When I told a friend that my nine-year-old son was staying with his grandparents for the whole week of the half-term, she said: ‘A whole week! My son would be lucky to get his grandparents for a weekend! Who are these people?’
‘His grandparents are working class,’ I said.
She looked puzzled. ‘What?’
I explained. ‘Working-class grandparents are the best you can have — these days middle-class grandparents are bloody useless.’
I’m not alone in thinking this about the middle-class grandparent (MCGP). Just ask any middle-class parent about their children’s grandparents and out pours the same litany of complaints: ‘They’re too busy’, ‘They’re too selfish’, ‘They’re not really interested in their grandchildren’ and so on.
But I’ve never heard a working-class person complain about their children’s grandparents. On the contrary, they’re proud of their parents’ grandparenting skills and are happy to boast that ‘They spoil ’em rotten!’ The working-class grandparent is minder, maid, mum, dad, butler, cook, cleaner, best playmate and Santa rolled into one.
So what’s wrong with the MCGP? They aren’t proper grandparents — at least, they don’t live up to their children’s expectations of what a grandparent should be. They do not put their grandchildren at the very centre of their lives. For some reason they don’t want to come over and cook and clean, change nappies and read stories at bedtimes, whenever you would like a break.
As one friend of mine put it, ‘My parents always claim that they would love to see more of their grandchildren — but when I try to arrange a visit, they always have something on. I have to book them weeks in advance.’
Not so with the working-class grandparent (WCGP). My son’s grandparents — both working-class — once came down at a moment’s notice from their home town of Grantham to visit their grandson in our London flat for the weekend. They cooked, they cleaned, they took our son out to the park (so we could have some time alone) and get this — his grandad repainted our son’s bedroom! When they left they thanked us for a ‘wonderful weekend’ and my son’s grandad said: ‘Next time we come down, I’ll do your front room.’ And he did!
Of course there must be good and devoted MCGPs — but I don’t know any middle-class professionals who have them. They tend to have semi-detached grandparents. They’re the ones who will turn up for birthdays and holidays, but aren’t really ‘involved’ in the daily life of their grandchildren.
‘My parents always said that the one thing that was missing from their lives were grandchildren,’ a friend explains. ‘So after a long period of IVF, we’ve finally had a child and guess what? We rarely see them! And when they come to visit all they talk about is their wonderful holidays and what they’ve been doing.’
One explanation for the limitations of the MCPG is the changing nature of old age. People in their sixties and seventies are no longer resigned to a long and empty life; one they would have once filled with the joys of seeing and taking care of their grandchildren. It gave such people a sense of much-needed purpose.
Now, however, older people are finding purpose in a whole new range of possibilities that have nothing to do family and children. Hence the rise of what I call the Have-A-Go-Granny. She’s the middle-class grandmother who has a go at writing a novel, who is doing a degree or learning to paint, or has decided to become a photographer. Likewise, Grandad is spending more time as a man of leisure than a carer on call. He wants to see the world — not the kid’s nursery. One grandad told me, ‘I’m happy to do birthdays, holidays and the odd bit of babysitting but frankly all that kid stuff bores the hell out of me.’
But WCGPs don’t want to spend more time doing their own thing, developing talents or going on a journey of self-discovery; family comes first. Grandchildren aren’t a burden or a bore. And the WCGP never lets a little thing like fatigue, age, money or distance from getting in the way of seeing the ‘kiddies’. One sniffle or sneeze and the MCGP will claim to be ‘too ill’ to take the kids off your hands.
I suspect that if offered a choice, most middle-class children would prefer to have working-class grandparents. One reason is food. WCGPs feed their grandchildren proper kid food: eggs and chips, fish fingers and chips, beans and chips, chips and chips — there’s not a green veggie in sight. And instead of organic apple juice, they get a nice glass of warm Tizer. As for dessert, what child wants figs and ripe camembert when they can have Instant Whip?
Say what you like about the English working class, they know how to show a kid a good time. None of this dragging the poor sprogs off to the some wretched art gallery or tedious matinee performance of Shakespeare — off they drive to Alton Towers or Legoland, where they wait in queues for hours just to see the delight on their grandchildren’s faces.
I have seen this class contrast at first hand during my first and second marriages — both women were from working-class families. When it came to grandparenting, they put my middle-class parents to shame. Take money. The first thing both sets of grand-parents did was to buy Premium Bonds for the kids — my parents didn’t cough up a penny! And come Christmas, my parents would buy one or two very simple presents — their parents would turn up with dozens. And they would always be these huge enticing boxes containing giant toys that had no educationally redeeming qualities whatsoever! You can guess which presents went down the best.
I suspect that one reason the middle class is feeling so hard done by is that many of them — in these tough economic times — can no longer afford the kind of costly childcare that their parents once could. They need to have help from grandparents, especially if both parents have to go out to work.
But there’s also an emotional hurt. Middle-class parents (especially those in the media) tend to regard their children as the most fascinating thing in the universe and can’t imagine anyone not sharing this fascination — especially their parents. So when this happens, they naturally feel a sense of hurt and disappointment. They are baffled: how could a parent not be devoted to their own child’s children? It’s a question the WCGP would find equally mysterious.