Thursday, May 10, 2007

Innovations in Distance Grandparenting

Jennifer 8. Lee reports in today's New York Times on "The Incredible Flying Granny Nanny," with examples of grandmothers who commute by airplane on a weekly basis to look after their grandchildren while both parents are at work. Here's one example:

Terri P. Tepper of Barrington, Ill., made a similar trek every week for a year to help care for her granddaughter so that her daughter could pursue her career. Beginning in 2001, Ms. Tepper flew to New York on Sundays and returned to Chicago on Thursdays.

“It was cheaper than getting a nanny,” said Ms. Tepper, 64. The round-trip tickets, which her daughter paid for, cost between $190 and $230. “I actually saved them a lot of money,” Ms. Tepper said. Her daughter later made partner in her consulting firm.

It's fascinating to see how relative prices can drive behavior here. The article has the economics right, but I think it gets the sociology and history wrong, in the following passages (with my emphasis):
Even at a time when grandparents are more involved than ever in the lives of their children and grandchildren, the efforts of Mrs. Kim and Ms. Tepper are extraordinary. But many grandparents these days are making extreme efforts to help their children bridge the work-life divide.


Intercity commuting is just one way they provide that help. Grandparents are also taking time off from work, retiring early, moving to the United States from overseas or selling their home to be near grandchildren.

The greater involvement results from a confluence of factors, including the financial burdens of child care and anxiety over the quality of care. But most notably it is influenced by a generation of grandparents who have the time and the financial wherewithal to pitch in.

“This is the first generation where we have so many older people living long enough, being healthy enough and being affluent enough to provide these services on a large scale” since women entered the workplace in large numbers, Dr. Cherlin said.
While it is true that more grandparents are living to old ages and are more affluent than earlier generations of grandparents, it is also true that parents are having their first children later in life and are having fewer children than in earlier generations. (The latter effect is compounded, since it is true of both the parents' generation and the grandchildren's generation.) That generates less opportunity for interactions between grandparents and grandchildren. In addition, the children and grandchildren are often living further away from the grandparents than in prior generations. The article is motivated by the unusual expenses that some families are incurring to recreate what used to occur for free.

In prior generations, the grandparents were needed to help the non-working parent take care of a larger number of young kids. Now, the grandparents are stepping in to take care of one young kid while both parents work. It is not the least bit clear to me that longevity and affluence trump fertility and proximity in this comparison, but I'd be curious to know what others think.

The Cystic Fibrosis pledge drive is still on. If Great Strides is not your thing, how about donations in honor of Mother's Day?

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