Grandparents play an important role these days in helping parents balance the demands of work and family by providing various forms of care for their grandchildren. They are there for family emergencies, to take grandchildren out for the day, home for the night, or just spend time with them.
Grandparents, but particularly grandmothers, are highly motivated to support their own children (the parents of grandchildren) when they need help. However, there is little to celebrate the contribution that grandparents make to their family; there is no Grandparent's Day, and often a great deal of what they do is taken for granted.
Grandparents are usually thrilled at the birth of their first grandchild and look forward to having a fulfilling relationship with the child over the years without the responsibility involved in being a parent. At this stage they often do not realise the extent to which having a grandchild may change their lives.
Of course, there are some grandparents who choose to have only a symbolic relationship with their grandchildren and do not take an active part in their lives. These grandparents may give birthday and presents on other occasions to their grandchildren but are content to do very little else. But most grandparents do much more.
Parents often understand very little about grandparents and the issues involved in their relationships with their children and grandchildren and the aspects of their role and relationships that may be troubling or difficult.
Many grandparents make enormous investments in their grandchildren including love, attention, time, energy, and sometimes money. Grandparents take on many tasks and activities including the following:
How much time grandparents have with their grandchildren is in many ways up to the parents. Grandparents may wish to have a close and loving relationship with their grandchildren but be prevented in doing so due to various factors. The key to their relationship with their grandchildren is their relationship with their own child and his or her partner. If the grandparents have a difficult relationship with their own child and/or their child's partner they are unlikely to have a close relationship with their grandchild.
Other factors that may affect the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren are:
Maternal grandparents are more likely to have close and ongoing relationships with their daughter's children than with their son's and sometimes relationships develop along gender lines with grandfathers closer to grandsons and grandmothers closer to granddaughters. Paternal grandparents, in particular, are more likely to lose touch with grandchildren if a son divorces or remarries than are maternal grandparents.
If grandparents have more than one family of grandchildren they may have very different relationships with each of these families and with each of the grandchildren. Where relationships in the extended family are tenuous or difficult, grandparents may invest their affections and interest in one particular grandchild or one family of grandchildren only. This is called (by American researchers) ‘selective investment' and it enables grandparents to feel satisfied with their grandparent role even if they do not have a close relationship with all their grandchildren.
Grandparents generally feel that they are making a significant contribution to the lives of their grandchildren and see them regularly and/or talk to them on the telephone.
Grandparents have a range of different styles of relating to their grandchildren and parents may be able to pick out the style used by the grandparents of their children. The following are the different styles that have been found in research:
Research has also found that the things grandparents enjoy most about being a grandparent are:
Most grandparents enjoy being able to indulge and enjoy their grandchildren but can lose this enjoyment if they have too much responsibility for their care. Grandparents may also be seen as experienced in child rearing but find that the changes in parenting mean that they feel inadequate and that they do not know enough about child development and behaviour management.
When there are disagreements between grandparents and parents they are most likely to be over differences in child rearing beliefs. Some grandparents feel that there is not enough advice or support geared specifically for grandparents rather than parents.
Becoming a grandparent is an indication of getting older even if the grandparent is relatively young at the time. As their grandchildren develop and change, grandparents age and these relationships change.
At adolescence, when grandchildren are breaking away from their parents, they may also have little to do with their grandparents. On the other hand they may turn to them for advice and support. Grandparents, like parents, must ‘let go' of grandchildren when necessary.
As grandparents grow older they are likely to find that they get tired when caring for younger grandchildren, and also that health issues make their involvement more difficult than when they (the grandparents) were younger.
Some may be reluctant to let their children know the personal difficulties that they face in caring for grandchildren, and parents should be aware that health issues may occur without their being aware of them.
Researchers have found that there are five areas of anxiety and stress in the grandparent role. These are:
Grandparents, unlike parents, (unless they are bringing up grandchildren), are not enmeshed in the daily hassles and routines of life with their grandchildren and this gives them a wider and often more positive view of their development and their potential.
Grandparents have a sense of family renewal which is emotionally fulfilling for them and encouraging for their grandchildren and their own children (the parents). Grandparents are contributing not only to their own family but to the community in ways that can not be measured, and which we as a society need to acknowledge.
Article written by Dr Gay Ochiltree*, (Faculty of Education, University of Melbourne) and author of Grandparents, grandchildren and the generation in between.
*Ochiltree, Gay (2006), Grandparents, grandchildren and the generation in between, Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), Melbourne www.acerpress.com.au (tollfree 1800 338 402).