My four-year-old daughter asks about her deceased grandparents almost daily. Her question to me or her mother usually goes something like this: "Will we see Grandma and Grandpa again someday?" Her words help us and her siblings keep in our minds and hearts these vital figures in our family's history.
Grandparents play an important role in the lives of their grandchildren, though it is often indirect. Most of their significance to children is seen through the support and help they give to their parents. Grandparents are often seen as "stress buffers," family "watchdogs," "roots," "arbitrators," and "supporters."
Research suggests that children find unique acceptance in their relationships with grandparents, which benefits them emotionally and mentally. Grandparents can be a major support during family disruptions. Sometimes they're playmates for their grandchildren. They're very often role models and mentors for younger generations. They are also historians -- teaching values, instilling ethnic heritage and passing on family traditions.
Increasing numbers of grandparents care for their grandchildren during the day or have legal full custody of their grandchildren, making them surrogate parents. These grandparents have a particularly strong influence.
For example, when my father died, my Grandpa Belnap took on an active role in my life. He was a retired junior high school math teacher with twinkling blue eyes. Grandpa Belnap cared for me while my mother, a single parent, worked hard to build a successful home-based business.
Grandpa provided me with some of my fondest and earliest memories. I remember he let me push the button to start his old Oldsmobile coupe, often at some risk to the starter motor. He was fond of saying "Whoa, Nellie" as he came to an intersection. He taught me and my siblings a nonsensical song called "Little Blue-Haired Boy," which he recorded for future generations just before he died. He always encouraged me, loved me, and supported me. When I became a teenager, Grandpa Belnap persisted in playing a part in my life even though at the time I was pretty dull of hearing the voices of older adults.
Wise parents foster strong relationships between grandparents and grandchildren. Letters, phone calls, videos, audiocassettes, sharing of school work, and personal contact where possible all build bonds of love and friendship between the generations.
Grandparents need their children and grandchildren as well. The movie "The Mailbox" conveys how important these relationships are to the elderly. It tells the story of an old widow named Leethe who loved her children, all living some distance from her, and longed to receive letters from them. She made daily walks from her house down a long pathway to her mailbox, anxiously anticipating a letter. But repeatedly she was disappointed.
On rare occasions, one of Leethe's children would call her. But Leethe was hard of hearing and preferred letters. She pleaded with her them and her grandchildren to write to her because she couldn't "read phone conversations over and over." Still, the letters didn't come.
Finally one day a letter was waiting when Leethe made her daily trek to check the mailbox. She was so excited, she rushed back to the house to get her glasses so she could read it. She had barely opened the envelope when she suffered a fatal heart attack. As it turned out, the letter was from her daughter and said only that she wanted Leethe's consent to be placed in a nursing home.
It benefits each generation to be cradled in the arms of one another's love, and Leethe's children missed those benefits - as well as deprived their mother of them.
A tender children's story reminds us of the deep satisfaction we experience when we make sure love and care flow between generations. I'll Love You Forever by Robert Munsch depicts a mother cradling her newborn infant son in her arms, and she pens the words, "I'll love you forever." By the end of the tale the roles are reversed. The son, now grown, cradles his frail, aged mother in his arms and pens the words, "I'll love you forever."
Written by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, and Marissa Beebe, Research Assistant, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
Olsen, S. F., Taylor, A. C., & Taylor, K. D. (2000). Intergenerational ties, grandparenting, and extended family support. In D. C. Dollahite (Ed.), Strengthening our families: An in-depth look at the proclamation on the family (pp. 135-141). Salt Lake City: Bookcraft.