research from Saga shows that grandparents spent an average of 16 days providing childcare over this year’s summer holidays, saving parents an estimated £960 per child in childcare costs. Without grandparents’ help, a third of parents would have been left unable to work during the school holidays.  

Ronald Brooks, 84, from Bristol, helped care for his grandchildren and now does the same for his two great-grandchildren. “Childcare is so expensive so we step in to help where we can when they are at school and in the summer break. We’ve grown with them, that’s the beautiful thing.”  

But it’s not always so straightforward. Sudden requests to fill gaps or cover for late-running work meetings can mean that many grandparents feel particularly stretched during school holidays.  

Parent coach Kari Roberts is a mother of three and grandmother of 10 who has worked with many families who have experienced friction when it comes to holiday childcare.  

“I was coaching a grandmother who felt there was a real expectation that because she didn’t work, she would take it on. There was a sense of entitlement and she really struggled with that,” says Roberts.

“It’s not about how much you love your grandchildren but it’s about setting boundaries around what you’re comfortable with, and of course those will be different for everyone.” 

So, with half term already on the horizon (it comes round quickly) here are Roberts’ five tips for negotiating holiday childcare requests – to make sure that you have lots of fun with the grandchildren and don’t end up feeling the strain of “granny daycare” 

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1. Set expectations

The key is to get ahead of the conversation, says Roberts, but first you’ve got to work out how much or how little you’re willing to help. “Remember this is no reflection of how much you love your grandchild,” says Roberts. “Sometimes we have this Hollywood vision of grandparents as these ‘always-there nurturers’ but for many reasons, that’s not always the case – you might have to work, you might have other plans, you might not feel up to it.”  

If you know school holidays are on the horizon, initiate a conversation with your child – find out what help they might need or want, and tell them what you’re able or willing to do. Talk about whether it’s best to do it at your house or their house, ask for clarity on whether it’s a few hours or a whole day.  

2. Talk openly

It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? But Roberts says it’s very common for families to be bad at open, straightforward communication. “It can feel formal or difficult at first but honestly, it’s the way to avoid bigger conflicts further down the line,” she says.

“If you step in out of guilt or from being shamed, then resentment can set in, which isn’t healthy for you, your relationship with your child, or your grandchildren.”  

If it’s not your family’s style to be direct, Roberts advises practising in private or with a friend. And consider the benefits of sitting down for a proper meeting to discuss how the holidays are going to look.  

“People often say, ‘I don’t want to cause any upset by saying what I really think’, but without being open, you risk a massive blowout further down the line and that can be much more difficult to repair. 

“There are so many positives that come out of spending time with grandchildren but it’s about wanting to do it, not feeling you have to do it. Likewise, you can’t expect your children to know you’re tired or finding it tough – you have to tell them.” 

3. Give yourself time to think

A pause is a powerful thing, says Roberts. When a request comes in, resist the urge to instantly say yes – instead say, ‘Let me check my diary and I’ll let you know.’ Those five seconds can be so valuable, and prevent you from having to backtrack.  

“If you find it hard to say no, ask yourself where that comes from,” suggests Roberts. “A lot of people have a fear of saying no. But remember, yes, your children deserve support but they’re not entitled to you being at their beck and call.” 

4. Compromise on parenting styles

Sweets, screentime, manners, mealtimes – how we handle these issues can vary wildly from generation to generation. “A clash of parenting styles can be a big source of conflict – I see it a lot,” says Roberts.

“I think grandparents need to respect their child’s parenting choices and follow them where they can, but both sides need to be flexible. If something happens and you’re not sure how to deal with it, be open. Say, ‘I’m curious about X – tell me more about that and how you deal with it.’” 

And parents should, she says, be encouraged to think, ‘What will it matter?’

“So there were sweets and a movie – will it matter in 10 days’ time? This helps bring perspective,” adds Roberts.  

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5. Enjoy it

Once plans are in place and everyone’s happy with what’s been agreed, the fun can actually begin. Evie Osborne, 14, from Kent, was often cared for by both sets of grandparents.

I think it’s wonderful for grandparents to pass on their knowledge to their grandkids and have a good time with them. They can do fun things with us and then hand us back to our parents. I love the food my grandparents cook us for dinner; my grandma does the best cheesy pasta and my great nan does toast with real butter – we never have white bread and real butter at home!”  

Proof, if we needed it, that it’s the small things that count.    

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Fiona Cowood

Written by Fiona Cowood

Published:

Fiona Cowood has 20 years’ experience working in senior editorial roles at leading national titles including Grazia, Stylist and Cosmopolitan. She has interviewed a diverse range of remarkable people – from victims of sex trafficking in Nepal through to former Foreign Secretaries and national treasures like Tom Jones. 

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