The playground at Forckenbeckplatz square in Berlin's eastern district of Friedrichshain is full of activity on this sunny Saturday afternoon in March. Balls whiz about, young children line up for the slide and older ones perform somersaults on the monkey bars. Flieder, age two, is building a sandcastle with help from her mother Jutta, and grandmother Irene, who lives in Stuttgart but has been in Berlin for the last week looking after Flieder. "It's handy for me to have my mother's support," says Jutta, who works full time and often has to travel for work.
It's a common scenario in Germany, where over one-third of families rely on grandparents for childcare support, according to a recent German government report. Now, Family Minister Kristina Schröder wants to make it easier for working grandparents to take time off to look after their grandchildren.
"The idea is to give families the freedom to choose," Katja Laubinger, a Family Ministry spokesperson, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "We want families to be able to divide their time in a way that suits them."
The plan, known as Grosselternzeit, or grandparents' leave, would mirror the current support offered to parents, who are entitled to take off any three years between the birth of their child and its eighth birthday, and receive financial support from the state for part of that time. While there are currently no plans to reimburse grandparents for looking after their grandkids, the state would guarantee their right to return to their olds jobs after a sabbatical.
Heribert Engstler, head of research at the German Center of Gerontology, explained that the new program is not intended to replace existing state childcare, such as preschools and kindergartens. "Families generally rely on support from a variety of sources, whether from family members, friends or state institutions," Engstler told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "It's not a question of having to choose between family and the state."
Who's Responsible for Childcare?
But not everyone welcomes the family minister's plan. Some view the proposal as a ploy by the state to shirk its responsibility for providing childcare. "The minister's plan is all show," Corinna Onnen, a professor of sociology at the University of Vechta, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "It is supposed to look helpful, but really, it's just a way for the state to avoid investing in childcare."
In Germany, childcare places are guaranteed for children between the ages of three and six. But demand for places in the under-three age category in particular outweighs supply. Up to March 2011, only 25 percent of children under three were in childcare, whereas 39 percent of parents of children in that age group wanted daycare places for their kids, according to a report in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit.
Onnen argues that the grandparents who would be likely to take advantage of such a program would be those without advanced education and training "working in low-paid jobs with little hope of moving up the career ladder." She adds: "They probably have little to lose and don't like their colleagues."
Antje Asmus, researcher at the German Association for Single Parents, agrees. "Grandparents should choose whether to look after their grandchildren, rather than having to bow to social pressure," she says.
Mixed Reactions from Parents
But what do the families themselves think? A range of Berlin parents interviewed by SPIEGEL ONLINE gave mixed responses to the plan. Fred, a single father of a nine-year-old daughter who describes himself as a "weekend dad," thinks state support for grandparents is a good idea. "The first three years of a child's life are the most important," he says. "Nothing can replace family relationships."
Anita, whose son is one-and-a-half, says she would "definitely" make use of such a program if her parents lived close by. "My son is much calmer after being cared for by his grandparents than by strangers," she says. "I really notice the difference when I pick him up."
But her friend Katrin disagrees. "For me, this represents a step backwards," she says. "Especially if the grandparents don't get any money."
Of course, not every family has grandparents on hand to offer childcare support. With increasing mobility, many couples now live far away from their families.
Flieder, the child in the Friedrichshain playground, is one of the lucky ones, having a grandmother with time to look after her. Her family feels that a range of options is best when it comes to looking after children. "Childcare is primarily the responsibility of the family," says Flieder's grandmother Irene, as her granddaughter puts the finishing touches to her sandcastle. "But," adds her daughter, handing Flieder a chocolate rice cake, "the state must do its part too."