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GRANDPARENTS TODAY

"Uncles, and aunts, and cousins, are all very well, and fathers and mothers are not to be despised; but
a grand-mother is worth them all."
Fanny Fern, Folly As It Flies (1868)

The family is changing, and grandparenting is changing with it. Painting a picture of grandparenting today is complicated. For example, on one hand, greater mobility has meant that families are spread across the country and many children aren't able to see their grandparents regularly. Life is hectic for all generations and even families who live near each other don't spend much time together. On the other hand, people are having fewer children and living longer. For most of human history, families looked like a pyramid, with few older members at the top and many young members at the bottom. Today, families are shaped more vertically, like a beanpole, with a more equal number of members in each generation. With fewer family members in each generation, intergenerational relationships can take on added significance.

Grandparents Today

By the year 2030, 1 in every 5 Americans will be over 65 years of age. Elders can play a vital role in the course of the family and our society. We are at a pivotal moment in history. In many ways, grandparenting is at a crossroads – and we can all play a role in choosing the path it takes. We can choose to redefine it, recognize it, validate it, support it, and celebrate it in a way that empowers all generations.


It's Grand!

The title "parent" is an honorable one. People are proud when they become "parents." Many people describe the birth of their first child as one of the most momentous events of their life. But the title "grandparent" seems to be a bit more loaded. Perhaps it's because "grandparent" is often perceived to be synonymous with "old," which is considered a "bad" or undesirable thing in our youth-obsessed culture. Grandparenting is certainly about generations, but not necessarily about old age – especially today as active, educated, healthy baby boomers head into their grandparenting years. Perhaps the title "grandparent" is also more complicated because it isn't something we have direct control over. Someone else chooses when we become a grandparent. With the birth of their first grandchild, many grandparents experience a mixture of emotions – pleasure, tension, anxiety, gratitude, resentment – as well as positive and negative expectations of themselves and their adult children.

Fundamentally though, grandparenting is, well, just that – grand. The definition of "grand" is: magnificent; splendid; noble; wonderful or very pleasing; of great importance and distinction. Why wouldn't someone want that title? Grandparenthood can be a "second chance." People often feel they weren't able to spend as much time with their children when they were young as they would have liked, or they made some mistakes they've learned from. Grandchildren are a fresh start. Grandparenting can offer many of the joys and benefits of parenting, without many of the hassles, constraints, and day-to-day responsibilities. The grandparent/grandchild relationship is also a very important one – second in emotional importance only to the parent/child relationship.


What Does It Look Like?

Today's grandparents range in age from 30 to 110 years old, and grandchildren range from newborns to retirees. The dramatic increases in long, healthy lives, coupled with the fact that an increasing number of teens are bearing children, have produced a society in which three quarters of us can expect to become a grandparent and to remain in that role for many years, eventually becoming great-grandparents too. Research shows the grandparent role tends to be more important for the working class, for the less educated, for those who are older, for those who are unemployed or retired, for widows, and for those who are not involved in community affairs. There are no clearly-defined societal rules or expectations for being a grandparent. Relationships between grandparents and grandchildren are in many ways optional and individually specified.

Looking primarily at grandmothers for a moment, here are just some of the faces she may have today:

  • A woman holds a full-time managerial position in a multinational company and, on the weekends, has also made it a priority to spend at least a couple of hours visiting with her 4-year-old granddaughter.

  • Another grandmother, employed part-time, helps care for her toddler grandson while her daughter is at work.

  • A 52-year-old homemaker can hardly wait for her twin grandbabies to be born.

  • A 43-year-old divorced woman goes to the hospital to see her first grandchild.

  • A 62-year-old grandmother helps her teenage granddaughter through the divorce of her parents.

  • A couple in their 60s get their grandson to come and help work their farm over the summer.

  • A set of grandparents living on one coast envy the closer relationship the other set of grandparents, who live on the other coast near their grandchildren, has with the grandchildren.

  • A recently retired couple plans an extended trip to visit grandchildren who are attending different colleges across the country.

  • A grandmother tells her teenage grandchildren about cultural rituals and customs passed down from her grandmother.

  • An immigrant grandmother, living with her daughter and son-in-law, participates in child rearing and passes down traditions from the "old country."

  • Another grandmother helps her teenage daughter care for her newborn as they all share a home.

  • A woman and her husband, who had wanted to retire but must now continue working, are raising their grandson because his mother is addicted to drugs.

  • A couple goes to court to try to get visitation to their three young grandchildren because the parents are denying them access.

  • A remarried woman buys Christmas gifts for her three biological grandchildren and two stepgrandchildren.

  • A son brings his mother to live with him, his wife, and two teenagers after she is diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

  • An 83-year-old woman in poor health can no longer take care of her home and is helped by her adult grandson to take care of her affairs and move into a care facility.

  • A 92-year-old woman looks forward all week to weekend visits from her child, grandchildren, and great-grandchild.


There are an estimated 65 million grandparents in the US. By 2020, the number of grandparents is projected to reach 80 million, at which time they will be nearly 1 in 3 adults.

About 1 in 10 households headed by someone who is a grandparent has at least one grandchild living with them. Part of the reason for this is the recession-driven high unemployment among their grandchildren's parents. 34% of these households had neither parent of the grandchild in the household. About 2.5 million grandparents are responsible for raising their grandchildren.

On the other hand, in an informal AARP survey, 75% of respondents said they wish they could see their grandchildren more often. Only about 33% live less than 25 miles away from their grandchildren and are able to see their grandchildren several times a week. Nearly 90% reported that their grandchildren's parents encourage calls and visits. 25% provide regular day care for their grandchildren. Only a tiny fraction – well under 1% – said that grandparenting is not their cup of tea. Many respondents could count the number of their grandchildren on one hand, but nearly 5% have 20 or more grandchildren each, and a few report more than 70 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. To the question "What is most satisfying about being a grandparent?", about 45% said "unconditional love" – without, many added, the burden of having to discipline children. Other popular answers: "watching grandchildren grow and develop", "seeing their faces light up when I come in", and "passing on family and religious values."


A Quick Look at History

To better understand grandparenting today, it's helpful to take a quick look back in history.

During the 18th and early 19th centuries, grandparents, particularly grandfathers, exerted considerable economic and social influence based on land ownership. Elder male landholders generally retained their land and authority over their families until they died.

With industrialization in the 19th century, the standing of elder landholders was undermined. The power and authority once granted for experience and wisdom decreased. New technology often made the talents of the old appear obsolete. And the new economy offered an attractive alternative to young adults who, in the past, would have dutifully worked in the family enterprise.

Increases in life expectancy increased the longevity of older family members, but they were likely to be chronically ill and require care. So, the proportion of trigenerational households increased significantly. While people honored the ideal of mutual support in families, unclear lines of authority often led to conflict and dissension. As Samuel Butler wrote in 1885:

I believe that more unhappiness comes from this source than from any other – I mean from the attempt to prolong the family connection unduly and to make people hang together artificially who would never naturally do so…. And the old people do not really like it so much better than the young.


Family experts argued that grandparents in the home limited the happiness and prosperity of young and old alike. Although they never directly attacked the idea of family obligation, they counseled that such duties were best fulfilled through separate households. There was an emerging view of the old as burdensome and nonproductive. Aging was viewed in medical terms as a disease. Bottom line: older people tended not to be valued as workers or within the family circle.

The economic collapse of the Great Depression meant more families found themselves "doubling up" to cut expenses. The Social Security legislation that emerged from this era, as well as more widely available private pensions, produced a third phase of grandparenting. It evolved from the widespread desire for financial and residential independence for older adults.

In 1900, over 60% of older adults lived with children; by 1962, that dropped to 25%; and by 1975 it dropped to only 14%. Older adults started viewing autonomy and leisure as the goals of their "golden years." They had no important economic role in family life, but neither did they pose a threat. Their independence meant they could become companions and friends to their grandchildren. Experts counseled grandparents to strive for love and friendship with their grandchildren rather than demand respect and obedience. So, rather than disciplining, grandparents cuddled; rather than speaking authoritatively, they listened affectionately.

Because the role of grandparents was not clearly defined, it came to be viewed almost as a "frill," a role not essential to the functioning of the family or the growth and development of children. Grandparents themselves feared "meddling" in their children's and grandchildren's lives. So, while the relationship, when it existed, could be very positive, its limited and tenuous nature overall brought us to where we find ourselves today.


Grandparenting in Flux

There are no rules about how to perform as a competent grandparent. The role of grandparent today doesn't involve clear, generally accepted expectations. The relationship between grandparent and grandchild is negotiated very much on a family-by-family, individual-by-individual basis. Gender, culture, proximity, divorce, age and health of a grandparent, and the grandparent's relationships with the grandchild's parents can all profoundly influence the grandparent/grandchild relationship. This latter factor is particularly important.

Parents are a bridge between grandparents and grandchildren. They act as gatekeepers and in many ways set the tone for the relationship. Greater closeness and contact between parents and grandparents equals more closeness and contact between grandchildren and grandparents. In some cases, parents deny grandparents access to grandchildren. Grandparent rights have received increasing attention. Although no state grants an automatic right to visitation, the majority of states have enacted laws which promote grandparent visitation when it's found to be in a child's best interest.

Another important factor in the quality of the grandparent/grandchild relationship is the acceptance of the grandparent role by the grandparent. Increasingly, older adults have second careers, travel widely, and are actively engaged in sports or other activities. These are not the traditional stereotypes we have of grandparents. As well, Boomers are changing grandparenting in particular, and the concept of aging in general. They grew up in a distinct social, economic, and political climate. They are not a quiet and acquiescent generation; they are accustomed to raising their voices in social protest and prompting social change.

Because today's grandparents live longer, grandparenthood is likely to intersect with multiple life transitions, and both grandparents' and grandchildren's involvement in other roles will vary considerably over time, making the grandparent experience more complex. First, the initial transition to grandparenthood may be marked by considerable role overlap and perhaps role conflict. At the onset of grandparenthood, grandparents are typically married and employed. Thus, both retirement and widowhood typically occur after the transition to grandparenthood. Also, there may be conflicting demands for the care of older parents versus grandchildren.

With families under increasing stress, one of the directions in which grandparenting may well head is greater involvement in the lives of grandchildren. It's the grandparent who often provides the supplementary childcare that enables both parents or a single parent to work. It's the grandparent who can help out when a last-minute emergency means a parent needs to be away from home. It's the grandparent who finds the extra money to buy that special birthday gift for a child. And, when there is a need for someone to step in as a substitute parent, it's most often the grandparent who holds the family itself together. In this way, grandparents are increasingly playing an important and often unrecognized role in the functioning of the modern family.


The Grandparent/Grandchild Relationship

As has been discussed, being a grandparent is in many ways voluntary. And grandparenting doesn't necessarily come naturally, certainly no more naturally than being a parent and doing a good job at it. You can't take the relationship for granted and expect that it will "just happen."

The lives of grandparents and their grandchildren can be linked in a number of ways: through roles; through interactions; through sentiments; through exchanges of support.

There are three general styles of grandparenting: involved, companionate, and remote. Some research shows the companionate style is most common among American grandparents, followed by the remote, and then the involved. Not surprisingly, younger grandparents tend to be more informal in their style, while older grandparents are more formal.

Research has shown that the degree of closeness between a grandparent and a grandchild is affected by several dimensions: affection (emotional closeness); association (frequency of contact); consensus (levels of agreement in the family); normative quality (importance placed on familial obligations); structure (geographic proximity); and function (helping behavior).

Research also shows that grandchildren don't respond to the role of grandparent but instead to each individual person fulfilling the role. In other words, grandchildren don't get attached to grandparents in general, but to specific grandparents.

According to an AARP survey, the top five activities grandparents say they do with their grandchildren are: eating together (either in or out); watching TV or playing on the computer; staying overnight; shopping for clothes; engaging in exercise/sports.

Grandchildren view their relationship with their grandparents as important to their lives, with enjoyment, emotional ties, and obligation affecting how they define the significance of the relationship. Young children see their relationship with their grandparents in terms of what a grandparent does for them, whereas adolescents find in the grandparent someone willing to listen to them and maintain their trust. Young adults, with somewhat more perspective and life experience, begin to better convey a grandparent's influence in their lives, particularly with regard to value-laden topics like politics and religion.

Grandparents directly influence their grandchildren through things like transmitting family values, teaching specific skills, or even surrogate parenting. Indirect influence occurs through grandparent-parent or parent-grandchild interactions. For example, a grandparent's parenting of the middle generation may impact the middle generation's later parenting of the third generation. Grandparent interactions with the middle generation may influence grandchildren by providing role models for intergenerational relationships. Grandparents can also indirectly influence grandchildren by assisting in relationships between grandchildren and their parents (e.g. when teenage parents lack parenting skills).


Stepgrandparents

Divorce is both an ending and a beginning. New relationships bring new members into families. Between 20% and 25% of grandparents will be stepgrandparents either through their own or through their adult children's divorces and remarriages. Many children have 6 to 8 adults in the "grandparent" role in their lives.

The nature of a child's relationship with a stepgrandparent depends on the child's age (the younger a child, the easier it is to build a relationship), any existing relationships the child has with other grandparents, the stepgrandparent's relationship with the parent/stepparent, and a stepgrandparent's feelings about and desire to build a bond.

As with biological grandchildren, relationships with stepgrandchildren vary. If a stepgrandparent takes the time to build a bond with a stepgrandchild, it can become a significant relationship in that child's life. Children will always respond to an adult who takes a genuine interest in them and gives them time and attention.


A Model of Aging

One of the most important functions of today's grandparents is that they are living, breathing models of growing older in all its diversity. The increasingly multigenerational family shapes children's view of aging in general, and their own aging in particular.

Today's healthier, more active grandparents have an opportunity to completely change the way we perceive aging. 80-year-olds are comparable in well-being and vigor to 60-year-olds in the last generation; 60-year-olds are like 40-year-olds, and so on. People used to think if you were in your 60s you were in a rocker basically waiting to die. Now if someone passes away before their 80s, people say it's a shame because "they were still young."

At the same time, because of gains in longevity, many grandchildren will be exposed to both grandparents' and great-grandparents' frailty and eventual deaths. Researchers divide older adulthood into three general groups: "young-old" (65-74), "old-old" (75-84), and the "oldest-old" (85+). In 1960, a 65-year-old had a 1 in 7 chance of living to be 90; a 65-year-old today has a 1 in 4 chance.

The way in which parents respond to aging grandparents also teaches children something: it sets expectations for how children will care for their parents when they are older.

At their best, relationships across generations are defined in the often-used symbol of holding hands. A grandmother may hold her little granddaughter's hand as they cross the street. Thirty years later, it is the adult granddaughter taking her frail grandmother's hand. But they are still holding hands. It is a relationship that has withstood the tests of age and time.

© SV Bosak, www.legacyproject.org

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