The parents’ guide to after-school childcare: relatives

Homework with grandparent
Getting a grandparent or other family member to provide after-school childcare can be a dream come true – or a bit of a nightmare. Lucy Dimbylow looks at the pros, cons and practicalities.
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Why use a relative for after-school care?

According to a recent study, family members are the go-to childcare choice for many parents, with grandparents in particular looking after 1.6 million children under 14. ‘The big advantage is the close relationship between your child and the family member,’ says Lynn Chesterman, chief executive of the Grandparents’ Association. ‘They can provide loving care, often in the child’s own home, with more flexibility than a childminder or after-school club.’ The other benefit is financial: grandparent care saves UK families a total of £7.3 billion per year.

What are the drawbacks?

Asking a relative to look after your kids could complicate the relationship between you. ‘It’s easy to take advantage of each other, and for minor grievances to fester and eventually blow up,’ Lynn says. ‘It’s important that you’re open, honest and tactful with each other.’ And while your relative should respect your parenting choices, you may also need to pick your battles – for example, does it really matter if your son has a few more sweets than you’d allow?

If your parents look after your child, consider the needs of any other grandchildren. For example, if your mum already has your niece and nephew three days a week, can she cope with looking after your two on the other two days – or all four grandchildren at once? If your brother or sister is providing childcare, think about the dynamics between cousins, and whether your sibling can be impartial when squabbles break out. Also, be aware that asking a grandparent to look after your child can be socially isolating for both parties. ‘Grandparents may find that looking after a grandchild limits their social life, and equally, it may be difficult for your child to have friends round to play, especially if Nanny looks after him in her own home,’ says Lynne.

Family childcare: things to think about

Before committing to using a family member for childcare, it’s a good idea to discuss the following:

  • Holidays/illness: Who will look after your child if your relative is ill or travelling?
  • Location: Will your family member care for your child in your home or theirs?
  • Homework: Is your relative happy to supervise homework? Do they have the necessary facilities, such as a computer with internet access?
  • Discipline: Asking your mum to look after your child may well change their relationship from ‘indulgent grandparent’ to ‘authority figure.’
  • Activities: Will your relative take to and collect from after-school activities, and supervise if necessary?
  • Who pays for what: Will you reimburse your relative for expenses like petrol and food?

A family childcare agreement, while not legally binding, can help to iron out potentially tricky issues.

Family childcare: to pay or not to pay?

Paying family members for childcare is a personal matter. Many relatives, particularly grandparents, provide care out of goodwill; some just ask for expenses; others come to a private agreement about payment. If you do pay, your relative must declare this income to HM Revenue and Customs, and pay tax and national insurance if necessary.

If you want to use childcare vouchers or claim tax credits, they’ll need to register as a childminder with Ofsted and care for your child in their home, not yours; they’ll also be eligible to look after unrelated children if they choose. ‘Whatever agreement you come to, remember that gratitude goes a long way,’ adds Lynn.

What mums say about family childcare…

‘Having my mum look after my kids is a godsend, but I feel I can’t impose on her by asking her to babysit when we want a night out.’
Nicki, mum to Harriet, six, and William, four

‘I didn’t consider what I would do if my mum was unable to look after Josh until she had to have an emergency operation and was out of action for a month; I had to rely on friends for favours.’
Laura, mum to Josh, seven

‘My parents won’t accept any payment for looking after my children, which is wonderful, but makes me feel extremely guilty.’
Kirsty, mum to Ethan, eight, and Grace, five