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Importance of Grandparents to Their Grandchildren


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 flows 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.


References

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.​​​​​

Importance of Grandparents to Their Grandchildren


As life expectancy rises, more and more people are becoming grandparents, living to see their grandchildren grow up, and watching their grandchildren have children of their own.

Just about everyone will become a grandparent during their lifetime (Pruchno & Johnson, 1996). The median age for becoming a grandmother is 45 years old, and most women will spend nearly half their lives in this role (Long & Silverstein, 1998).

Throughout these later years, both grandmothers and grandfathers can help grandchildren and great-grandchildren gain a sense of identity, give unconditional love, represent hope for the future, stand as a source of stability and security, act as a mentor, and exemplify positive values, ideals, and beliefs.

Many changes in society mean that grandparents have an unprecedented opportunity to be an influence for good in the lives of their progeny. A higher rate of divorce and more mothers in the workplace mean that grandparents are called on more than ever before to care for grandchildren. Better health and financial security for seniors gives them more resources to help succeeding generations (Bengston, 1985; Smith, 1995).

As Dr. Lillian Carson (1996) says, "If you’ve ever wanted to make a difference in this world, active grandparenting provides the perfect opportunity" (p. 44).

Changing Ideas about Grandparenting

Ideas about the role of grandparents have changed dramatically. The first articles about grandparents published in the 1930s and 1940s, written mostly by psychiatrists, focused on the negative affects of meddlesome grandmothers who interfered in their children’s childrearing with old-fashioned views. A 1952 study by Staples presented a kinder view, explaining that "a well-liked grandma . . . keeps up with the times . . . [and] makes transition from position of responsibility to rendering interested helpful service" (p. 340).

By the 1960s and 1970s, grandparents were looked upon more favorably. Grandparents tended to hold less strict and authoritarian views and were more indulgent and warm than a decade before. In 1981 Kornhaber and Woodward described a "vital connection" of grandparents to grandchildren, focusing on the important influence grandparents have in the lives of their grandchildren. Recent research reaffirms their importance and increasingly focuses on their expanding role as childcare provider.

Transition to Grandparenthood

Becoming a grandparent is both an exciting and stressful time. It has been called a "countertransition" because grandparents can’t control when this stage of their life begins (Pruchno & Johnson, 1996). Furthermore, the transition is ongoing. Most grandparents have more than one grandchild, so they are grandparents to young grandchildren over a period of years.

This transition period may overlap with other important events and responsibilities. Most grandparents experience a period of time when they still have their own children living at home. Grandparents may also be caring for elderly parents (Szinovacz, 1998). As the years progress, grandparents generally retire and often husbands pass away.

Grandparenthood does not come naturally. It requires thinking and planning (Carson, 1996). Dr. Carson offers the following advice on making the transition to becoming a grandparent:

  • Grandparenting requires some juggling and reorganizing to make time for grandchildren, but grandparents need not feel they must drop everything to devote all their time to their new role. Do what’s right for you when deciding how much time and effort to devote to grandparenthood.
  • Although becoming a grandparent signifies a major change in one’s life, there aren’t any rituals in society that recognize this. Rituals help give meaning and value to major events. Start your own tradition of grandparenthood. Hold a tree-planting ceremony with your family to symbolize new life as each new grandchild is born, write in a journal about your grandchildren, compose a poem, or write letters to your new grandbabies. Experienced grandmothers can help new grandmothers by hosting a grandbaby shower, encouraging gifts like unbreakable dishes, books to share with grandchildren, toys, videos, and audiotapes, a tape recorder to record voices and stories, etc.
  • Realize that your relationship with adult children may change. Parents need support, but giving advice can be tricky. It tends to be useful only when asked for. You will likely be tempted to jump in when you see a solution to a problem that your child doesn’t see, but for him or her to ask your opinion is always wise. Remember that grandparents are not in charge. "We must earn the right to voice our opinion by establishing a supportive relationship with praise, encouragement, and acceptance" (Carson, 1996, p. 22). Try to be supportive and encouraging to new parents and remember that everyone learns from their mistakes. When visiting, respect the rules that parents have set up and follow them (Folsom, 1999).

The Rewards of Being a Grandparent

Grandparenthood brings many benefits. Grandparents don’t have to worry about the everyday responsibilities of childcare such as getting kids out of bed, dressed, fed, and out the door to school. They have the freedom to decide how involved they want to be in their grandchildren’s lives. Without any ultimate responsibility, they are free to savor their grandchildren’s natural spontaneity, joy, innocence, and affection (Almada, 2000).

Research has found that most grandparents find their role satisfying. Peterson (1999) reported that grandparents enjoy their role for many reasons, including feeling young again, gaining emotional fulfillment, sharing in their grandchildren’s activities, and observing their grandchildren’s development. Grandparents who have the most contact with their grandchildren report the most satisfaction.

One grandmother explained why being a grandparent is fulfilling for her: "Having grandchildren is the vindication of everything I have done as a parent. When we see our children passing on our values to another generation, we know we have been successful" (Rutherford et al., 1999, p. 97A).

The experience of grandparenting brings more happiness than grandparents expect. Somary and Stricker (1998) found that all the grandparents in their study reported higher levels of satisfaction in their grandparenting role than they expected. They concluded that "one can never fully anticipate how much joy a grandchild will bring until he/she actually arrives" (p. 59).

A Unique Bond between Grandparents and Grandchildren

Often a special bond connects grandparent and grandchild (Carson, 1996; Rutherford et al., 1999). Both are outside the mainstream of society: children are "too young" and grandparents are "too old." Grandparents don’t carry the parental burdens of taking care of daily needs, helping with schoolwork, chauffeuring, disciplining, etc. Because of grandparents’ wisdom, experience, and broader perspective, they are often more accepting of grandchildren. And they can afford to be more indulgent.

Victor Hugo related a story that illustrates the unique friendship between grandparent and grandchild: "My granddaughter was made to sit in a closet with no food as punishment. When I snuck her a cookie I said, ‘I could get in a lot of trouble for doing this. They may put me in the closet.’ She answered, ‘Don’t worry grandfather, then I will bring you a cookie’" (Carson, 1996, p. 30).

When grandchildren become adolescents, their parents may be very emotionally involved and concerned. Grandparents’ greater emotional and physical distance can enable them to see things more objectively and more broadly. Often they can provide a listening ear without passing judgment. Many adults express fond memories of their grandparents during this period of life and express sentiments such as, "I would never have made it without my grandparents" (Carson, 1996).

Multiple Roles of Grandparents

Grandparents can have an impact on their grandchildren’s lives in many different ways. They can act as the family historian, mentor, playmate, nurturer, role model, confidante, advocate, advisor, and surrogate parent (Bengston, 1985; Olsen, Taylor, & Taylor, 2000; Tomlin, 1998). They also can profoundly influence the development of their grandchildren, including the following ways:

  • Impart a sense of identity. Grandparents are a living link to the past and provide a child with a sense of identity and knowledge about ancestors. They can build appreciation for ancestors by acting as a family historian. As they share memories of their own childhood and tell stories about their children (their grandchildren’s parents), they help grandchildren feel connected to their family.

Barusch and Steen (1996) call grandparents "keepers of community" because they often interpret and pass on knowledge of events and people in their culture. To help children understand their heritage, grandparents can tell stories, show pictures, do genealogy, collect family recipes, explain heirlooms, and organize family reunions (Carson, 1996).

Joseph Kennedy Jr. remembered his Grandma Rose sharing the past with him by showing him pictures. "We thought she was just sharing old memories until she showed us an ad for employment that said ‘No Irish need apply.’ Then she admonished us to ‘never forget what our roots were’" (Carson, 1996, p. 56).

  • Provide unconditional love. Children gain self-esteem and self-confidence by feeling loved. The greatest gift grandparents can give their grandchildren is unconditional love and support (Rutherford et al., 1999). Research tells us that the bond between grandparent and grandchild is second only to the bond between parent and child (Rutherford et al., 1999). Kornhaber calls this bond "clear love"--love with no strings attached (cited in Rutherford et al., 1999). Other studies have found that this special bond persists into adulthood (Hodgson, 1998; Silverstein & Long, 1998).

Dr. Benjamin Spock wrote, "Love and enjoy your child for what he is . . . and forget about the qualities that he doesn’t have. The child who is appreciated for what he is . . . will have a spirit that will make the best of all the capacities that he has and of all the opportunities that come his way" (cited in Carson, 1996, p. 46). Grandparents can foster self-esteem by showing constant love and acceptance through words and deeds (Carson, 1996).

  • Represent hope for the future. Grandparents can show their grandchildren that growing older does not mean becoming bored or boring. As grandparents continue learning, stay active, enjoy hobbies, and keep mentally and physically fit, they show their grandchildren that the future is bright at any age. Grandparents who keep up with the times and are aware of what’s going on around them build credibility with their grandchildren and are more likely to have an influence. By living with energy, purpose, and a good attitude, grandparents can send the message that life is good even as we age (Carson, 1996; Strom & Strom, 1992).
  • Be a source of stability and security. Grandparents can provide stability and security for their grandchildren by being available to help in times of need. Many grandparents are the rocks of the extended family—someone family members can always turn to for help. Because all grandparents have lived through hardships, they can reassure younger generations that they too can endure troubled times (Rutherford et al., 1999).
  • Act as a mentor. Grandparents are a gold mine of knowledge, experience, advice, talents, and skills. Reading to grandchildren, telling stories, and sharing skills such as gardening, crocheting, cooking, and car repair give grandparents ways to spend time with grandchildren. Spending time together not only allows grandparents to teach specific skills but also to talk together, listen, give advice, and share experience and ideas (Olsen et al., 2000).
  • Exemplify positive values, ideals, and beliefs. One of the most powerful ways to teach is by example. Most children are very observant and will imitate what they see adults do. Grandchildren can learn good morals and values by observing what grandparents say and how they act. When grandparents attend church every week, grandchildren see the importance of religion. When grandparents work hard, even if retired, they demonstrate a strong work ethic. By showing love for one another and encouraging, helping, and learning together, grandparents exemplify how to build a happy and enduring marriage (Olsen et al., 2000; Strom & Strom, 1992).

Factors that Affect Level of Influence

Research supports the idea that grandparents can have a significant positive impact on the lives of their grandchildren. Studies of grandparents who are the parents of teenage mothers show that the presence of a nurturing grandfather results in fewer negative feelings and increased obedience by grandchildren to their mother’s requests (Tomlin, 1998). Another study showed that a healthy attachment between grandmother and mother encourages healthy attachment between mother and grandchild (Tomlin, 1998).

The level of grandparents’ influence depends on many factors, including the following.

  • Age of the grandchild. Young children view all relationships from a limited, egocentric perspective. They see grandparents as people who will play with them and give them treats. As children reach 8 to 9 years old, they begin to see their relationship with grandparents as more mutual and fun. This is the period of childhood when spending time with grandparents means the most. Adolescents can find in grandparents a sympathetic ear, someone willing to listen without passing judgment, and someone they can trust. They are less likely to argue with grandparents than with parents. As young adults, grandchildren begin to realize the influence grandparents have on values (Smith, 1995).
  • Age of the grandparent. Younger grandparents are more likely to have a playful, fun relationship with grandchildren. They see grandchildren as a source of enjoyment and self-indulgence. Older grandparents tend to be more formal and cautious of overstepping the boundary between parental and grandparental responsibilities (Bengston, 1985).

Researchers have found that there is a certain period of life when becoming a grandparent is considered most normal or "on time." For women this age is approximately between 45 and 60. Women who become grandmothers at an earlier age may try to disassociate themselves from the role because of preconceived ideas that being a grandmother means a person is old (Smith, 1995). They might insist "I’m too young to be a grandmother" or "I’m still too busy with my own life, children, career, and interests." Young grandmothers are more likely to feel unhappy with a grandmotherly role and unready for its responsibilities.

Timberlake and Chipungu (1992) compared how women in two different age groups perceived the value of grandchildren: African-American grandmothers 46 to 60 years old ("on-time") and African-American grandmothers 30 to 41 years old ("off-time"). The "on-time" grandmas said their grandchildren meant more to them. Becoming a grandparent especially late in life (after 70) can also compromise the grandparent-grandchildren relationship. Older grandparents may feel dismayed that they will not get to spend much time with their grandchildren or be physically fit and able to do all the activities with them they would like to (Burton & Bengston, 1985).

  • Amount of Contact. As might be expected, the more grandparents and grandchildren are in contact with each other, the more the relationship grows and the more influence grandparents have. Living nearby is the strongest predictor of face-to-face contact (King & Elder, 1997). While grandparents who live close usually visit and talk to their grandchildren the most, it is certainly possible to maintain a good relationship with grandchildren long-distance with phone calls, letters, emails, etc.
  • Health of the grandparent. Generally, poor health compromises grandparents’ relationships with their grandchildren. An inability to visit and do activities together creates obstacles to close relationships (Smith, 1995).
  • Parent-grandparent relationship. Hoyt, Huck, and Whitbeck (1993) found that when parents felt their parents (grandparent generation) did not care for them enough during childhood, poorer grandparent-grandchild relations resulted. On the other hand, a good relationship between parents and grandparents resulted in more frequent contact and greater closeness between grandparents and grandchildren (Rutherford et al., 1999). Parents should encourage grandparents to visit and be involved with their grandchildren. They should make grandparents feel welcome. Parents can benefit from grandparents’ interaction with grandchildren too. According to, "Marriages flourish with helpful grandparents. Helping with kids—giving parents and children a break form routines—is one of the greatest gifts grandparents can give" (quoted in Rutherford et al., 1999, p. 97A).
  • Gender. Grandmothers tend to be closer to grandchildren than grandfathers. This reflects the female role of nurturer and caregiver in our society. Bengston (1985) calls grandmothers the "kin keepers," the ones who watch over the family and keep abreast of what’s going on in their children’s and grandchildren’s lives. College students reported that they did more activities with their grandmothers than grandfathers and that grandmothers were more influential on their value development (Roberto & Stroes, 1992). Somary and Stricker (1998) found that grandmothers felt more satisfaction than grandfathers after their first grandchild was born. They also felt more strongly that they should be a source of knowledge, should be indulging, and should restrain from giving advice to parents. Grandfathers felt more comfortable giving advice to parents as a way of being involved in caring for their grandchildren.

In our society, fathers and grandfathers sometimes are less involved because they feel less competent at childrearing. But children need grandfathers just as much as grandmothers. The granddaughter of the late Israeli Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin said at his funeral, "Grandpa, you are my hero. I want you to know that. Everything I did, I always saw you before me" (Carson, 1996, p. 152).

Grandfathers who had busy work schedules when their were raising their families sometimes take a special interest in grandchildren as a way of making up for what they missed with their own children. Parents can involve grandfathers by seeking their input and not assuming that grandmothers are more interested in grandparenting.

  • Ethnicity. Different cultures have different expectations and roles for grandparents. For African Americans the extended family often serves as a mutual aid system where members, especially grandparents, open up their homes to one another. African American grandmothers more frequently assume childrearing responsibilities than Caucasian grandmothers. In the Hispanic culture grandmothers are expected to help raise grandchildren. The Polynesian culture includes the practice of informal adoptions by grandparents when a baby is born to an unwed mother or when the father dies. This tradition provides a safety net of love and caring for the child (Hirshorn, 1998).
  • Lineage. Maternal grandmothers tend to be the most involved grandparent in their grandchildren’s lives (Smith, 1995; Somary & Stricker, 1998). Much research has focused on the special role maternal grandmothers play as an extension of the strong mother-daughter bond. They make themselves most available to grandchildren, have the closest relationships with them, and are most involved. They also experience the highest level of satisfaction with being a grandparent. When a woman becomes a new mother, the bond between her and her mother (the child’s maternal grandmother) is usually strengthened while tension tends to increase between a new mother and her mother-in-law. Maternal grandparents generally feel more satisfied with their role and less concerned about acting as a wise elder than paternal grandparents.
  • Education. A grandparent’s level of education can affect attitudes about grandparenting. Less educated people tend to feel more strongly that their opinion should influence other family members, that grandchildren matter because they carry on the family line, that a valuable part of grandparenthood is having grandchildren involved in their lives, and that grandchildren belong to them as well as the parents. They tend to have more frequent contact with grandchildren than more educated grandparents and have more one-on-one concern for their grandkids. They play the role of friend and tend to be closer than more educated grandparents.

Grandparents with higher levels of education tend to participate in more activities with their grandchildren, discuss problems, talk about their grandkids’ future, and act as a teacher. They are more likely to teach skills and give advice (King & Elder, 1998).

Understanding Young Grandchildren

In order to be the best grandparent one can be, it is important to understand the development of grandchildren (Carson, 1996). Erik Erikson offered a model of the life cycle with eight stages corresponding to eight emotional tasks to be learned. Five of the stages are explained below.

Stage One: Birth to 2 years

During this stage, children learn to develop trust. If their needs are met and they feel safe and secure, they will become trusting. Grandparents can be helpful at this stage by providing positive encouragement to parents and by babysitting occasionally to give parents time alone, which in turn helps them maintain a healthy marriage. They should interact with the baby by talking, singing, holding, rocking, and playing, but allow the infant to have alone time, too.

Stage Two: 2 to 4 years

This stage includes the "terrible twos" when "NO!" becomes a child’s favorite word and he wants to do everything himself as he tries to achieve autonomy. There is nothing more frustrating than arguing with a two-year-old or three-year-old, so avoid these power struggles and keep your sense of humor. For example, when your granddaughter says "no" to going inside, simply take her by the hand and gently lead her in.

Children are learning to separate from their parents during this stage, so providing opportunities for positive experiences away from mommy and daddy can help foster autonomy. Encourage exploration by taking them on nature walks and providing opportunities for social interaction with others.

Stage Three: 4 to 7 years

Initiative is the task children work on at this age; they love to plan, make, and do. Grandparents can help by introducing new ideas, skills, projects, and hobbies. Children at this age love being given small jobs but still need guidance. You might squeeze oranges together, wash the car, garden, etc. Take them seriously and respect what they are feeling.

Children at this stage also love to play and pretend. Using their imagination stimulates creativity. When pretending together, understand that children like to repeat the same play situations over and over. To avoid getting bored, try to vary the theme but don’t control their imagination.

Stage Four: 7 to 13 years

This is the stage for attaining industry. Children are ready to work and need opportunities to learn. School fills many of these needs, and you can encourage further work and learning by doing projects with your grandchildren such as baking cookies, making a birdhouse, taking them on outings, telling stories, and encouraging interest in music, sports, art, and nature.

Stage Five: 14 to 22 years

This is the prime time when children seek to find their identity. Peers become more important and parents less important. "You can be a stabilizing influence at a time when parents can’t reach them" (Carson, 1996, p. 85). Be available to listen and avoid judging. Relate to them by sharing personal experiences and your ideas and philosophies of life but without lecturing. Encourage them to try hard in school and pursue their interests. Teach them about their cultural heritage. Support their parents. Have adventures together. Teach them constructive problem-solving.

Enjoying Adult Grandchildren

People are living longer than ever before, and today it is more the rule than the exception to have at least one grandchild over the age of 18 (Long & Silverstein, 1998). Only recently has the relationship between grandparents and their adult grandchildren been a subject of researchers’ attention.

The role of grandparents changes as grandchildren grow up, get married, and have children of their own. Although contact and proximity usually decrease as the grandchild becomes independent, the relationship is still influential and important. A large proportion of adult grandchildren keep in regular contact with their closest grandparent (Pruchno & Johnson, 1996). Their relationship with grandparents comes to be based on friendship rather than obligation (Roberto & Stroes, 1992). More than 80% of teenagers see their grandparents as someone they can confide in. Good relationships with young grandchildren grow into good relationships with adult grandchildren (Pruchno & Johnson, 1996).

The most significant effect grandparents have on adult grandchildren is in the area of value development. Studies of college students found that grandparents were important in establishing political, religious, sexual, moral, and educational values as well as family ideals, work ethic, and identity (Tomlin, 1998). Grandparents often continue to give emotional and financial support to adult grandchildren, and grandchildren in turn feel responsibility to care for grandparents in their old age (Hodgson, 1998).

In his study of adult grandchildren and grandfathers, Taylor (1998) found that nearly all participants felt at least "somewhat emotionally close" and viewed the role of grandfather as "very important." Adult grandchildren expected their grandfathers to not let them down, be a good example, treat their grandmother kindly, and show love and acceptance.

Among the activities that help to bring adult grandchildren and grandfathers closer are family get-togethers (reunions, birthday celebrations, picnics, holidays), working together, recreational activities (games, puzzles, hunting, fishing), and conversing. Taylor (1998) concludes that a strong bond is based on frequent contact, serving one another, and talking to each other.

Maintaining Long-Distance Relationships with Grandchildren

When living far away, it is important to keep in touch with your grandchildren and be with them in spirit (Carson, 1996). Make a list of important dates to remember such as birthdays, recitals, and sports competitions. Do something special to acknowledge these events.

Talking on the phone is a great way to keep in contact. Children are never to young to listen to your voice. Here are some guidelines for telephone calls:

  • At the beginning of the conversation, ask if it’s a good time to talk. If it’s not, be willing to call back later.
  • Ask specific questions that don’t require a simple "yes" or "no."
  • Help grandchildren know you by telling them about yourself and what you did that day.
  • Listen sympathetically.
  • Talk to each grandchild individually, not together by speaker phone or by using multiple extensions.

Letters are a wonderful way to let grandchildren know you’re thinking of them. They also provide a tangible memento. Children love to get letters in the mail. Include small items like stickers or pictures to let them know you’re thinking of them. Encourage their writing skills by asking them to write back. To help them know you better, tape-record yourself reading a story or send pictures of yourself doing something you do frequently.

Email provides for quick and easy communication. Websites that allow families to have their own web pages offer a place to show photos, share anecdotes, and remind of special dates (Rutherford et al., 1999).

Make Visits Meaningful and Enjoyable

When you travel to visit your grandchildren, try to keep visits brief (about three days)--"leave them wanting more" (Carson, 1996, p. 129). If you stay longer, be aware that you are disrupting the family’s routine and try to be respectful of it. Here are some practical ideas for keeping visits enjoyable:

  • Plan an outing or project you can do together to give parents time off.
  • Help parents with household chores.
  • Plan visits around holidays or major events and share your traditions and culture.
  • Take lots of pictures and send copies to help your grandchildren remember your visit.

When grandchildren travel to visit you:

  • Prepare by putting away breakables and making your house as safe and free from hazards as possible.
  • Before the grandchildren arrive, ask them what they want to do while they’re visiting and plan accordingly.
  • Arrange your schedule so you can have plenty of time together.
  • Remind yourself that children have lots of energy and things will inevitably be a little crazy.
  • Develop a collection of toys, crayons, books, and movies.
  • Plan meals ahead of time and have nutritious snacks available.
  • Make sure your grandchildren have lots of opportunities for free play time.
  • Remain flexible. Things rarely go as planned, especially when children are involved.
  • Pace yourself. Don’t try to do too much.

Giving Gifts

Gifts show your grandchildren you love them and value them. It is important to get parents’ permission first to avoid possible problems. Think about what effect you want your gift to have. Should it encourage learning, develop skills, introduce new ideas, be just for fun, encourage play? Don’t wait only for special occasions or you may miss opportunities to foster learning and growth. Gifts don’t have to be expensive. Here are some ideas for gifts:

  • Toys such as blocks, play dough, puzzles.
  • Books.
  • Clothes (make sure to ask adolescents exactly what they want).
  • Money for lessons.
  • Tickets to music events, plays, sporting events.
  • Money donated to charity in a grandchild’s name.

Grandparenting Grandchildren of Divorce

A New York survey found the dismaying statistic that 50% of people 60 years and older can expect a married child to divorce (Spitze, Logan, Deane, & Zerger, 1994). Divorce affects grandparents in many ways. Ties to family tend to decrease. Divorce sometimes offends the values held by grandparents, straining the grandparent-child relationship.

Divorce also often causes a "reorientation of kinship" (Johnson, 1998). Mothers, who most often gain custody of children, may turn to maternal grandparents for financial support and childcare. Thus ties to the maternal grandparents increase while paternal grandparents may be left without a direct link to their grandchildren. Often, though, paternal grandparents are able to remain a part of their grandchildren’s lives if they have a continuing friendship with the mother. They also can make efforts to see their grandchildren when the children are with their father. Conflicts of loyalty may result for paternal grandparents if the father remarries a woman with children of her own.

Adjusting to divorce is made more difficult by the lack of ritual associated with it. No one really knows how to act after a divorce and there are no rules for relationships with extended family of the "other side. Divorce is a state of "social limbo" (Johnson, 1998). Despite this confusion, divorce calls for grandparents to play a more active role in their grandchildren’s lives than they otherwise might. Grandparents can act as an essential source of stability and continuity at a time when their grandchildren are almost certainly feeling insecure and distressed.

The natural tendency when an adult child is divorcing is to side with that child and not with the child’s spouse. Grandparents should do their best to resist this tendency and stay as neutral as possible for the sake of their grandchildren. Divorcing parents are likely to be feeling strong emotions, and grandparents can act as mediators and offer unbiased support—if they haven’t taken sides. This support may include taking care of grandchildren, giving financial aid, listening sympathetically, encouraging and participating in family rituals that help provide normalcy (such as birthdays, graduations, holidays), and planning fun activities for grandchildren. Strom and Strom (1991) advise grandparents to be a friend to their grandchildren and wait patiently while their role after a divorce is redefined.

Grandparents as Childcare Providers

Grandparents are increasingly being asked to provide childcare for their grandchildren (Hirshorn, 1998). The level of care varies greatly. Some grandparents may be asked to provide occasional babysitting or temporary childcare. This fits within the traditional role of noninterference in childrearing, and a majority of grandparents provide this service. Routine or long-term care, however, requires a large investment of time and effort. Research shows that grandparents generally believe parents should be the primary caregivers, that adult children should live on their own, and that grandparents should be called upon for help only when it is necessary (Pebeley & Rudkin, 1999).

The usual role of giving parents a break by babysitting or helping in an emergency has expanded greatly for reasons that include:

  • More women with small children work full-time or part-time, and many prefer to entrust their children to a family member rather than to non-family childcare provider. Many also ask grandparents for help because they can’t afford non-family childcare.
  • Divorce rates have risen, leaving more women with no choice but to work and make childcare arrangements.
  • Teen mothers and immature adult mothers are on the rise. Grandparents are needed to co parent or become surrogate parents when a mother is emotionally unprepared for parenthood.
  • More mothers and fathers are substance abusers.
  • More mothers and fathers are imprisoned.

Grandparents as Surrogate Parents

Full-time care is needed when a parent leaves or is unable to provide care. This situation takes the grandparent out of the traditional role and requires reorganizing and redefining relationships (Hirshorn, 1998). If grandparents accept the role of full-time caregiver, they become "surrogate parents." Surrogate parenting usually falls under one of two scenarios:

  • Coresidence, where the grandparent and parent provide care for a child. This occurs most often when teenage mothers are still living with their single mother.
  • Custodial care, where a grandparent takes a child or children into their home and takes on full responsibility for them.

Coresidence is more common and usually happens during a transition in the parent’s life such as divorce, changing jobs, unemployment, or poverty. In 1997 about 11% of grandparents reported having had a grandchild live with them (Pebley & Rudkin, 1999).

Effect of Surrogate Parenting on Children

During this stressful time, grandparents can be a source of secure attachment for young children. The more contact a grandmother has with her grandchildren, the more she acts like a mother as a base of attachment. In studies with families where teenage mothers received assistance from the grandparents, grandfathers were seen to have a positive influence on their grandchild, probably by providing a male role model of nurturance and cooperation (Oyserman, Rodin, & Benn, 1993).

Brown and colleagues (1995) compared school-age children in two-parent and single families and children residing with grandparents and found no significant difference in physical health. Their emotional well-being was generally good, but over half the children experienced some negative effects because of their parents’ absence. Solomon and Marx (1995) concluded that children living with grandparents were not as successful in school as children living with both parents and were less likely to complete high school.

Effect of Surrogate Parenting on Grandparents

The effort, time, and devotion demanded for full-time childcare affects grandparents as well. Most grandparents expect they will be part of an ideal scenario that includes voluntary visits and fun with grandchildren. As one woman said, "They come to see me, I dote on them, and buy them things" (Morrow-Kondos, Weber, Cooper, & Hesser, 1997, p. 38). When grandparents are full-time caregivers, however, they can’t enjoy this limited role. They don’t have the freedom to be indulgent and unconditionally accepting because they have to worry about discipline, school, meals, homework, etc. Most feel increased fatigue from the demands of caring for children.

Grandparents are generally not eager to take over the care of grandchildren, as it can be overwhelming and often is a result of family trauma. Grandparents involved in full-time care may have less time for their spouse, friends, and themselves. In their study on the effects of caregiving on grandparents, Bowers and Myers (1999) compared grandmothers giving full-time, part-time, and no care to grandchildren. They found that the majority of full-time and part-time caregivers felt they had an excellent relationship with their grandchildren. Full-time caregivers were more likely to experience a negative change in their relationship with their spouse, including loss of privacy and husbands becoming jealous of time spent with grandchildren. Full-time caregivers experienced higher levels of burden and stress that were associated with more behavior problems in their grandchildren. Part-time caregivers reported the most satisfaction in their role as grandmother.

Grandparents face many unique issues as surrogate parents. Role confusion often occurs, with grandchildren, especially very young ones, not knowing what to call their grandma. One grandmother said her two-year-old grandchild always calls her "mama" but also calls his real mother "mama." She wonders if he will be confused about having two mamas as he gets older. Another grandma worried if she had done the right thing in telling her four-year-old grandchild that he should not call her "mama" but "Nana."

Many grandparents express feeling sadness in their role. They may wonder what they did wrong or feel disappointed in their son or daughter. And they may grieve for the loss of the grandparenting role they hoped for: "You cannot be a grandparent and a parent too. You grieve because it hasn’t turned out like you thought. You expected to rear children and then to sit back and be a grandparent. Now I can’t be a grandparent. I have to be a parent . . . again" (Morrow-Kondos et al., 1997, p. 39).

On the positive side, grandparents providing full-time care enjoy getting to know their grandchildren. "There’s nothing better than warm baby snuggle to get your day off to a good start" said one grandma (Morrow-Kondos et al., 1997, p. 41). Surrogate parenting also gives grandparents an opportunity to pass on their values and give more experienced advice and guidance than when they were parents. Ninety-six percent of the full-time caregivers in Bowers and Meyer’s (1999) study said if they had the chance to do it over, they would take on the responsibility again.

Ideas for Coping When Grandparents Are Surrogate Parents

Strom and Strom (1991, 1992) suggest that grandparents raising grandchildren are more likely to be successful if they do the following:

  • Revise personal goals. When you first take on raising grandchildren, it is easy to feel angry that your dreams of retirement and leisure have to be put on hold. Grandparents may feel resentful of an adult child who puts this responsibility on their shoulders. If grandparents don’t adjust their goals and let go of resentment and regret, their grandchildren may feel unwanted.
  • Be optimistic. Be optimistic about the future. Grandkids should be told often that their presence brings happiness to grandparents.
  • Learn how the challenges of growing up have changed. Willingness to care for a grandchild is noble but not enough. Successfully raising grandchildren requires that you understand the problems children face today and that you gain the knowledge you need to help them, such as the most useful forms of discipline and the dynamics of peer influence. You also will need to adjust to schools’ increasing expectations that parents or guardians be involved in their child’s education.
  • Cooperate with the parent who shares responsibility. In two-thirds of families with grandparents as caregivers, one of the parents also lives with them. A young mother and grandmother should be vigilant about not undermining one another or competing for the child’s love. Both women should let the child know he or she is loved.
  • Monitor social and academic progress. Children being raised by a grandparent may feel rejected and abandoned by their parents. Elementary age children tend to blame themselves for a parent’s absence. This can cause depression, anger, and fear that grandparents too will leave. A child may direct anger toward classmates or he might have trouble paying attention in school and fall behind. In some cases counseling can help. Grandparents can also help by obtaining tutors (paid or volunteer), working with teachers, and helping with schoolwork.
  • Arrange relief from daily responsibilities. Full-time parenting at an older age can be especially exhausting. Grandparents should schedule time for rest, hobbies, exercise, and stress relief. Spending time alone or with friends can reenergize and renew.
  • Become aware of social services and rights. In 1995 a White House Conference on Aging addressed concerns of grandparents who provide childcare. They adopted resolutions to establish programs to aid caregiver grandparents legally, financially, and socially, including daycare, health care, and legal assistance. They addressed the issue of removing legal barriers for caregiver grandparents to have access to Aid to Families with Dependent Children and food stamps. While no laws were passed, the conference illustrates the increased awareness of grandparents as caregivers (White House Conference, 1996).

The Brookdale Foundation, a national association devoted to grandparents, funds a Grandparent Information Center that collects and distributes information about grandparenting. They also coordinate support groups. Another organization, Raising Our Children’s Kids: An Intergenerational Network of Grandparenting (ROCKING) has a directory of local support groups. These support groups, while usually not funded or run by trained professionals, allow grandparents to support one another and give each other ideas, tips, and a listening ear (Szinovacz & Roberts, 1994).


For More Information

http://www.cyberparent.com/gran/
Provides articles of interest to grandparents, a discussion group, ideas for activities with grandkids, and tips for keeping in touch with grandchildren.

http://www.aarp.org/confacts/programs/grandraising.html
Official website of the AARP foundation, a national program that provides services for seniors. It gives links to support groups, financial assistance, and other services for grandparents raising grandchildren.

http://www.nnfr.org/igen/gaap.html
Gives a brief overview of issues facing grandparents raising grandchildren. Discusses legal issues, financial assistance, and grandparent needs. Lists available resources including addresses and links to other websites for grandparents.

http://grandsplace.com/
A fun website that has links for children to find games and coloring, information for grandparents on everyday living, and provides a free newsletter.

http://hometown.aol.com/ChuckBio/web.html
The Grandparents Web Ring is an open email group for members interested in sharing educational ideas and stories about grandparenting. The site has links to Today’s Grandparent Magazine, Health News, Child Safety News, and other sites created by grandparents.

Written by Marisa Beebe, Research Assistant, and edited by Susanne Olsen Roper and Stephen F. Duncan, professors in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.


References

Almada, J. (2000, March 16). Grandparenting [Electronic version]. Christian Science Monitor, p. 19.

Barusch, A. S., & Steen, P. (1996, Spring). Keepers of community in a changing world: Grandparenting at century's end. Generations, 20(1), 49.

Bengtson, V. (1985). Diversity and symbolism in grandparent roles. In V. L. Bengtson & J. F. Robertson (Eds.), Grandparenthood (pp. 11-25). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Bowers, B. F., & Meyers, B. J. (1999). Grandmothers providing care for their grandchildren: Consequences of various levels of caregiving. Family Relations, 48(3), 303-309.

Brown, D. R., Monye, D. B., Robinson-Brown, D., & Brandon-Monye, D. (1995). Midlife and older African Americans as intergenerational caregivers of school-aged children. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University.

Burton, L. M., & Bengtson, V. L. (1985). Black grandmothers: Issues of timing and continuity of roles. In V. L. Bengtson and J. F. Robertson (Eds.), Grandparenthood (pp. 61-77). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Carson, L. (1996). The essential grandparent. Deerfield Beach: Health Communications, Inc.

Folsom, M. (1999, January 13). Grandparenting: Less is usually more [Electronic version]. Christian Science Monitor, 13.

Hirshorn, B. (1998). Grandparents as caregivers. In M. Szinovacz (Ed.), Handbook on grandparenthood (pp. 200-214). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Hodgson, L. G. (1998). Grandparents and older grandchildren. In M. Szinovacz (Ed.), Handbook on grandparenthood (pp. 159-170). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Hoyt, D. R., Huck, S. M., & Whitbeck, L. B. (1993). Family relationship history, contemporary parent-grandparent relationship quality and the grandparent-grandchild relationship. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 55, 1025-1035.

Johnson, C. (1998). Effects of adult children’s divorce on grandparenthood. In M. Szinovacz (Ed.), andbook on grandparenthood (pp. 184-199). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

King, V., & Elder, G. H. (1997). The legacy of grandparenting: Childhood experiences with grandparents and current involvement with grandchildren. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 59, 848-859.

King, V., & Elder, G. H. (1998). Education and grandparenting roles. Research on Aging, 20(4), 450-475.

Kornhaber, A., & Woodward, K. L. (1981). Grandparents, grandchildren: The vital connection . Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Long, J. D., & Silverstein, M. (1998). Trajectories of grandparents’ perceived solidarity with adult grandchildren: A growth curve analysis over 23 years. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 60, 912-923.

Morrow-Kondos, D., Weber, J. A., Cooper, K., & Hesser, J. L. (1997). Becoming parents again: Grandparents raising grandchildren. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 28, 35-46.

Olsen, S. F., Taylor, A. C., & Taylor, K. D. (2000). Intergenerational ties, Grandparenting, and extended family support. In D. Dollahite (Ed.), Strengthening our Families: An In-depth look at the proclamation on the family (pp. 83-99). Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft.

Oyserman, D., Radin, N., & Benn, R. (1993). Dynamics in a three-generational family: Teens, grandparents, and babies. Developmental Psychology, 29, 564-572.

Pebley, A. R., & Rudkin, L. L. (1999). Grandparents caring for grandchildren. Journal of Family Issues, 20(2), 218-243.

Peterson, C. (1999). Grandfathers’ and grandmothers’ satisfaction with the grandparenting role: Seeking new answers to old questions. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 49(1), 61-78.

Pruchno, R. A., & Johnson, K. W. (1996) Research on grandparenting: Review of current studies and future needs. Generations, 20(1), 65-71.

Roberto, K., & Stroes, J. (1992). Grandchildren and grandparents: Roles, influences, and relationships. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 34(3), 227-239.

Rutherford, M., DeQuine, J., Harrington, M., Moffett, A., Narayan, C., & Navon, A. (1999, October 11). Simply grand. Time, pp. 96A-101A.

Silverstein, M., & Long, J. D. (1998). Trajectories of grandparents' perceived solidarity with adult grandchildren: A growth curve analysis over 23 years. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 60, 912-923.

Smith, P. K. (1995) Grandparenthood. In M. H. Bornstein (Ed.), Handbook of parenting (Vol. 3) (pp. 89-112). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Solomon, J., & Marx, J. (1995). “To grandmother’s house we go:” Health and school adjustment of children raised solely by grandparents. The Gerontologist, 35, 386-394.

Somary, K., & Stricker, G. (1998). Becoming a grandparent: A longitudinal study of expectations and early experiences as a function of sex and lineage, The Gerontologist, 38(1), 53-61.

Spitze, G., Logan, J., Deane, G., & Zerger, S. (1994). Adult children’s divorce and intergenerational relationships. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 56, 279-293.

Staples, R. (1952). Appreciations and dislikes regarding grandmothers as expressed by granddaughters. Journal of Home Economics, 44, 340-343.

Strom, R., & Strom, S. (1991). Becoming a better grandparent. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Strom, R., & Strom, S. (1992). Grandparents and intergenerational relationships. Educational Gerontology18, 607-624.

Szinovacz, M. (1998). Grandparents today: A demographic profile. The Gerontologist, 38(1), 37-52.

Szinovacz, M., & Roberts, A. (1994). Programs for grandparents. In M. Szinovacz (Ed.), Handbook on grandparenthood (pp. 247-256). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Taylor, A. (1998). Perceptions of intergenerational bonds: The comparison between grandfathers and their adult grandchildren . Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Virginia.

Timberlake, E. M., & Chipungu, S. S. (1992). Grandmotherhood: Contemporary meaning among African American middle-class grandmothers. Social Work, 37(3), 216-222.

Tomlin, A. M. (1998). Grandparents’ influence on grandchildren. In M. Szinovacz (Ed.), Handbook on grandparenthood (pp. 159-170). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

White House Conference on Aging (1996). The road to an aging policy for the 21st century: Final report. Washington, DC: President of the U.S.

Importance of Grandparents to Their Grandchildren


Recent research emphasizes the important role grandparents play in their grandchildren's lives. Scholars have found that grandparents often serve as a role model, friend, caregiver, family historian, mentor, and source of unconditional love for their grandchildren.

This research confirms gospel teachings about the family. Latter-day Saints believe that families are eternal, and grandparents are an important link in the unbroken chain that binds families together.

Elder L. Tom Perry (1982) said, "How glorious are the Lord's teachings to his children that there can be eternal family associations with grandparents, parents, children, and grandchildren in one eternal family organization" (p. 59). He also taught (1985) the importance of the extended family: "To build a foundation strong enough to support a family in our troubled world today requires the best effort of each of us--father, mother, brother, sister, grandmother, grandfather, uncles, cousins" (p. 23).

One of grandparents' most important responsibilities is to help parents teach children. In the Book of Mormon, King Benjamin advised his people of their duty to teach children: "But ye will teach them to walk in the ways of truth and soberness; ye will teach them to love one another, and to serve one another" (Mosiah 4:15). Elder M. Russell Ballard (1991) taught that it is not only parents who have this responsibility to teach: "Parents share this sacred trust with . . . grandparents . . . and all who touch the lives and impress or influence the souls of those precious children" (p. 78).

Grandparents who teach their grandchildren to live and love the gospel, especially by their example, give a gift of eternal value. President Ezra Taft Benson (1989) said an important way grandparents can be examples is by writing their personal histories, sharing experiences, testimonies, and faith from their own lives. They can also be family historians, helping children learn about their ancestors and turning the hearts of the fathers to the children and the children to the fathers (Malachi 4:6).

Serving missions is another way grandparents can be an example of righteousness. Elder Hales (2001) promised that grandparents who are willing to leave their families to serve in the mission field will bring blessings to their families, including reactivation of family members, baptisms, and strengthened testimonies.

Grandparents can also set an example for succeeding generations by working in the temple, accepting and fulfilling Church callings, and giving Christ-like service (Benson, 1989).

The Family: A Proclamation to the World states that "extended families should lend support when needed" (¶ 7). Grandparents thus can help with childcare, be available in times of need, and lend emotional support. They can help make the home a safe, secure haven where children learn morals and values (Faust, 1987).

One of the best gifts grandparents can give grandchildren is time. Elder Neal A. Maxwell (1994) pleaded with parents and grandparents to "scrutinize your schedules and priorities in order to ensure that life's prime relationships get more prime time!" (p. 90).

President Benson (1989) suggested that grandparents nurture their relationships with grandchildren by reading books with them, sharing stories, and helping them gain a gospel perspective of life. Grandparents who live far away can send letters, tapes, and photos. They should make their best efforts to attend special family events such as graduations, weddings, temple trips, missionary farewells and homecomings, baby blessings, and baptisms.

President and Sister Gordon B. Hinckley exemplify good grandparenting (Thomas, 1997). First, they make time for their grandchildren. Their extended family gathers at least once a month for family home evening. They invite grandchildren to accompany them on speaking assignments or temple dedications. They show interest in their grandchildren's lives by asking about each individually, inquiring about school, sports, dating, etc. A special tradition is to hold a Christmas party for the grandchildren without their parents.

President Hinckley worries about the problems they face in an increasingly difficult world and offers advice and prayers to help them. He stays in touch with current culture so he can understand their challenges. Sister Hinckley keeps her grandchildren in mind while traveling, often sending letters and postcards from all over the world.

It is a grandparent's duty to help teach and raise grandchildren in the light of the gospel. By being good examples and making the effort to be involved in their grandchildren's lives, grandparents can be of invaluable service and influence.

For additional reading…

Benson, E. T. (1989, November). To the elderly in the churchEnsign, 4-8. 


References

Ballard, M. R. (1991, May). Teach the children. Ensign, 78-80. 

Benson, E. T. (1989, November). To the elderly in the church. Ensign, 4-8.

Faust, J. E. (1987, May). Will I be happy? Ensign, 80-82. 

The First Presidency and Council of the Twelve Apostles. (1995, November). The Family: A Proclamation to the World. Ensign, 102. 

Hales, R. D. (2001, May). Couple missionaries: A time to serve. Ensign, 25-27. 

Perry, L. T. (1982, May). Let us go up to the house of God. Ensign, 53-59. 

Thomas, J. (1997, April). My grandfather the prophet. New Era, 28-33.