This year, both Kate and I lost our last, and most beloved grandparents — Kate, a grandmother who she adored, and me, a grandfather who I deeply admired.
These deaths have had us reminiscing about the role these loving elders played in our lives and in creating some of our fondest childhood memories. Kate fondly recalls summer weeks she spent with Nana in Florida, playing cards, doing crafts, and going back-to-school shopping. I remember Thanksgivings spent at Grandpa’s New Mexico ranch, waking up to the smell of pinion wood and riding horses.
Thinking about our grandparents has had us not only casting our minds back, but also reflecting on the immense gratitude we have for the relationships our own children are building with their grandparents right now.
As the purveyors of an online magazine, we could hypothetically work from anywhere in the world. Yet we have chosen to stay in Oklahoma, not only because we love it here, but also largely because both sets of our parents live in the state.
Kate’s folks live right around the corner from us, and her mom watches Scout while Gus is in school, and while we work. One of the highlights of the week is Nana and Jaju’s (the phonetic rendering of the Polish for grandfather) hosting of Sunday dinner, in which we, along with Kate’s sister’s family, gather to break bread together. After dinner, the family goes for a walk/scooter-run around the neighborhood, or Jaju takes Gus, Scout, and their cousins upstairs for squeal-inducing roughhousing and the building of gymnastic apparatuses out of pillow cushions.
My own parents live only an hour and a half away, and Gus and Scout eagerly anticipate their visits to see us, and our excursions to see them — especially when they get to have special sleepovers at Nanny and PopPop’s house.
For thousands of years, this kind of close relationship between grandparents and grandchildren was the norm, with at least one set of the former living not only close by, but sometimes in the same household as the latter.
Today, in our mobile and dispersed society, grandparents and grandchildren often live states apart and sometimes only get to see each other once or twice a year. That is, unless Grandma and Grandpa, or the parents of their grandchildren, prioritize living close by, or making more frequent visits.
Today we’ll talk about why you should consider structuring your life with that priority in mind, and the enormous benefits that accrue to both grandchildren and grandparents alike when you do.
Grandparents: Humanity’s Ace in the Hole
For a long time, anthropologists puzzled over the fact that human women lived so long past their reproductive years.
In contrast to female primates, who die in their 30s while still fertile, human women can live for several decades longer. Scientists wondered why this would be, since it didn’t make sense from a strictly adaptive perspective. Older women don’t reproduce and aren’t very strong, but still tax a tribe’s resources. What then was their “utility”?
In answer to this question, researchers have forwarded the “grandmother hypothesis.” According to this theory, being finished tending to the tasks connected to their own reproduction allowed older women in hunter-gatherer societies to turn their attention to making two other important contributions to their tribe, both related to their grandchildren.
First, grandmothers helped a tribe have more children in general, as they could help raise the offspring of their daughters and daughters-in-law, freeing them to become pregnant again. While female primates go 5-6 years between having babies, human women can hypothetically get pregnant every year.
Second, grandmothers could watch their daughters’ children while they went to gather food, and grannies also had the time to gather food for their families themselves. This extra sustenance was vital in helping their grandchildren survive.
Indeed, when 45 different studies of historical and contemporary societies in both developed and developing countries were analyzed, it was found that the involvement of maternal grandmothers had a significant impact on the survival and well-being of their grandchildren (e.g., in one hunter-gatherer tribe their involvement cut the death rate for toddlers in half); in surprising contrast, the presence of a father had only a small effect. The involvement of paternal grandmothers often had a salutary influence as well, though it was more variable.
What’s behind the difference in effect between maternal and paternal grandmothers? Across cultures, the former tends to take a greater role in assisting their grandchildren. Anthropologists would say this is because they’re surer of their genetic connection to those children; the child that a daughter-in-law claims is a paternal grandmother’s grandson or granddaughter, may in fact not be. Yet both offer help to their grandchildren, just in different ways that have different effects; the involvement of maternal grandmothers increases the chances of children’s survival (paternal grandmothers actually negatively impact the rate of infant mortality), while the involvement of paternal grandmothers increases the birth rate. The greater involvement of maternal grandmothers with their grandchildren may also simply have to do with the particular bond that exists between mothers and daughters.
While the impact of grandfathers both historically and in modern times has been much less studied, they likely have a beneficial role in children’s survival and flourishing as well. Biology seems to point to as much. While men remain able to reproduce well into their twilight years, after age 30 their testosterone slowly begins declining and estrogen begins going up. In a man’s 50s and 60s, the “bonding” hormone oxytocin increases as well. These hormonal changes, which decrease aggression and sex drive while increasing the tendency towards affection and nurturing, lend themselves to a shift in older men’s priorities — a turn away from a focus on production and reproduction and towards involvement with their grandchildren. Their involvement traditionally takes a different form from that of grandmothers, however; rather than adopting a hands-on role in rearing them, grandfathers become important mentors in teaching skills and values to the next generation.
Overall, what the research says is that since time immemorial grandmothers and grandfathers have played a crucial role in helping their grandchildren survive and thrive, and thus in helping all of society survive and thrive. It’s for this reason that anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has called grandparents humanity’s “ace in the hole.”
And grandparents magnify this role not only in cultures and individual families in which simple reproduction and bare physical survival remain salient concerns. In the modern day, grandparents of all kinds — grandmothers and grandfathers, paternal and maternal — contribute enormous benefits to their grandchildren, now in the form of greater emotional and psychological well-being.
It’s an equation that in fact works both ways.
The Benefits of Grandparents to Grandchildren
Research has shown that grandchildren who have a close emotional bond with their grandparents reap a variety of important benefits.
Children who have strong relationships with their grandparents demonstrate more prosocial behaviors like kindness and generosity and have less anxiety and depression than those who don’t. The involvement of grandfathers in particular has been shown to boost their grandchildren’s performance in school, self-esteem, and ability to emotionally adjust and make and maintain friends.
Why does a grandchild’s close relationship with his or her grandparents have such a positive effect on their life?
It has to do with the special kind of love, support, and mentoring only grandparents can provide.
The love of a parent is singular, but during a child’s formative years, it’s also an incredibly taxed commodity. As a parent you’re spinning a lot of plates. Not only are your kids in a high-need phase, but your career’s running on all cylinders as you try to get ahead and achieve financial security. Your mental bandwidth is divided into a hundred streams, you’re not always getting enough sleep (see: children’s high-need phase), you’ve got to keep track of all the details of their daily schedule, and your role is to be a disciplinarian.
Grandparents, in contrast, are a step removed from the responsibilities of day-to-day child-rearing and are typically juggling fewer balls in the air. Their career is usually winding down, or they’re in full-on retirement. They don’t have to deal with kids 24/7, are getting adequate rest, and can approach your kids with more time, fresh eyes, and unfettered focus.
As the cliché goes, grandparents are in a position to spoil their grandkids, and that’s not always a bad thing. Sure, maybe your kid doesn’t need a dozen of Grandma’s cookies or another new toy, but every child is benefited when they get lavished with greater attention and support.
Grandparents lend this attention and support in a variety of ways. Dr. James S. Bates, who studies the effects of grandfathers on their families, divides the kind of activities they do with their grandchildren into 7 categories (which apply well to grandmothers too):
- Lineage — the effort to help grandchildren learn about and interpret the family’s history.
- Mentoring— efforts to teach and pass on practical skills and knowledge.
- Spiritual— offering comfort, encouragement, and advice.
- Character — efforts to nurture and shape grandchildren’s character and personality as they become ethical and responsible members of society.
- Recreation — efforts to organize, facilitate, and participate in leisure activities with grandchildren.
- Family identity — efforts to encourage strong family relationships and appropriate interpersonal behaviors among family members.
- Investment work— assisting grandchildren in becoming financially self-reliant in adulthood.
In between and woven through these varied kinds of interactions, grandparents surround their grandchildren with a unique love — one that’s typically more fun, patient, and accepting and less critical than that which children receive from their parents. It’s a love that imparts a feeling of safety, security, and comfort. This sense of belonging can be particularly important during a child’s adolescence, when they may not feel like they fit in at school, and/or are having conflicts with Mom and Dad.
When you fall asleep under a loving grandparent’s roof, whether as a child or teenager, everything feels right in the world. Maybe it’s because their house is free of the hustle, bustle, and stresses of one’s parents’ house. Maybe it’s because you’re under the watchful eye of those who’ve seen their way through many decades of life and are still standing. Or perhaps it’s because you know that down the hallway are people who love you for who you are, not what you do.
It’s the kind of love every kid deserves to experience as much as possible.
The Benefits of Grandchildren to Grandparents
The benefits grandparents impart to their grandkids don’t just work one way, and in fact boomerang right back to them.
Grandparents who have the opportunity to be emotionally close to their grandchildren as well as provide them with functional support (transportation, help with chores or finances, etc.) have been shown to have less depression and more robust psychological health than those who do not. Additionally, grandfathers who are actively involved in the lives of their grandchildren report more positive well-being than grandfathers who are more passive or disengaged, while grandmothers who spend time taking care of their grandchildren have a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s and other cognitive disorders.
On the flip side, when grandparents are denied access to their grandchildren, they develop symptoms of depression. Grandfathers become depressed faster than grandmothers, and while their symptoms lessen over time, those of deprived grandmothers linger on.
These effects are really not too surprising. Social bonds have been found to be one of the biggest contributors to cognitive and psychological health, while isolation is one of the largest factors in physical and mental decline. Older men and women who live apart from their family have in fact been found to have a 26% higher rate of death over a given period. Grandparents often report that the sense of love they feel for their grandchildren and the unconditional love they receive in return, buoys them up and fills their lives with a truly life-enhancing joy.
At the same time, grandparenting gives elders a sense of meaning, identity, and purpose, especially once they’ve left the workforce. In fact, according to one survey, 72% think “being a grandparent is the single most important and satisfying thing in their life” — rating this role higher than travel or financial security.
The satisfaction grandparents feel comes from taking part in all the roles mentioned above — teaching them new skills, imparting values, passing on traditions, and so on. Shaping and playing with a new generation rejuvenates their vitality. It’s a second chance to take part in raising children, and many grandparents say it’s even better and more enjoyable than the first time around.
The fulfillment experienced by grandparents, particularly by men it seems, also simply comes from the knowledge that their grandsons and granddaughters will continue their line; they can look at their little grandchildren’s faces and know a part of themselves will live on.
While researching her book Becoming Grandma (which despite the name is about grandparenting in general), 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl asked several prominent men what being a grandfather meant to them, and they all circled around this same idea.
For example, Stahl found that the usually tough-minded war veteran and senator John McCain visibly softened as he wistfully reflected on his grandchildren, telling her:
“You know, my POW buddies are dying. You hear that clock ticking and you find yourself appreciating flowers. I never used to stop to look at flowers or sunrises or birds. You get more sensitive when you’re a grandfather. And you think more about your legacy. You realize your heritage rests with those babies.”
And before her 60 Minutes colleague Bob Simon died, he offered this musing to Stahl regarding his grandson: “Aside from the great artist who knows he’s a great artist, what do we have to leave behind?” “The passing of the seed,” she answered. “Exactly. Exactly,” Simon said. “And it’s totally conscious. Jack is what I’m leaving behind.”
…There Are Benefits to You as a Parent as Well, By the Way
It bears mentioning that not only do grandparents and grandchildren enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship, but their bond often benefits the parents in-between as well.
It really goes back to the same dynamic that played out on the savanna thousands of years ago. Parenting was never meant to be done by two isolated individuals, but to be shared as a cooperative, extended family enterprise. Interestingly enough, studies show that just as in hunter-gatherer societies, grandparents’ involvement in modern families increases parents’ chances of having more kids; assistance from elders makes the challenge of child-rearing seem more doable.
But even if you’re not thinking of adding to your brood, the support of grandparents can be a familial game-changer. It’s great to have built-in, nearby babysitters you can trust, and who are available on short notice in emergencies or when you’re in a pinch. It’s great to be able to leave your tykes with Grandma and Grandpa when you and your wife go on vacation. It’s great simply to have extra hands around to alleviate the burden of nurturing; more hands make for lighter and less stressful work.
Plus, seeing your parents take care of your children ends up strengthening your own bond with them. When you see how much your folks love your kids, and how much your kids love them — not to mention how grateful you feel when they take your tykes off your hands — you can’t help but come to more fully appreciate them. And the feeling is reciprocated; over two-thirds of grandmas and grandpas “think being a grandparent brings them closer to their adult children.”
Give Your Folks a Chance
One of the hesitations some parents have about allowing their own parents to become more involved in their children’s lives is that they feel their own upbringing was a mixed bag; maybe there were times where their mom’s or dad’s parenting style left something to be desired, and they don’t want to expose their own kids to the same treatment.
Certainly, no one would recommend handing off your kids to a parent who is emotionally or physically abusive, has a substance abuse problem, or struggles with some other major problem. But if you’re worried about your parents’ smaller foibles, or the fact they lead a different lifestyle than yours, give them a chance.
Your parents may not be the world’s greatest role models and may have different values from you that you don’t want imparted to your children. But such issues can be navigated. Trust your kids; they’re better able to grapple with different viewpoints and decide for themselves what they think and believe than you give them credit for.
And keep in mind that grandparents will love and treat their grandchildren differently than they loved and treated you. You may not in fact recognize their new nurturing style, and they may not even recognize themselves. For some grandparents, taking care of grandchildren represents an encore opportunity to make up for the time they didn’t spend with you and correct the things they didn’t do as well as they would have liked. As Stahl explains:
“if we were rough on you, hypercritical, interfering, smothering — we probably aren’t any of those things with the babies. One look at that child and we find our critical thoughts have been incapacitated. So give us a second chance. Shake off your hostility, and keep remembering that your kids will benefit.”
For one thing, your parents don’t have the same crush of responsibilities mentioned above that mid-lifers experience. They’re also happier now than when you were living under their roof; studies show that happiness dips in one’s 30s and 40s, hits bottom in one’s 50s, and then starts going back up again. Thus, Stahl concludes, “What this tells me is that babies are being raised by people in the unhappiest phase of their lives. Which makes it all the more important that we happy, satisfied [grandmothers] step in.”
Conclusion: Grandkids and Grandchildren Need Each Other — Facilitate That Relationship
In this article, we’ve been talking about grandparents in an ideal situation — one in which they’re happy, healthy (and simply alive, period), and want to be part of their grandchildren’s lives. Not all grandfathers and grandmothers obviously fall into this category; some would like to be involved with their grandkids, but aren’t physically able, and some are able but don’t want to be — they feel like they’ve put in their time raising their own kids, and want to enjoy their retirement as free and unattached as possible.
But in cases where grandparents are able and willing to invest in their grandchildren’s lives and desire a close bond with them, I hope the above serves as an encouragement to do what you can to make that happen.
In planning your life — particularly where you’re going to live — how close you’ll be to you and your wife’s parents is often only an after-thought, taking a backseat to job choice and living in a “cool” place. But consider bumping the grandparent factor up in your list of priorities — proximity to one’s parents can compensate for many of a location’s drawbacks. (And really, where you live is largely what you make of it!)
If you can’t move to be closer to your children’s grandparents, then be open to the idea, should they be willing, of their moving closer to you. Yes, proximity to one’s family can cause stress and headaches, but the pros will often outweigh the cons.
If your moving closer to your parents, or their moving closer to you simply isn’t an option, then make an effort to facilitate your kids keeping in touch with Grandma and Grandpa. Regularly write, text, FaceTime, or Skype with them, make visits when you can, go on special trips all together, and send your kids to stay over with them for a week or so each year.
When I see our kids run with joy into their grandparents’ arms, or count down the days ‘til their next sleepover, I’m just struck with gratitude for how lucky they are to have 3 sets of people to support them; 3 homes in which to feel comforted and secure; 6 “parents” to surround them with love.
Don’t deprive your kids, and their grandparents, of the opportunity to form such a happiness-boosting, meaning-creating, life-enriching, memory-forming relationship.
The bond between grandparents and grandchildren can be one of your family’s greatest assets — a true ace in the hole.