Grandparents

Usually less involved in child rearing than parents, but still important members of families, are grandparents. More children today have living grandparents than ever before (Peterson, 1989). Grandparents may live a long time after a grandchild is born, knowing him or her as an infant, a child, an adolescent, a young adult, and perhaps even a middle-aged parent. This is particularly true of grandmothers, who live an average of 6-7 years longer than grandfathers and hence occupy the grandparenting role for a greater period of time. Even great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents, who were once extremely rare, are becoming more common, and often it is these long-lived individuals rather than grandparents who fulfill the traditional grandparenting role.

Even though multigenerational households are less common today than a generation or so ago, thousands of American children live under the same roof as one or more of their grandparents. In 1995, for example, 4 million children under age 18 lived in the home of their grandparents, and in 37% of the cases neither parent was in the home. Forty-eight percent of children living in households headed by a grandparents were boys, 52% were girls, 44% were black, 13% were Hispanic, and 41% were non-Hispanic whites (Saluter, 1996). As shown in Figure 7-5, the number of children residing with their grandparents varies not only with race but also with the age of the child. Larger percentages of minorities and young children than white and older children live with their grandparents. When a child's parents must work or for other reasons are unable to take care of him or her, the grandparents may assume the role of surrogate parents, becoming the primary caregivers and doing everything for the child that parents normally would. "Skip-generation" parents, who take full responsibility for their great-grandchildren, are common in families where teenage pregnancy is customary. Because the "young" grandmother refuses to assume the role of surrogate parent for her teenage daughter's child, the responsibility for caring for the child falls on the shoulder's of the grandmother's mother. Though, strictly speaking, they are not surrogate parents, many other grandparents are highly involved with their grandchildren. They see them often, provide them with advice and suggestions, and help them with practical matters (Cherlin & Furstenberg, 1985).

Becoming a grandparent has multiple meanings for a person. The birth of a grandchild can give one a sense of biological renewal and perpetuation of the family. The role of grandparent can be even more gratifying than that of

Under 6 6-11 12-17

Age of Children (Years)

Figure 7-5 Percentages of children in different age and ethnic groups living in households headed by a grandparent. (Based on data from Saluter, 1996.)

Under 6 6-11 12-17

Age of Children (Years)

Figure 7-5 Percentages of children in different age and ethnic groups living in households headed by a grandparent. (Based on data from Saluter, 1996.)

parent. Because grandparents have no prescribed functions, they can usually relate to the child as they please. Becoming a grandparent provides new roles that are not as demanding as those required of parents. Grandparents can find enjoyment and satisfaction in teaching and guiding their grandchildren, and experience a feeling of pride or vicarious achievement in their accomplishments. Realization of the continuity of generations and the family can also lead grandparents to reexamine and reevaluate their own experiences and deeds. On the other hand, rather than feeling pleasure and excitement at a new personality that one helped create and an opportunity to begin again without the weight of past mistakes on one's shoulders, some grandparents experience only a sense of growing old and feelings of remoteness from both the past and the future.

Unfortunately, the wisdom and practical knowledge of older adults are less valued in today's technologically based society than they once were. Certain cultures, such as those of China, Japan, and other countries with a stronger tradition of respect for the elderly, and even certain subcultures in Western society itself, value grandparents more than others. For example, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Hispanic-Americans tend to value grandparents more and expect them to be closely involved in the lives of their

When I was a young boy, it seemed to me that people who were over 50 were not merely old but ancient. Like most children, I had two sets of grandparents. My paternal grandfather died when I was only 2, so I didn't get to know him. Sometimes it seems to me that I remember one rather embarrassing incident at which he was a spectator, featuring little me in a transparent dress accompanied by the guffaws of the observers. But I am no longer certain whether I truly recall the scene, recall the memory of it, or merely recall being told about it.

My other three grandparents are more memorable. All were hardworking people who had various aches and pains but still appreciated jokes, were kind to animals, and always took time to talk to and help us children. My paternal grandmother, whom we called "Grandma Aiken," was a seamstress who made slipcovers, cooked fried chicken, black-eyed peas, and hoe-cake, took B.C. powders with CocaCola, and paid me to run errands for her. My maternal grandmother. whom we called "Cork," was a practical nurse who worked all the time, baked lots of tasty pastry, put money under our pillows while we slept, and always got a big new spoon from me at Christmas.

My maternal grandfather, whom we called "Pop," was the patriarch of my mother's family. Pop was a rather stern-faced carpenter and cattleman who smoked mail-order tobacco in an old wooden pipe, traded for a new Hudson every year until they quit making them, and made me hoe grapefruit trees, chase stray cows, and fix fences. When he was thirsty, Pop let juice dribble down the front of his shirt as he drank, and when he was hungry he could eat a whole pint of ice cream. I remember thinking on Pop's sixtieth birthday (I was 5 at the time) that he couldn't last much longer because he was so old. However, he and both of my grandmothers fooled me and lived well into their ninth decade.

Today I am older than Pop was when I was 5, and I have three grandsons. They are not as old as I was when Pop was 60, so perhaps they don't view me in quite the same way as I did him then. They still seem willing enough to accept me as a playmate, to ride around on my shoulders, and to tell me what they are doing and thinking. I suspect that much of that will change as they grow older, but I hope not too much!

grandchildren (Bengtson, 1985). The overall picture, however, is one of decreasing interaction between grandparents and grandchildren (Rodeheaver & Thomas, 1986). Grandparent-grandchild relationships are becoming increasingly more detached rather than involved (Bengtson & Robertson, 1985; Kornhaber & Woodward, 1981; Rodeheaver & Thomas, 1986). Geographical mobility, independent households, employed grandmothers, and the rising divorce rate are all contributing to the separation between generations. The social and emotional separation between the old and the young that has come to characterize so much of our society has also been encouraged by our tendency to segregate people into different age groups. However, children and grandparents still need each other, and isolating them from each other does a disservice to both.

Some research has provided evidence for different "types" of grandparents (Cherlin & Furstenberg, 1986; Neugarten & Weinstein, 1968; Robertson, 1977; Wood & Robertson, 1976), but the role of grandparent tends to be too idiosyncratic to be described in terms of a typology (Bengtson & Robertson, 1985). First-time grandparents in the United States range in age from the late twenties to the seventies and even eighties. However, most are in their early fifties, the average age being greater for men than for women and for whites than for blacks and other minorities. To some extent, the way in which grandparents respond to their grandchildren is affected by the grandparents' age. Younger grandparents tend to adopt a more fun-seeking, companionate style, whereas older grandparents are more formal or distant in their behavior (Cherlin & Furstenberg, 1986; Neugarten & Weinstein, 1968). Grandparenting style also varies with the age of the child. Grandparents are more likely to play games and have fun with younger grandchildren, but either to discuss things with older grandchildren or simply leave them alone. In any event, children under age 10 generally have closer relationships with their grandparents than older children and teenagers do (Kahana & Kahana, 1970a).

The relationships between grandparents and other family members also vary to some extent with gender. Whereas grandfathers are more like "secretaries of state," grandmothers usually take the role of "kin keeping," maintaining contact with family members and keeping the family together (Cohler & Grunebaum, 1981; Troll, 1983). For the most part, grandmothers interact more with their grandchildren than grandfathers do. This is particularly true of the relationships between grandmothers and granddaughters and when the grandmother is the mother's mother. Grandmothers presumably possess more useful knowledge and skills to communicate to their granddaughters, and, of course, females of all ages are more sociable and talkative than males (Kennedy, 1990; Matthews & Sprey, 1985).

Grandchildren of all ages usually feel closer to their mother's parents than to their father's parents, and they tend to like the maternal grandmother best of all. When the 4- to 5-year-olds who were questioned in a study conducted by Kahana and Kahana (1970b) were asked what kinds of grandparents they liked, they said that they preferred grandparents who gave them food, love, and presents. The 8- and 9-year-olds indicated a preference for grandparents who did fun things with them, whereas the 11- and 12-year-olds said that they liked grandparents who let them do whatever they wanted to. By the time children reach adolescence, even those who have been close to their grandparents begin pulling away and may even feel alienated from them. This should not be surprising, because it is the fate of most parents as well. However, many adolescents and young adults remain close to both their parents and grandparents, visiting them often and valuing their advice and assistance.

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