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Grandparent/grandchild Relationships

Grandparent/grandchild relationships exist along a number of dimensions: association, affect, role meaning and significance, and exchange. Significantly, the quality of the relationship along these dimensions is often mediated by the middle generation. Just as it is true that a parent only becomes a grandparent because of the actions of his/her child, it is also true that the strength of the cross-generational relationship is dependent on attitudes and behaviors of the middle generation. Adult children who maintain close ties with their own parents provide the norms for strong links between grandchildren and grandparents.

The frequency of contact between grandparents and grandchildren—the associational dimension—depends on a number of factors. Primary among these factors is the geographic proximity of the two generations. Frequency of contact is higher for those who are proximate; interaction is highest for those grandparents and grandchildren who co-reside and lowest for those who are separated by the greatest distance. Although declining proportions of grandparents live in the same household as their grandchildren, the overwhelming majority of older parents live close to at least one of their adult children and opportunities for contact are high. Studies have shown that interaction between the cross-generations are highest when the grandchildren are young and dependent, presumably because of the intervention of the middle generation. As grandchildren reach their teenage and college years and strive for independence, they are less likely to be in frequent contact with their grandparents, but that pattern is reversed as they reach adulthood and establish their own families. At the end of the twentieth century, patterns of association between grandparents and their grandchildren appeared to be curvilinear.

Despite the physical distance that separates many grandparents from their grandchildren, the affectual or emotional bonds between the generations remain strong. Differentials do exist in the degree of closeness, including whose perspective is recorded, the gender of each generation, and the feelings of the middle generation. For example, grandparents are more likely than grandchildren to report that their relationship is close; studies conclude that the older generation has more at stake in perceiving intimate bonds. But grandchildren of all ages consistently report the warmth of their affection for their grandparents. Gender also appears to be important; grandmothers, and particularly maternal grandmothers, have the closest relationships with their grandchildren. Traditionally, this finding stems from the special kinkeeping role of the woman in the family. This is also connected to the importance that the middle generation plays in establishing and maintaining the closeness of the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren. Because mothers and daughters tend to maintain closer ties as they age than do other family dyads, they foster closer ties with the next generation.

Grandparenthood is a significant and meaningful role for older persons. Research findings consistently show the high levels of satisfaction and pleasure that older persons derive from their grandchildren, and the salience of the relationship is something that is reciprocated. In past centuries, the grandparent was likely to be a figure of authority, based on the economic and social interdependence of family members. But the twentieth century, with its emphasis on independence and autonomy, produced a person more comfortable with a companionate role than an authoritarian one. Nevertheless, grandparents play many different types of roles for their grandchildren, including that of historian, mentor, role model, and surrogate parent. And they carry out these roles by assuming a variety of grandparenting styles, some remote—those who see their grandchildren infrequently and whose interaction is mostly ritualistic; others companionate—those whose focus is on leisure-time activities and friendly interactions, and yet others who are involved—those who take an active role in rearing their grandchildren.

Despite the ideal of independence and autonomy in early twenty-first century families, there is a high degree of obligation and exchange among the generations. Many types of aid flow between the bonds of grandparents and grandchildren. Each generation both gives and receives, depending on life stage, health, and economic circumstances. Significantly, each generation expresses the belief that it has a filial obligation to the other to provide various types of assistance. Instrumental or physical aid includes assistance with chores, financial assistance, and caregiving. Most often, grandparents offer financial help to and babysitting for their grandchildren; in return, grandchildren, when they are old enough, perform chores for their grandparents. Emotional or expressive aid consists of nurturing, social support, and friendship, important commodities that flow both ways throughout the life of the relationship.

At the close of the twentieth century, a new focus on two ranges of exchange emerged. The first was on custodial grandparenting—where grandparents became surrogate parents for young grandchildren because of some catastrophic circumstances surrounding the middle generation, such as death, illness, divorce, drug addiction, or incarceration. On the one hand, studies report that the caregiver grandparent, most often the grandmother, tends to be more stressed, socially isolated, and generally less happy than other, noncustodial, grandparents. But recent research points out some of the more positive effects of the role such as the satisfaction of bettering the life of a grandchild. On the other side of the exchange spectrum is the growing recognition that long life brings the increased likelihood that a grandparent will spend a part of his/her final years in some degree of dependency. Grandchildren are part of the family constellation or the support convoy that may be called upon to offer assistance. Studies show that once they reach young adulthood, grandchildren not only accept their "grand filial" responsibility in theory, but practice it, in fact. Older grandchildren report that they provide both instrumental and emotional aid to their dependent grandparents.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 2Grandparenthood - The Demography Of Grandparenthood, Socio-structural Changes Affecting Grandparenthood, Grandparent/grandchild Relationships, Diversity In Grandparenthood