Should American Grandparents Follow Chinese Example?

In a piece titled Lean In, and Lean on Grandma” in the Washington Post, Kelly Yang points out that Chinese women do not suffer the angst of choosing between having a career and staying at home to raise their children largely thanks to grandparents providing childcare.

China can show [women] how it’s done. There, 51 percent of positions in senior management are held by women, and about 19 percent of its chief executives are women. In the United States, just 20 percent of senior managers and 4 percent of Fortune 500 chief executives are women. The explanation for China’s striking numbers is not the effect of some persuasive TED talk, best-selling book or even better access to affordable child care. Instead, it’s because, in China, the grandparents lean in.

According to the Shanghai Municipal Population and Family Planning Commission, 90 percent of young children in the city are being looked after by a grandparent. In China, it is not uncommon for maternal and paternal grandparents to split duties or travel long distances to help care for their grandchildren. The unofficial motto of these grandparents? Have passport, will babysit.

this author’s mother, to her credit, cares for three grandchildren to help further her daughter’s career. For most families in China, there are four grandparents who share a single grandchild, and they take turns providing care. But is this a model that would fly in America?

I know all kinds of grandparents, from the most hands-on to the most independent. And while American grandparents are helping out more and more — mostly financially, but also by providing living space and childcare — I don’t think there will be a big shift anytime soon. Too many grandparents would consider it a giant leap backwards to return to the days of childrearing. If they got through it without substantial assistance from their own parents, so can their children. Thanks in large part to the efforts of go-getting Baby Boomers, new geriatric frontiers are being explored that don’t involve caring for infants or toddlers.

And wouldn’t career women be reluctant to place such a huge burden on their parents or in-laws? After all the things our parents do for us, unless we are in true dire straits, do we really want our parents to spend their Golden Years helping us to crack through that corporate glass ceiling? Shouldn’t grandparenting be a blessing, not a full-time obligation? 

But who knows? Maybe toting a grandchild to the country-club golf course or on a hostel excursion will become the latest trend.

(On the other hand, this way of life may be why China has one of the lowest percentages of mothers who breastfeed. But that may be changing.)

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