Grandparents can provide crucial support within the family

April 25, 2019 Allan Brettman

When it comes to the integral role grandparents can play in the family, we need look no further than Hollywood and its sit-com portrayals.

You know the routine. Madcap calamity smacks unsuspecting young married couple. Bumbling, naive attempts to solve the problem ensue, then laughter and much gnashing of teeth. And then, on cue from a coffee table or the slightly ajar back door, enter The Grandparents and Their Wisdom.

They say this. They say that. Respectful pause, then problem solved. On to next week’s episode.

Real life, as we know, is not quite so easy. But family experts say grandparents can provide the ballast some families need in navigating the choppy waters of parenthood. While neither grandparents, nor even superheroes, can offer a quick fix, they can provide the valued perspective of an advocate who — like the parents — wants only what’s best for the family.

From pregnancy through early childhood, there are plenty of helpful — and non-intrusive — ways a grandparent can play an important role in their grandchild’s life while also offering a psychological boost to the child’s parents. Whether that means accompanying an expectant mom to prenatal checkups or dispensing wisdom at a holiday dining table, grandparents can and do play influential support roles well after their official parenting days have ended.

The best estimate for the number of grandparents in the U.S. is around 70 million. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 2012 statistics, about 7 million grandparents live with at least one of their grandchildren — that’s 10 percent of all grandparents. And 2.9 million American grandparents have the sole responsibility for raising their grandchildren. (These households — where children are raised by a grandparent with no parent in the household — are sometimes dubbed “grandfamilies.”)

Remarkably, though, only a few studies have been conducted about the influence of grandparents on the upbringing of their grandchildren. This seems especially unusual given the increase in grandparental involvement as secondary caretakers in recent decades. But researchers may be catching up. A study is under way Cornell University’s  Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, looking at the well-being of adolescents who live with their grandparents.

The arrangement affects grandparents in challenging ways — such arrangements may make grandparents less likely to be eligible for social service programs — and in positive ways, including strong emotional bonding between the grandparents and grandchildren.

While academic literature is limited, some studies have shown benefits for children with a grandparent in the home, says a 2016 paper published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). “For mental health outcomes, some researchers have noted that children who have grandparents involved in caretaking may have better mental health outcomes,” say the authors.  An NCBI study published in 2016 noted that significant challenges face grandparents and their grandchildren in this situation: “Our findings suggest that, although in some ways children in grandfamilies fare worse than other fragile-family children,” the authors wrote, “their grandparent caregivers may serve as an important source of refuge.”

Functionally, some grandparents play integral, day-to-day roles in raising their grandchildren. Some grandparents fall into less hands-on, yet influential roles, within the family. Some may be a tangible connection to the past — both the family’s and that of a bygone era. And some, through a combination of reputation and remoteness, may take on legendary status.

For this writer, my mother’s mother had that latter status: She lived alone for decades on a farm in southern Mississippi, many miles from the nearest town. “Fiercely independent” doesn’t begin to describe her, a life forged with that approach through circumstance more than choice. Regardless: Best fried chicken and coconut cream pie ever, though I always passed on the stewed okra.

Grandparents are Exhibit A of a family’s journey. I grew up comfortably in suburban Chicago in a life provided by my parents. But my dad made sure I’d visit his parents in their northside Chicago bungalow every other weekend to know the contrast between my present and their past. I may have been a milquetoast suburban kid, but I took a measure of pride that my grandfather was a onetime member of the Teamsters Union, having driven a truck for Standard Oil in Chicago.

And grandparents can provide a prism. Listening to the exchanges between my mother and my grandmother gave me greater insight to the forces that shaped my mom — for better and for worse — an understanding I likely would not have found anywhere else. 

So, the data may not be clear, but our own intuition ought to be: Grandparents are important.

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