Children and Grandparents

The relationship between children and their grandparents has played a central role in the family system for thousands of years. It is one of the truly intergenerational relationships most people achieve. Social scientists only started studying the relationship in the late 20th century.

Perspectives from theories such as family systems, evolutionary, attachment and lifespan development can be applied to the grandparent-grandchild relationship. The relationship is usually viewed as satisfying to the grandparent and edifying for the child. Grandparents can act as a family historian and as a confidant. Typically, grandparents who spend more time with their grandchildren express greater role satisfaction. Children's development can be influenced by their grandparents in a variety of ways. Some act as caretakers or surrogate parents. Others support the parents and give ideas for parenting techniques.

In the United States, about three quarters of adults will become grandparents, at the average age of 50 for women and 52 for men. Most will maintain grandparent status for a third of their lifespans. As the average lifespan increases, most children will grow up until adolescence with both sets of grandparents. Great-grandparenthood is a much rarer state, as adults typically lose their parents as they become grandparents.

Most research on grandparenting was conducted in the urban, industrial society of the United States and Western Europe. In the agrarian society, kinship was strong and parents expected children to support them in their old age. In modern society, an adult child's relationship with his or her parents is optional, and the trend toward divorce and remarriage makes all family relationships more dispersed. From the 1960s onward, the grandparent role was considered positive, focusing on the vital connection between grandparents and grandchildren.

When viewed from the perspective of evolutionary theory, grandparents are primed to assist with parenting at a time when their bodies are no longer prepared to produce children of their own. Evolution also suggests that grandparents will be more invested in grandchildren with perceived similarities in personality; research has proven that assumption correct.

Family sociology theory has been used extensively to describe grandparental relationships. Cohesion, solidarity, and measures of intergenerational family structure have all been applied to the construct. Sociological studies have pointed out possible contradictions between family expectations and grandparents' understanding of their role.

Life span development theory offers a framework for viewing intergenerational occurrences, and how grandparents can shield children from the difficulties created by divorcing parents. Behavior toward aging grandparents who become ill can be understood according to this theory.

Studies about frequency of contact show that most grandchildren see their grandparents frequently. The average amount is once or twice a month. Most reported the relationship as satisfying. The nature of the contacts varies according to the age of both participants. A majority reported grandparents fulfilling the following roles: giving treats, imparting family history, playing games, going on trips, babysitting, giving advice, taking part in family events and joining in religious activities. Children and adolescents often confide in grandparents, who are close but lack a parental authority role.

Factors such as gender, age and health influence grandparent-grandchild interactions. In terms of gender, grandmothers are usually more involved than are grandfathers. They are also more likely to find a sense of renewed parental fulfillment in the role. Grandfathers put greater emphasis on family continuity through the grandchildren. It has been shown that in terms of age, those over 65 tended to be less family oriented, and had less contact with their grandchildren. Younger grandchildren tended to describe relationships from an egocentric perspective, referring to treats and gifts received, while older children focused on activities performed together.

Grandparents wield both direct and indirect influence. Direct influence results from face-to-face interaction, while indirect influence is mediated by other means. An example of indirect influence is financial support. Another example is intergenerational transmission of parenting. Examples of direct influence are acting as a role model for aging, being a confidant and giving gifts.

In terms of intergenerational transmission of parenting skills, studies found a high correlation between parenting attitudes and practices between grandparents and parents. Parents tend to transmit to their children the same skills that their own parents had taught them. Across the generations, family cohesion is usually stable. The level of marital happiness usually reflects that of one's parents.

Not all grandparent-grandchild relationships are happy. Dysfunctional grandparenting displays different approaches that lead to poor relationships. Grandparent identity disorder refers to a choice to be uninvolved with grandchildren, and grandparent activity disorder describes the presence of conflict and alienation. Grandparent communication disorder applies to those who cannot openly communicate about actions or feelings. In contrast, functional grandparenting is marked by effective communication and altruistic behavior.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Psychology of Grandparenthood: An International Perspective
Peter K. Smith.
Routledge, 1991
The New American Grandparent: A Place in the Family, a Life Apart
Andrew J. Cherlin; Frank F. Furstenberg Jr.
Harvard University Press, 1992
Amazing Grace: African American Grandmothers as Caregivers and Conveyers of Traditional Values
Dorthy Smith Ruiz.
Praeger, 2004
Connecting Children: Care and Family Life in Later Childhood
Julia Brannen; Ellen Heptinstall; Kalwant Bhopal.
Routledge/Falmer, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "The Importance of Grandparents, Relatives, Friends, and Others"
Handbook of Parenting
Marc H. Bornstein.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, vol.3, 2002 (2nd edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "Grandparenthood"
Intergenerational Communication across the Life Span
Angie Williams; Jon F. Nussbaum.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 9 "The Grandparent-Grandchild Relationship"
Communication between Grandparents and Grandchildren in Geographically Separated Relationships
Holladay, Sherry J.; Seipke, Heather L.
Communication Studies, Vol. 58, No. 3, September 2007
College Students Perceptions of Social Support from Grandmothers and Stepgrandmothers
Block, Cindy Eileen.
College Student Journal, Vol. 36, No. 3, September 2002
The Roles of Grandparents in Educating Today's Children
Reynolds, Glenda Phillips; Wright, James V.; Beale, Betty.
Journal of Instructional Psychology, Vol. 30, No. 4, December 2003
Many Pathways to Literacy: Young Children Learning with Siblings, Grandparents, Peers, and Communities
Eve Gregory; Susi Long; Dinah Volk.
RoutledgeFalmer, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Part I "The Family Context: Siblings and Grandparents"
School-Age Children Raised by Their Grandparents: Problems and Solutions
Edwards, Oliver W.; Daire, Andrew P.
Journal of Instructional Psychology, Vol. 33, No. 2, June 2006
"Grand" Expectations: The Experiences of Grandparents and Adult Grandchildren *
Kemp, Candace L.
Canadian Journal of Sociology, Vol. 29, No. 4, Fall 2004
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