Interesting research about grandparent care

Published on Wednesday, 16 June 2021
Last updated on Tuesday, 15 June 2021

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Grandparent care can be an enriching, convenient and cost-effective child care option.

In New Zealand, many of us rely on grannies and grandads to care for our children in the years – or hours – before school, and although lots of grandparents bring experience, love and time to the care-giving role, not all grandparent care is created equal.

Dr Gretchen Perry, an Associate Professor at the University of Canterbury, has made some interesting findings around grandparent care and ‘matrilateral bias,’ and she’s kindly sharing her insights with us today.

Your research focuses on non-parental child carers, Dr Perry. What impact do different types of care-givers have on children’s wellbeing and outcomes?

Many people provide non-parental child care, from extended family and step-parents, to friends and formal child care service providers. And through my work, I’ve seen that who provides care, under what circumstances, and whether that care has benefits for the child can vary a lot, based on immediate family circumstance and culture. 

What I have found in both my academic work and my 25-year career in social services and social work, is that the closer the relative, the more frequent and intense the care available, and the more resilient the care-giver will be (on average).

For instance, grandmothers, aunts and older siblings are the common extended family care-givers, with grandmothers typically providing the most care.

You’ve made some fascinating discoveries concerning ‘matrilateral care.’ Could you please explain these?

What I find especially interesting is that the mother’s mother (the maternal grandmother) has been found to provide more care than any other extended family care-giver.  She also tends to continue to provide support even as circumstances become difficult, for example, in situations of:

  • Complex child needs
  • Low income
  • Poor health
  • Advanced age, and
  • Divorced marital status.

By contrast, the father’s mother (paternal grandmother) and other extended family care-givers tend to fall away as care-givers as their circumstances become more difficult. 

This tendency for the mother’s family to provide more non-parental child care and support than the father’s family, is called the ‘matrilateral bias’ and my research, and that of many others, has shown that help from this matrilateral side of the family tends to be associated with improved outcomes for children, when it comes to things like wellbeing, learning and development.

This finding is consistent cross-culturally, including in rich Western countries like our own. Can you tell us more about how matrilateral bias presents around the world?

I’ve studied families in the Northern and Southern Hemisphere, and in general, extended family members from the mother’s side of the family tend to provide more care than the father’s side of the family.

Around the world, even in places where women move to their husband’s family when they get married (like Bangladesh and other parts of the Indian subcontinent, parts of Africa, and China), there is still a tendency for women to turn to their own mothers to support them at high risk/high demand times, such as from late pregnancy, through childbirth, and sometimes even until weaning. 

What does this mean for families in New Zealand and elsewhere?

My research shows that not all grandparents provide equal levels and quality of care.

Grandmothers provide more care than grandfathers, and maternal grandmothers provide more care than paternal grandmothers. 

Moreover, researchers, including myself, have often found that involvement of maternal grandmothers is associated with improved child survival and wellbeing, including better child development outcomes, like height, weight and academic achievement. 

A senior woman is much more likely to focus on supporting a daughter, and that daughter's children, than a daughter-in-law and the latter's children, even though she is no less a grandmother to her son's children than to her daughter's. 

This may be partly because women of the middle generation are often more comfortable having their own mothers around, compared to their mothers-in-law, and act as gatekeepers to grandparental contact, but it often seems to reflect the grandmother's own preferences as well.

What can grandparents and parents do to make a grandparent care arrangement work well for everyone?

This is a complicated question, because families vary so much. 

In general, however, we know that maternal grandmothers can provide considerable levels of care, but if they have limited resources, or other limitations, like health concerns, they have the potential to ‘over-commit’. 

This means they can take on more responsibility than might be sustainable without additional supports being in place. 

In my experience, this is particularly true when maternal grandmothers take on the primary care-giving role, because the child’s parents are unable to care for the child. 

In the case of other care-givers, having support to maintain quality intermittent or full-time care of a child matters too.  Ensuring there is a good fit between the level and type of child care needed and the skills and capacity of the care-giver, along with supportive services, can ensure more stable child care, with reduced conflict. 

This is true for the short term, and even more true for longer-term arrangements. Of course, respectful communication about need is an important element of developing these plans.

It is important to note that culture plays an important role in this process, too. Some cultures have long histories of how non-parental care-giving occurs. 

In traditional Māori culture, for instance, it is normal and healthy to have a range of extended family members involved in a child’s life, and maternal grandmothers play an important role with their grandchildren. 

In other cultures, expectations are higher for other family members, so being aware of the cultural context is essential for having child care plans that work with families’ culturally familiar ways of doing things.

On a final note, what advice do you have for parents who are trying to find the right child care, or mix of child care, for their little one?

My advice is that parents look for quality, as well as considering factors like availability, convenience and cost.

In general, when children receive quality child care, whether it be extended family care provided by grandparent, or formal child care at an early learning service, they have better outcomes. 

These children tend to have better wellbeing and educational outcomes, and if parents and grandparents are planning a child care arrangement together, it’s important to ensure that everyone is ‘on the same page’ when it comes to things like routines, discipline and expenses.

Family dynamics can get complicated quite easily when extended family provide child care, so making sure expectations are reasonable for everyone is important, as well as ensuring that there isn’t a sense of being ‘beholden’ to others to provide care that is more than manageable, or to reciprocate in ways that are not possible for the person receiving the child care. 

Many children receive high-quality care from grandparents, and although my research suggests that matrilateral care is most beneficial on average, every person, family and culture is different, and I encourage parents and whānau to find the arrangement that works best for them.

Thank you for your time, Dr Perry. This has been really illuminating and we’re looking forward to following your future research.

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