Why working class grandparents are better than middle class ones

Working-class people do grandparenting right. Middle-class ones, increasingly, don't

22 March 2014

9:00 AM

22 March 2014

9:00 AM

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.

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  • rtj1211

    In general, middle class grandparents tend to be older than working class ones, which makes their energy levels, in general, less when grandchildren are 5 – 10.

    Working class ones might be early 50s or even a bit younger, middle class ones could easily be 65.

  • Bill Thomas

    Sur le continong – just substitute French for working class. I a amazed at the lengts which my French neighbours go to receive, entertain and look after their grand-children – for weeks on end.

  • ohforheavensake

    What an absolutely pathetic article… just stop it. Please?

  • Ooh!MePurse!

    An utterly ridiculous article.

    My experience is X therefore everyone else’s experience should be X. If it’s not then it’s Y.

    Attempting to make it a class issue is even more pathetic.

    Some grandparents are great, some aren’t. Nothing to do with outdated, irrelevant class nonsense.

    Class is irrelevant. A dead concept. Move on.

    • Samuel Kaine Wheeler

      According to the latest British Social Attitude Survey, over 90% of people assign themselves to a social class, and over two thirds say class has a major effect on people’s lives. These figures have been largely stable since the survey began in 1983.

      Now you might not care about class, but it seems you’re very much in the minority on the subject among the British people.

  • Jennifer West

    What a load of tosh! Poor metropolitan lefty media type. Who knows or cares what ‘class’ they are these days? Both my grandmothers were in ‘service’, below stairs. My father was from real northern working class but was the first in his school to pass the 11+. His parents couldn’t afford school trips or for him to go to uni, but he did well and rose to the top of his profession. So his detached house and pay made him ‘middle class’? Luckily his work ethic and value system has passed down. I have a degree, am a gran, worked and also looked after the grandchildren for days and weekends, as did many of my friends and also my daughter who now looks after her grandchildren in her nice detached house….

  • rob232

    But this is the same difference between working class values and middle class values. I had many working class friends during the seventies when I was a teenager living in London (I’ve lived abroad most of my life)and their lives were very different. Whereas my middle class parents struggled to pay a mortgage, maintained a car and paid school fees my friends lived in tiny council houses, left school at fifteen and the dad had a bicycle. But the family would ooze with spare cash. Expensive clothes, Spanish holidays and nights in the pub and the Wimpy bar and taxis home.
    This isn’t to say that all working class people lived like this. I knew some families who were really hard up.But I often used to wonder who had the best philosophy.

  • Liberty

    This is a ridiculous polarisation. There are very hands on and indifferent grandparents of all levels of income, education and culture [class if you prefer]. One grandparent of my children was indifferent and the other up for any grandchild care of any description or length – both middle class. Only when we thought she was not up to it did we consider alternatives.

  • Colonel Mustard

    Gawd. More labelled groups. Now we have “Working class grandparents good. Middle class grandparents bad.” to add to all the other sheep bleated stereotypes that substitute for reason these days. So let’s make sure we reward good working class grandparents and penalise bad middle class grandparents. Maybe another campaigning charity, or punitive taxation or some more bad law. Or perhaps the juvenile, self-obsessed, stupendously shallow nincompoops who seem to rise to the surface of the judgemental cess pit that was once a country full of grown ups can get together and write an open letter to the Guardian about it, to “send a message”.

    • Kitty MLB

      We label everyone now Colonel. We are a nation of boxing people in,
      we will be doing this with pets soon- Working dogs like spaniels
      good, poodles bad.
      Also everything middle- class is now bad, not only poor old granny.

      • Colonel Mustard

        One of the saddest things to see is Peter Cook being interviewed by Parkinson, smoking and drinking, and realising it was not that long ago. PTB – pre Tony Blair – when grown ups were still in charge.

  • ButcombeMan

    Whenever I read lightweight generalised rubbish like this, I look up the background of the author.

    Nuff said.

  • Fergus Pickering

    Except the working-class ones who have sex with the grandchildren of course.

  • Gareth Milner

    I enjoyed reading this. Sadly my WCGPs had all passed away when I was still relatively young, however, I still have some fantastic memories of spending days at a time with my WCGPs.

  • Keith Appleyard

    I had working class grandparents who were already 60-70 when I was born, so
    weren’t able to do much caring of me even though both my working class parents
    went out to work, except to give me my breakfast before I went to school.
    Entertainment was was playing dominoes with my grandfather; it was my
    job to break up their coal with an axe into manageable chunks and carry 2 buckets the length of the garden to charge them up for the next 24 hours.

    My own children didn’t really benefit from their grandparents; my parents
    were ‘still’ very working class, living over 200 miles away and had little
    disposable income, so if the children went to stay with them for their annual
    5-day stay during school holidays, I learned I had to send them with £5 of
    pocket money each else they would be lucky to get more than an ice cream. My
    wife’s parents were definitely middle class, but lived over 300 miles away and
    necessitated a flight or ferry crossing, and yet again were not very forthcoming
    about ‘spoiling’ the children by giving them treats. Their best holidays were
    spent with their cousins rather than their grandparents.

  • S&A

    Utter bollocks, Cosmo.

    Stick to the contrarian film reviews.