The Communist-style apartment building where I lived for a year and a half in Beijing would probably not appeal to most Americans. It was cold in the winter, filled with cockroaches in the summer, and the availability of heated water was sometimes difficult to predict. However, for middle-class Chinese people, my living conditions were fairly standard. The apartment building was large, at least ten stories, and each story was home to around 8 families. Every morning the parents would rise to catch the bus for work, and one or more grandparents would remain at home to care for their single grandchild or help him or her get off to school.
Grandparents are a lot more involved in the lives of their grandchildren in China. Part of this is due to the One-Child Policy, which has restricted many grandparents to only one grandchild. A lack of a social-safety net also encourages closer ties among extended families. And traditional Chinese cultural generally requires children to care for their aging parents, making it quite common for grandparents, especially the paternal, to live in their adult child’s home.
With parents facing a great deal of pressure at work in China, many grandparents step in to take on much of the responsibility for raising their grandchild. This has the benefit of relieving parents of some household responsibility, but has also raised some concern among Chinese educators and the government regarding whether infants and toddlers are receiving sufficient care and preparation for school from their aging caregivers.
America, for the most part, has taken a different course regarding the role of grandparents in the lives of their grandchildren. Grandparents tend to be less involved with their grandchildren, unless parents are absolutely unable to fill the role of primary caregiver. Expectations for an empty nest during retirement years and plans to travel or pursue hobbies have often superseded significant childcare responsibilities for grandparents. Additionally, the presence of many children and grandchildren within a family can make splitting time among family members difficult.
With the recession, the American nuclear family has been forced to expand. Children are living with their parents longer. Older adults are finding it more often necessary to move in with their children. This new reality could change expectations regarding the role that grandparents play in the lives of the grandchildren. By involving grandparents more, parents, especially working moms, could be able to better balance their work and home lives. Of course, every family is different, and what may be work for one, may create tension in another. However, it is quite possible that some American families will be able to build more sustainable family lives by taking cues from the model of grandparenting used in China.