Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

American Children View Their Grandparents: Linked Lives across Three Rural Generations

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

American Children View Their Grandparents: Linked Lives across Three Rural Generations

Article excerpt

The economy has well-known effects on family life and generational relations (Hareven, 1982), from changes in the division of labor and socialization, to kin exchange and cultural beliefs. However, little is known about these effects in the declining rural populations of modern societies. Even the basic distinction between farm families and rural families involved in nonfarm pursuits is rarely made, despite the unusual collective nature of the former where members are heavily dependent upon each other in their microeconomy (Barlett, 1993). For farm families, work and family roles are interwoven in social and physical space.

This collective enterprise has important implications for relations between grandparents and their adult children and grandchildren, from frequent social interactions to shared experience and understandings. Contact with grandparents is not limited to occasional visits, vacations, or holidays. Grandparents are relatively accessible in the farm child's everyday life. When farm children leave home to marry and work, they invariably add greater physical distance to intergenerational relations (Elder, Rudkin, & Conger, 1994). The more this departure involves nonagricultural pursuits, the greater the distance is likely to be. Assuming that grandparents play a larger or at least different role in the lives of farm children when compared with those in nonfarm communities, the social consequences of a substantial population decline in rural society would be expected to feature corresponding changes in intergenerational relations.

This study examines differences between rural farm and nonfarm families in the extent and quality of relations between grandchildren (G3) and their grandparents (G1), with specific attention to the mediating or bridging influences of the parents' relations (G2) with both generations. Which relationship is most central to viable ties between children and their grandparents? Does the bridging relationship vary between farm and nonfarm families? Not surprisingly, the key factor appears to be the relationships of adult parents with their own parents (Whitbeck, Hoyt, & Huck, 1993), but how this applies to farm and nonfarm families is unknown. When parents are at odds with their own parents, the latter are unlikely to have close relations with grandchildren in this family.

Clearly, frequency of contact and quality of ties only partially depict intergenerational relations, but they are central features of any relationship. It is through visitation that grandparents are able to build and maintain a relationship with their own grandchildren. Grandparents who visit often are more likely to establish a qualitatively stronger relationship with grandchildren than those who rarely visit (Kornhaber & Woodward, 1981). Relationship quality also indicates the salience of family members to one another.


No studies to date have directly examined how grandchild-grandparent relationships vary within the rural population of farm and nonfarm families. Furthermore, the effect of mediating relationships on ties between G3 and G1 has received limited attention. This neglect has important consequences in the interdependent world of family ties (Rossi & Rossi, 1990). As Hagestad (1985, p. 44) noted, in order to understand the G3-G1 relationship, we must consider three sets of relationships: parent-grandparent, child-parent, and grandchild-grandparent, The latter relationship is inseparable from the other two and is most completely understood in their context (Kivnick, 1984,p.42).

The parent generation serves as an important mediating link between grandchildren and grandparents, either facilitating or hindering interaction and the quality of their relationship (Robertson, 1975; Tinsley & Parke, 1984; Troll. 1980). Furthermore, parental involvement with and attitudes toward their elderly parents are transmitted to children, thereby establishing the G2-G1 relation ship as a model of family interaction for the young. …

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