Learning for life through building families: grandparents’ care for babies and toddlers in Scotland
Hutchinson, Carolyn Janet
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In recent times there has been rapid growth in the UK and elsewhere in the number of grandparents who provide regular care for their grandchildren. In Scotland, more so than elsewhere in the UK, increasing numbers of grandparents voluntarily invest considerable amounts of time and resources in caring for their grandchildren on an informal, voluntary and part-time basis, as part of a mix of childcare arrangements, especially in the first two to three years of their grandchildren’s lives. This widespread informal care in Scotland sits in the context of the Scottish Government’s increasing concern about social inequalities. Associated with family care is a growing concern about the increasing proportion of older people in the population, both caring and cared-for, and the implications for economic growth, social and health care. There has also been increasing recent interest in the relationship between older people’s employment, lifestyle choices and lifelong learning and their impacts on health and wellbeing and social participation in later life. At the same time, there is recognition that informal childcare, alongside formal arrangements, has an important role to play in determining educational, health, social and economic outcomes for both children and their families. The most recent policy commitments focus on reducing childcare costs for those parents who return to work or study and to improving the quality of formal early care in order to optimise learning. There is also an increasing focus on partnerships amongst education, health and social services and with parents and families. However, while it is recognised that informal, regular grandparent-care is increasingly widespread, there has been relatively little discussion of the phenomenon from the grandparents’ point of view, or of whether, or how, it might best be taken into account in childcare policy and practice. Prompted by personal and professional experience and based on the discussions of 18 Scottish grandparent-carers in five small groups in different community settings, this small-scale, qualitative study set out to explore grandparent-care from the grandparents’ perspective: why they had made the commitment; how they learned and carried out their role; and the impact of their commitment, learning and practice in their particular community setting on their own lives, as well as those of their families and communities. The participants’ discussions revealed that their reasons for making a commitment to regular childcare were rather more complex than is generally assumed. Although economic considerations played a part, these grandparents had sought proactively to take on the role as much in their own as in their children’s interests, concerned as much for their own wellbeing as well as for that of their children and grandchildren. Their discussions suggested that they found that grandparent-care to be quite distinctive from parent-care; taking on regular grandparent-care was a learning experience whose characteristics closely reflected those of the socio-cultural, lifelong learning and activity thought likely to benefit individuals and communities. Highly motivated and self-directed in their learning, they seemed to be seeking to redefine their role in their families, finding a new place, purpose and identity for themselves at a time of transition in their lives. They described adapting to the changing family and community context, building cohesion, nurturing reciprocal relationships and mutual trust, and supporting intergenerational collaboration and interactions in the extended family, especially involving their own children’s generation. They also discussed how their developing practice might be supported locally and nationally in practical ways. The final part of the report discusses how treating grandparent-care as part of intergenerational family care and as a lifelong, community learning opportunity, might suggest ways of encouraging and supporting it in the future. In our rapidly changing world, drawing on the learning and experience of this growing group of ‘third-age’ learners to inform and develop future childcare practice in families and communities might prove to be to the benefit of at least three generations, contributing to wellbeing, social cohesion and social justice for all.