Grandparenthood can be considered at three distinct levels: the societal level (referring to societal norms, functions, and esteem of grandparents), the family level (referring to interactions and supports among grandparents, parents, and grandchildren), and the individual level (referring to the meaning and significance of grandparenthood to the grandparents). The meaning and significance of grandparenthood often derive from societal and familial contexts that are beyond grandparents’ own control. On the societal level, the prevalence and duration of grandparenthood as well as the normative underpinnings of the grandparent role reflect cultural and demographic change. On the familial level, grandparents’ functions within the family context are often shaped by special needs of the children or grandchildren rather than by grandparents’ own aspirations. On the personal level, individuals experience the transition to grandparenthood as a countertransition, contingent on the fertility decisions of their children, and access to grandchildren is often mediated by the parent generation.
Grandparenthood in Societal Context
Grandparents’ Status and Esteem
At the societal level, grandparenthood reflects norms about kinship and kin responsibilities. The definition of grandparenthood itself depends on kinship norms. Some societies may acknowledge grandparents only on the paternal or maternal side, while bilateral kinship rules in modern western societies assign grandparent status equally to paternal and maternal grandparents. However, increases in the divorce rate, adoptions, and artificial fertility methods can render assignment of grandparenthood status problematic in western societies. Grandparents of adopted grandchildren or of stepgrandchildren sometimes express ambiguity about their grandparent status.
Societal contexts further influence grandparents’ functions and their interactions with grandchildren. Recent anthropological research suggests that increases in longevity during the Upper Paleolithic (about 30,000 years ago) provided the foundation for grandparents’ functions as child-carers and culture transmitters, both functions contributing to population expansion and increased creativity. In more recent times, the drug and AIDS epidemics have been partially responsible for the growing number of grandparents raising grandchildren, while the high divorce rates since the latter part of the twentieth century promoted the development of legal statutes regulating grandparents’ visitation with their grandchildren. Grandparents also play a significant economic role, both as consumers (e.g., of children’s toys) and as service providers (e.g., care of grandchildren by grandparents can enable mothers to remain in the labor force).
Grandparents’ social esteem and image are often tied to the status of elders in societies. Although modernization sometimes undermines elders’ status and implicitly that of grandparents by reducing their economic control and their importance as transmitters of knowledge, it can also enhance their status through elders’ access to old age security entitlements. Furthermore, lack of familial authority on the grandparents’ part may promote more congenial grandparent– grandchild relationships. In the US, Grandparents’ Day or the proclamation of 1995 as Year of the Grandparent speak to the social significance of grandparenthood. The image of grandparents in the media has tended to lag behind times, providing stereotyped images that depict grandparents as old, passive, and powerless, although more recent research suggests a shift toward positive grandparent portrayals in children’s books.
Demographics of Grandparenthood
In contrast to many other family transitions, the demographics of grandparenthood are defined by events in two generations, that of the grandparent and that of the grandchild’s parent (referred to as the ‘‘middle generation’’ below). To become a grandparent requires that both oneself and one’s children bear children. Contingent on medical advancements both in the treatment of infertility and in birth control as well as on economic conditions, rates of childlessness varied considerably during the twentieth century. Childlessness peaked during the Depression era, then declined sharply until the last quarter of the twentieth century, and is now again on the rise (Uhlenberg & Kirby 1998).
Similarly, grandparents experienced a significant decline in the number of grandchildren born during the last century from an average of over 12 to about 5–6 currently (Uhlenberg & Kirby 1998) – although the relatively high pre valence of early deaths among children at the beginning of the twentieth century curtailed the supply of older grandchildren. This trend is likely to continue well into the twenty first century. Between 1976 and 2002 the average number of children born to US women declined from 3.09 to 1.93 (Downs 2003), and even more dramatic declines in fertility are evident in many European countries. Within the US, this trend applies across racial and ethnic groups, but fertility remains somewhat higher for African Americans and especially Hispanics. Thus, by the middle of the twenty first century, many grandparents will have only 3 or 4 grandchildren. Both trends imply a significant decline in the supply of grandchildren well into the twenty first century.
In contrast, trends in longevity have altered the significance of grandparents in grandchildren’s lives. Uhlenberg and Kirby (1998) estimate that in 1900 fewer than a quarter of grandchildren had all four grandparents alive at the time of birth, and fewer than 1 percent had all four grandparents alive at age 20, compared to 68 percent and 10 percent, respectively, in 2000. However, survival of grandparents is also contingent on the timing of births. Early childbearing especially during the baby boom period meant a relatively early transition to and a long duration of grandparenthood at the end of the twentieth century. Delays in childbearing since this time period will reverse this trend. Because increases in the delay of childbearing will probably be more pronounced than increases in longevity, the supply of grandparents to grandchildren (both in terms of number of living grandparents and duration of grandparenthood) may well have peaked at the end of the twentieth century. By the middle of the twenty first century, exposure to grandparents’
deaths will again occur at earlier ages of the grandchildren, the transition to grandparent hood will be moved to later ages, and fewer grandchildren will be able to enjoy contacts with grandparents into their adulthood. Once again this trend will vary considerably by race and ethnicity. Delayed childbearing predominates among non-Hispanic whites and Asians and Pacific Islanders and is less common among Hispanics and African Americans (Downs 2003). Thus, by the mid twenty first century we can expect considerable racial and ethnic variations in the supply of grandparents to grandchildren and in grandparents’ roles and relationships with their grandchildren.
Grandparents in Family Systems
Grandparents’ interactions with their grandchildren and grandparents’ roles are intricately linked to dynamics of the family system as a whole and especially to circumstances surrounding the children’s parents. These linkages are most evident in research referring to parents’ mediation of grandparent–grandchild contacts and to grandparents’ roles as caregivers and care recipients.
The mediation of grandparent–grandchild relationships through the middle generation is both direct and indirect. Indirectly, asymmetry in maternal and paternal kinship ties leads to a matrilineal advantage that furthers stronger bonds to maternal grandparents in general and maternal grandmothers in particular. Because proximity exerts a strong influence on grandparent–grandchild relations, grandparent–grandchild contacts are also affected by mobility decisions of the parents at least as long as grandchildren are young or reside with their parents. More direct mediation is evident from the strong associations between closeness between grandparents and the middle generation and closeness of grandparent–grandchild ties, although it is not clear whether grandparents’ attachment to their own children or to their children in law is more significant.
Grandparents are often described as family stabilizers or family watchdogs, signifying that their role is augmented during times of family crisis. Research has focused on two such crises, namely, parents’ divorce and parental inability to raise their children. Divorce in the middle generation can both enhance and undermine grandparent–grandchild relationships. On the one hand, grandparents often step in to help their divorced children through supports that include grandchild care or help grandchildren in adjusting to the parents’ divorce. On the other hand, tensions among divorcing parents are often transferred to the grandparent generation, leading to disruption of grandparent– grandchild ties, especially for non-custodial parents. In extreme cases, grandparents have attempted to overcome such barriers through court ordered visitation rights.
During the past two decades, grandparents’ role as surrogate parents has been the dominant research theme in grandparent research in the US. The number of grandchildren raised in grandparent headed households increased dramatically during the last decades of the twentieth century, from 2.2 million or 3.2 percent of children under 18 in 1970, to 3.9 million or 5.5 percent in 1997, but has since leveled off (3.8 million or 5.2 percent) in 2003 (US Bureau of the Census 2003). Among children in grandparent headed households, over one third lived in skip generation households (neither parent in the household) and close to one half with single parents and grandparents. According to the 2000 Census, 5.8 million grandparents co resided with grandchildren. However, a sizable number of grandparents who co reside with their adult children and grandchildren either play a secondary caregiver role or are themselves dependent on their adult children (Simmons & Dye 2003). Surrogate parenting can put considerable strain on grandparents. They not only have to deal with the adverse circumstances resulting in the surrogate parenting arrangement (e.g., children’s drug addiction, AIDS, incarceration) and the demands of grand child care, but also complain about problems with custody, finances, and grandchildren’s behaviors, as well as conflicts with the grand children’s parents. Such problems manifest themselves in lowered well-being of the grandparents themselves, such as increased depressive symptoms (Minkler et al. 1997; Hayslip & Goldberg Glen 2000).
Less attention has been paid to situations where grandparents are physically or economically dependent on adult children, and grandchildren participate in grandparents’ care. Grandchildren in this situation lament lacking attention by their parents, reduction in lei sure due to the demands of ‘‘grandma’’ sitting, and household upheaval caused by demented grandparents.
Grandparent Role: Significance and Functions
Despite concerns that grandparents have ‘‘opted out’’ of the grandparent role (Kornhaber 1996), research in the US and other western countries indicates that most grandparents maintain close contacts with grandchildren on a regular basis, fulfill various functions in their grandchildren’s lives, and derive satisfaction from the grandparent role (Attias Donfut & Segalen 1998). For example, a nationally representative US study of grandparents conducted in 1997/98 revealed that over one half of grandparents had contacts with grandchildren on a weekly basis and only 16 percent had fewer than monthly contacts. Furthermore, over three quarters of these grandparents reported talking with their grandchildren about personal concerns or sharing activities with them, and 80 percent attributed extremely high salience to the grandparent role (Silverstein & Marenco 2001). The frequency of grandparents’ contacts with grandchildren depends on multiple factors, including geographical proximity, urban versus rural background, kin relationship (matrilineal advantage), age and number of grandchildren, family structure, and closeness to the grandchildren’s parents.
The occurrence and relative prevalence of specific functions and activities in a grandparent’s role repertory has led to diverse typologies of grandparents’ roles. Such classifications refer to such dimensions as comfort, significance, style, role meaning and salience, frequency of contacts, instrumental assistance, relationship quality, type of activities with grandchildren, or influence of grandparents in their grandchildren’s lives. The major functions performed by grandparents are socializing, support, and information. Grandparents’ engagement in social activities with grandchildren has led to labels such as funseekers, buddies, or companions. Grandparents also provide various supports either to the grandchild’s parents in the form of babysitting and childcare or to the grandchildren themselves through emotional comfort, gifts, or help with transportation and school work. In addition, grandparents function as socialization agents, as transmitters of values and culture, and as family historians. However, grandparents’ role as socialization agents remains ambiguous and is constrained by norms of noninterference into the parents’ domain, although this norm seems weaker among African American families. Native American grandparents have been instrumental in the transmittal of tribal traditions, while Hispanic and Asian grandparents serve as cultural conservators.
Grandparent research has bloomed during the past two decades. This research demonstrated that grandparenthood remains a significant role in modern societies, and that grandparents fulfill important support functions, especially in times of family crisis.
Despite the multitude of recent studies devoted to grandparenthood, most research was limited to a few themes (extent and predictors of involvement, grandparents as care givers, satisfaction with the grandparent role). Given ongoing and expected demographic changes, other themes may deserve more attention in the future. Declines in fertility and thus in the supply of grandchildren may increase competition between paternal and maternal grandparents, while delays in childbearing will increase relatively young grandchildren’s exposure to frail grandparents and to grandparents’ deaths. There is also a need for expansion of old themes. We need to know more about grand parents’ roles in cases of parental divorce and about the long term influences of grandparents’ care on the grandchildren. Diversity among grandparents from different racial/ethnic, rural/urban, and socioeconomic backgrounds also deserves increased attention in future research.
- Attias-Donfut, C. & Segalen, M. (1998) Grandparents. La Famille a` travers les ge´ne´rations. E´ditions Odile Jacob, Paris.
- Bryson, K. & Casper, L. M. (1999) Coresident Grandparents and Grandchildren. US Bureau of the Census, Washington, DC.
- Cherlin, A. J. & Furstenberg, F. F. (1986) The New American Grandparent. Basic Books, New York.
- Downs, B. (2003) Fertility of American Women: June 2002. US Bureau of the Census, Washington, DC.
- Hayslip, B., Jr. & Goldberg-Glen, R. (Eds.) (2000) Grandparents Raising Grandchildren: Theoretical, Empirical, and Clinical Perspectives. Springer, New York.
- Kornhaber, A. (1996) Contemporary Grandparenting. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
- Minkler, M., Fuller-Thomson, E., Miller, D., & Driver, D. (1997) Depression in Grandparents Raising Grandchildren: Results of a National Longitudinal Study. Archives of Family Medicine 6: 445 52.
- Silverstein, M. & Marenco, A. (2001) How Americans Enact the Grandparent Role Across the Family Life Course. Journal of Family Issues 22: 493 522.
- Simmons, T. & Dye, J. L. (2003) Grandparents Living with Grandchildren: 2000. US Bureau of the Census, Washington, DC.
- Szinovacz, M. E. (Ed.) (1998) Handbook on Grand parenthood. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.
- Uhlenberg, P. & Kirby, J. B. (1998) Grandparenthood Over Time: Historical and Demographic Trends. In: Szinovacz, M. E. (Ed.), Handbook on Grandparenthood. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT, pp. 23 39.
- US Bureau of the Census (2003) Children with Grandparents by Presence of Parents, Gender, Race, and Hispanic Origin for Selected Characteristics: 2003 (Table C4).