How Important Grandparents Are to Children

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This is a First in a Ongoing Series on How Important Grandparents Are to Children

With falling fertility and the demographic ageing of Western industrialized societies, family networks are changing from broad/horizontal to narrow/vertical structures or ‘beanpole families’, in which grandparents arguably have an increasingly important role to play (Hagestad, 2000)

Grandparents and grandchildren do all sorts of things together, such as taking part in family events, having treats, imparting family history, playing games, going on holidays, shopping, watching TV or videos, babysitting, giving emergency help, giving personal advice, joining in religious activity, and giving advice on school (Smith & Drew, 2002).

When we go places with Grandpa, we talk. We tell each other about ourselves’; ‘…with Grandpa I can talk about my problems’. Because they are close but do not have a parental authority role, grandparents can act as confidants in situations where an older child might not wish to confide in a parent.

When parents separate and divorce, the relationship of grandparents to parents, particularly to a custodial parent (or one who has care and control of the grandchildren) becomes a crucial issue.  If these are harmonious, grandparents can provide stability, support and nurturance to the grandchild(ren) and family,

Influences can be direct, resulting from contact and face-to-face interaction, and indirect, mediated by other means such as parental behaviour. One source of indirect influence of grandparents is via financial support. Also, by acting as parents themselves, grandparents influence how their children act as parents.

Attachment theory emphasizes consistency over generations, but it also predicts that adults can work through or resolve unsatisfactory relations with their parents and modify their internal working models, either through self-reflection or with the aid of therapy or counselling.

Examples of direct influence are giving gifts, being a companion and confidant, acting as an emotional support or ‘buffer’ at times of family stress, passing on family history or national traditions, and acting as a role model for ageing. Jessel et al. (2004) worked with families of Bangladeshi origin in the East End of London. They found examples of synergistic learning interactions between grandparents and grandchildren; the grandmother would help the grandchild learn about their Bengali language and heritage, while the grandchild would be helping their grandmother learn how to use computers.

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