When Your Nanny Is Granny

6 tips for balancing your retirement plans with caring for grandchildren.

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Parents who can't afford day care or a babysitter these days may be turning to an old standby: Grandma and Grandpa. "Because of the economy, more grandparents are helping out so that their adult children can work," says Georgia Hope Witkin, a psychologist and contributing editor to Grandparents.com. But not every granny wants to become a full-time nanny. Here's how to balance your own plans for retirement with caring for grandchildren.

Work out a schedule. Among the 11.3 million children younger than 5 whose mothers are employed, 30 percent are cared for on a regular basis by a grandparent during their mother's working hours, according to the Census Bureau. And 2.5 million grandparents are the primary caregivers for grandchildren who live with them. But far more children may be cared for by their grandparents part time. A recent Grandparents.com poll of 10,000 seniors found that 72 percent baby-sit for their grandchildren on a regular—but not necessarily full-time—basis. "It's very important to emphasize whether you want to help out in emergencies or commit yourself for however long the kids need it as a full-time job," says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College and the author of The Way We Really Are: Coming To Terms With America's Changing Families. "There's got to be a balance between helping your kids out when they need help and realizing that the best way you can help your kid out is to maintain nonresentful time with those grandkids." Some grandparents choose to be part-time caregivers, serve as backup babysitters for emergencies, or just to give their adult children an occasional night out. "Recognize that you don't have to make a permanent commitment," says Sally Wendkos Olds, author of Super Granny: Great Stuff to Do with Your Grandkids and a grandmother of five. "What will work for you and the grandchildren this year may not be feasible or necessary next year." Sometimes a grandparent helping out with child care during a summer vacation or for six months is enough to help adult children get through a rough patch.

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Agree on the rules. When grandparents mind the kids, disagreements ranging from what constitutes a nutritious snack to how to discipline children are common. "If there are rules that are different than when you were raising your adult children, those are the rules," says Witkin. "Consistency is very important for the child." Dona Lieberman, 77, a retired clerical worker in Queens, N.Y., provided full-time child care for her granddaughter, now 14, for about 10 years so that her daughter could continue to work full time. Lieberman started feeding her granddaughter more nutritious food, such as fresh fruit, at her daughter's request. "I had different rules for my kids, but my daughter is not into spanking," says Lieberman. "She does timeout, so that's the way it was." But grandparents also need some leeway to handle parenting situations in their own way. "Accept that things may be different in the grandparents' home than they are in your house," says Olds. "You may be very committed to a health food diet, and maybe the grandparents give more treats than you do in your home."

Get out of the house. Caring for your grandchildren doesn't mean you have to give up the retirement activities you were looking forward to. Retiree Barbara Van Heest, 76, of Virginia Beach invited her grandchildren to volunteer with her at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center. "I would tell the grandkids how much fun I was having and how important it is to volunteer and say, 'Would you like to do it with me?' " Van Heest says. All four of her local grandchildren have since joined Van Heest in rattling off facts about fish, stingrays, and horseshoe crabs to aquarium visitors. Together, they've racked up nearly 4,000 volunteer hours.

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Pack up the kids. Traveling and spending time with grandchildren don't have to be mutually exclusive activities. Dale Long, 52, a retired firefighter in New Richmond, Wis., and grandfather of five, is beginning to take some of his older grandchildren on trips with him. His oldest granddaughter accompanied him on a motorcycle trip to Milwaukee and Lake Superior. "Any time the kids are free, they like coming out with Grandma and Grandpa, and my kids are happy to have the break," says Long, who also makes time to travel alone with his wife. "The parents don't have as much free time. They can't get off work."