Laura DeHaan, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Child Development, NDSU
Over the past 20 years, increased attention has been given to the importance of grandparenthood. This newfound emphasis on grandparenthood and stepgrandparenthood is a reflection of the increased life span; adults are living longer and four- and five-generation families are more common. It’s also a reflection of the importance of grandparents to grandchildren.
Grandparents and stepgrandparents influence their grandchildren both directly and indirectly. Direct influences come from face-to-face interaction, and indirect influences are realized through a third party. Consider the phrase, “It’s important to be there for your grandchildren.” Being there is a concept that can mean physically being present (direct) or emotionally being present (indirect).
When you make phone calls, attend concerts together or take them places, you are directly influencing your grandchildren. When your grandchildren have been confronted with a situation and think about you, knowing you will be available to support them and that you’re on their side, you are indirectly influencing them by emotionally being there. You are a role model to your grandchildren.
It’s interesting to note the variety of terms used to refer to the many roles grandparents or stepgrandparents play. For example:
- Stress buffer
- Roots/family historian
One national survey of grandparents reported that a variety of activities were engaged in with grandchildren such as:
- Joking and kidding
- Giving money
- Talking about growing up
- Giving advice
- Discussing problems
- Going to church/synagogue
- Providing discipline
- Taking a day trip
- Teaching a skill or game
- Watching TV together
- Talking about parent/child disagreements
Several writers have emphasized that grandparents are very important to grandchildren. They are described as “significant others who have a great deal to do with one’s view of life.” The intergenerational contact reflects a high value for family connection. Grandchildren exposed to such contact are less fearful of old age and the elderly. They feel more connected to their families.
A North Dakota study found that stepgrand-children tend to have less contact with their stepgrandparents and consider this relationship less important than grandchildren do with grandparents. However, the children surveyed also indicated a desire for more contact with stepgrandparents. Being a stepgrandparent can be more challenging than being a grandparent because the role is less clear. As more stepfamilies are formed, more attention will be given to stepgrandparenting, and the same influences or benefits found for grandparents will no doubt be found to be as important for stepgrandparents.