(Bloomberg Opinion) — Saying no to babysitting your grandchildren might be one of the most distressing and complicated refusals in human relationships. But it’s something more retirees should do instead of serving as primary child-care givers while parents are at work.
The number of grandparents who take care of their grandchildren (both as babysitters and as full-time parents) has been increasing steadily over the last 20 years. It’s likely that post-pandemic life may turbocharge the need for grandparent care as more parents, especially mothers, return to the labor force and feel pressured to work more hours. Some may feel that there are still health concerns with daycare or having a non-relative watch their children.
While you love your children and grandchildren, and relish the idea of spending more time with them, stop and think of what you may be giving up by saying yes to a full-time role.
The biggest losses from taking care of grandchildren are what economists call opportunity, or indirect, costs. Filling your days with watching your grandchildren means you miss the chance to pursue other interests and interact with other adults.
Even more important, at least financially, you forgo the opportunity to earn money. Let’s say you took care of a child whose parents paid you; at $20 an hour, you could earn $400 a week, just for a part-time role. That money could be saved, or used to pay down debt or invest in your health. Even if you think you’re financially secure, there could be high, unknown costs down the road as you age.
For those who retire prematurely to help out with babysitting, it’s even worse. By working longer, you may get more Social Security credits to be eligible for benefits, contribute more to retirement accounts and potentially have more health benefits.
There may be health risks to consider, too. While there could be other benefits to interacting with children, such as keeping depression at bay and staying mentally sharp, grandparents spending time with young children could be exposed to more germs. A vaccinated grandparent could still contract Covid-19 if exposed to an unvaccinated child for long periods of time.
There are emotional costs to weigh as well. Taking care of children is rewarding, but it can be a grind. Grandparents may start to feel resentful or that they’re being taken for granted if there isn’t enough appreciation expressed.
And finally, it’s important to consider the effects of grandparent care on grandchildren. One study shows that a child’s health may suffer when grandparents are in charge as grandparents tend to allow children to eat more sweets and non-nutritious food than parents do. More systematic research is needed, though, to see what the health outcomes are when grandparents are helping with child rearing.
Ultimately, it comes down to balance and setting boundaries. If you decide to help out, be sure to set schedules from the beginning, such as certain days of the week for a set number of hours. Limiting the amount of time could prove to be the best arrangement of all.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Teresa Ghilarducci is the Schwartz Professor of Economics at the New School for Social Research. She’s the co-author of “Rescuing Retirement” and a member of the board of directors of the Economic Policy Institute.