The Influence of Grandparents on Children's Diets
Roberts, Michele, Pettigrew, Simone, Journal of Research for Consumers
Grandparents play an important role in feeding their grandchildren, yet the families in this qualitative study reported that grandparents usually provide their children with unhealthy food. Grandparents were frequently discussed as one of the major enablers of children's unhealthy eating, yet they remain overlooked in campaigns to improve children's diets. The findings suggest ways that social marketers can develop specific campaigns to improve children's diets through their grandparents.
The Australian Government estimates that almost three-quarters of the Australian population will be overweight or obese by 2025, including one-third of all children (National Preventative Health Taskforce 2008). Obesity has been declared a major epidemic in Australia and throughout the world. The physical symptoms of obesity in childhood and adolescence include increased cardiovascular disease, abnormal glucose metabolism, hepaticgastrointestinal abnormalities, and orthopaedic problems. Child obesity also has a strong association with Type-2 diabetes. Type-2 diabetes can later lead to heart disease, stroke, limb amputation, kidney failure, and blindness. The mental health problems include low selfesteem, depression, and increased likelihood of suicide ideation and suicide attempts. Obese children also suffer from increased exposure to bullying, both as victims and perpetrators.
There are many studies examining the influence of families on children's diets, and these have identified a range of factors including parental knowledge, parenting style, parental modelling, and home environment. In almost all studies, the role of grandparents remains unexamined. John (1999) argued that family consumption influence needs to be studied at a disaggregate level, breaking it down into discrete influences, such as father to son, or in the case of this study, grandparent to grandchild. This may provide specific, and therefore more actionable, insights to improve children's diets.
Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS 2008) indicate that 28% of grandparents regularly care for their grandchildren while their parents work, and as many as 39% provide care during school holidays. During a 12 month period, 83% of children had been cared for by their grandparents. Younger children are up to four times more likely to be cared for by grandparents than by formal day care centres, yet while grandparents have been largely ignored, day care centres have received considerable attention from those seeking to improve children's diets.
Little is known about the influence of grandparents on children's diets. This paper reports findings from a qualitative study of children's diets that explicitly examined the influence of family groups and peer groups. The study focused on the social and psychological factors contributing to child obesity, and in doing so uncovered important insights on the role of grandparents. These insights can inform social marketing interventions that aim to improve children's diets.
Data were collected in three schools - one higher, one middle, and one lower socioeconomic status (SES) school. The participants included both children (n=124, including five children living with their grandparents) and parents (n=29). The children were aged from 6 to 12 years. Table 1 provides a breakdown of the gender and SES profiles of the sample members. The number of men in the study was low which reflects the fact that only primary carers were recruited into the study.
Grandparents were reported by many parents as having considerable impact on their grandchildren's diets. This occurred through their use of foods as gifts and their role as childcare providers, as discussed below. Identifiers are provided with each quote to indicate the SES of the school from which children and parents were recruited (low (LSES), medium (MSES), and high (HSES)) and the data collection format (group or individual (indiv)).
Killing them with Kindness
Food seemed to be a tool that many of the grandparents used to differentiate their role from that of other carers and parents and to send the message that time spent with them was more rewarding than time with other adults.
The grandparents just come with the sugared buns and the lollies every time they see the kids, so the kids automatically associate Nanna and Grandpa with lollies and food...Probably every couple of weeks they see them and Mum will bring a big bag of lollies with her (HSES, mother, indv).
My mum is constantly offering all of her grandchildren rubbish. Whenever she looks after them, when we go to pick them up she's given them three icy poles. It's not just one, it's in excess. So, she's a real big problem when it comes to trying to teach the kids to eat well (LSES, mother, group).
This difference in attitude between parents and grandparents may stem from grandparents' perception that the grandchildren are only with them for a limited time and so everyday rules need not apply. However, it is apparent from the comment below that some of these children were spending considerable amounts of time in their grandparents' care.
Nanna would buy them - she used to live round the corner from Hungry Jacks and McDonald's. It was always, 'Can we go to Nanna's for dinner?' We would pop up to Nanna's, and she would be like, 'Let's go to McDonald's'. It used to be a very big problem. Or they would go and stay at her house and she would be cooking and they would say, 'We don't want vegetables tonight', and she would say, 'All right', and give them steak and chips (LSES, mother, indv).
The Rebel Grandparent
This grandparental behaviour did not appear to be accounted for by ignorance or insensitivity to the parents' wishes. Some grandparents were reported to deliberately flout parental food rules, positioning themselves as a higher authority than parental law. The rebel grandparent was a recurring theme in the discussions about grandparents and food.
When we visit them they say, 'I'm the grandma, I can do what I like' (HSES, mother, group).
When I was trying to introduce new things and they didn't want to eat, they would ring my mum, and Mum would say, 'You don't have to do this' (MSES, mother, indiv).
A particular theme alluded to was the grandparents sneaking food behind parents' backs. There were several accounts of grandparents blatantly subverting parental authority.
My grandparents are constantly sneaking things to them as long as I can remember (MSES, mother, indv).
The dog knocked over her bowl of pasta which had been specially brought from home and she was terribly upset. My mum is here going, 'I've got a bag of Twix here she can eat'. My sister said, 'No, she's got some fruit here - she can eat some fruit', and we actually saw her pull my niece aside and give her the Twix and say, 'Here eat these' (LSES, mother, group).
This 'sneaking' emphasises that these grandparents are adults who do not necessarily respect or comply with parental authority. This may help to create a special and unique adultchild relationship that serves as a long-term investment which could pay dividends in the child's continued relationship with the grandparents as they develop interests beyond the family.
Several children alluded to the rebel grandparent, explaining how they regularly received products from their grandparents that were restricted at home. In most cases, it seemed that they were certain to receive the product.
Child: The main time I go to McDonald's is when I'm at Gran and Grandad's house...
Researcher: What else do they get you that Mum and Dad won't get?
Child: Starbursts, those little Starbursts square lollies, I love them. They get them and they get Lemonade. They've got all the fizzy drinks (MSES, girl, indv).
Child: I tried Roll Ups at my Grandpa's place.
Researcher: What else does Grandpa get you that you like?
Child: He gets me Freddo and sometimes these [points to Oreo bars]...Sometimes the chips...I think they are good for a snack when Grandpa picks me up.
Researcher: Is there stuff that you're allowed at Grandpa's that Mum won't buy?
Child: Yes, she won't let me buy chocolate donuts (HSES, boy, group).
My grandmother, she usually buys us chocolates, and I don't really get them at home (HSES, girl, group).
The excerpt below reveals an interesting aspect of the rebel grandparent. It appears that parents who try to persuade grandparents to support healthy eating may trigger a novel form of reverse psychological reactance, whereby the parents (or in this case, grandparents) rebel against pressure to conform from their own children.
You go up there [to the grandparents] and Mum says, 'Here have a juice', and I say, 'Mum, they don't drink juice', and she says, 'But they like it when they come here, and it's not juice it's the 35%'. So yes, it does cause a little bit of conflict...She probably does it more of a power thing - not liking your child telling you what's healthy (HSES, mother, indv).
The findings also indicated that grandmothers can be disparaging of their daughters' attempts to improve their children's diets. Rather than supporting their daughters' efforts to encourage healthy eating, some of the grandmothers appeared to be quite dismissive of health concerns.
They [grandparents] do mock me a bit because I'll say, 'No, because it's got too much colours'. They do mock me (HSES, mother, indv).
Researcher: Do you find other people support your feeding practices?
Mother: My mum came over and I said, 'Try not to give her anything like Coke', and she was like, 'Oh that's rubbish, it doesn't affect them' (MSES, mother, group).
It thus appears that grandparents can play a critical role in reinforcing or undermining healthy eating for their grandchildren. This is likely to be particularly the case for single working mothers who can be highly dependent on the grandparents help with childcare.
To conclude, the findings of this study indicate that grandparents are an important group that is currently being overlooked in campaigns to reduce child obesity. Stereotypes of the grandparent role may be contributing to suboptimal feeding behaviours that can have implications for children's weight status. Further research is required to explore this phenomenon in more detail.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008), Media Release: Families Week Facts and Figures from the ABS, Canberra.
John, Deborah R. (1999), "Consumer Socialization of Children: A Retrospective Look at Twenty-Five years of Research", Journal of Consumer Research, 26, 183-213.
National Preventative Health Taskforce 2008, Australia: The Healthiest Country by 2020 - A Discussion Paper.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: The Influence of Grandparents on Children's Diets. Contributors: Roberts, Michele - Author, Pettigrew, Simone - Author. Journal title: Journal of Research for Consumers. Issue: 18 Publication date: January 1, 2010. Page number: 1+. © Dr. Simone Pettigrew 2007. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.