Involvement without Interference: How Grandparents Negotiate Intergenerational Expectations in Relationships with Grandchildren

By Breheny, Mary; Stephens, Christine et al. | Journal of Family Studies, August 2013 | Go to article overview

Involvement without Interference: How Grandparents Negotiate Intergenerational Expectations in Relationships with Grandchildren


Breheny, Mary, Stephens, Christine, Spilsbury, Lorraine, Journal of Family Studies


ABSTRACT: Grandparents play a key role in many families. Examining talk about grandparenting provides a way to understand expectations structured by family roles and wider societal expectations. In this study, 29 grandparents talked about their experiences of grandparenting in New Zealand Participants described the joys and wonder of grandparenting, however, boundaries must be continually negotiated or conflict can occur. Participants described governing their behaviour according to the need to balance connection with their grandchildren and the rights of their adult children to raise children in accordance with their own values. Grandparents constructed relationships with grandchildren as demonstrations of involvement without crossing boundaries into interference. To achieve this, the contemporary grandparent--grandchild relationship was described as based on caring and companionship. Tensions between involvement and interference provide a framework through which grandparents monitor and balance an appropriate level of interaction with grandchildren and may constrain their ability to intervene in family difficulties.

KEYWORDS: grandparents, grandchildren, independence, discourse analysis

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Grandparents play a key role in many families and the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren can be a special one (Harwood, 2004; Thiele & Whelan, 2006). Research suggests that there are benefits in well-being and morale for grandparents who participate and identify in their role as grandparents (King & Elder, 1997; Shapiro, 2004). The quality of the grandparent-grandchild relationship has also been found to be strongly related to the grandparent-parent bond. Some theorists suggest that the investment in grandchildren is primarily to seek reconnection with the child, rather than the grandchild (Friedman, Hechter, & Kreager, 2008). Others place the importance of the social role of companionate grandparent as providing a different form of status (Harwood, 2004). Participation in the grandparent role helps construct evidence for the older individual's active participation in social life, strong family ties, and in particular for their position as a productive member of both the family, and society.

Although grandparenting is often reported to be a positive experience, grandparenting has become complex as contemporary family structures change (Gauthier, 2002; Kemp, 2004). As mothers of young children are increasingly involved in the paid workforce, the role of grandparents has changed. Many grandparents provide childcare for their grandchildren on a regular or irregular basis, often because of parental work commitments (Kerslake Hendricks, 2010). In the context of the widespread valorisation of family care, grandparents become a common choice enabling both family care and working parents. Some grandparents reported difficulty in turning down requests for childcare, indicating that childcare is a socially prescribed obligation of the contemporary grandparent role.

Changes in family structures are governed by powerful social and cultural expectations that influence how rights, responsibilities and emotions are played out in family life. Such social roles and expectations are not separate, but work together in contrasting and complementary ways to shape expectations and identity. Although family relationships are intensely personal relationships that reflect affection and intimacy; they also reflect socially and culturally prescribed obligations to others (Breheny & Stephens, 2012). Thus, caring is a moral practice, informed by socially shared norms. Expectations and judgements of behaviour within relationships are based on these shared norms or ideologies. Pahl (2007) describes how these ideologies include the roles, responsibilities, and appropriate behaviour of individuals within families according to age, gender and family position. Pahl's notion of the moral economy of family life can be usefully applied to understand the construction of grandparenting and the ways that rights and responsibilities of grandparents are shaped between generations. …

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