Effective grandparents represent one polarity on a spectrum of complex grandparenting behavior. On one end of the spectrum is the effective grandparent. The middle range encompasses the majority of functional grandparents who experience variable closeness with their family and who devote time to engaging in various activities with their grandchildren. Relationships depicted on the far end of the spectrum tend to embody negatives. (For some, having a dysfunctional grandparent is better than having no grandparent at all.)
Effective grandparents function in diverse, highly individualistic ways at different times in the grandchild’s life. These grandparents are consistently and reliably involved in their family’s life. Importantly, they are perceived as “being there” in mind, body and spirit.
Demographically, there are few ethnic, age or gender differences among effective grandparents. Their families have said their grandparents have a certain joy for life, an optimistic outlook, a sense of humor and a thriving, involved relationship with their children, grandchildren and other family members.
Results of our Grandparent Survey
The Foundation for Grandparenting conducted a survey of families regarding their opinion of whether grandparents were an indispensable part of their family. 77% of the subjects interviewed agreed that grandparents were indeed indispensable.
An assessment of the qualities and attitudes of the grandparents of these families supplies information that we used to create a model of grandparents who feel that grandparenting is an important symbolic, interactive and instrumental function of their life. This model can be used to teach other grandparents to be more effective in their role of family elder.
The following contains some of the qualities that serve as foundation stones for effective grandparenting:
Researchers have shown grandparent presence to be positively correlated with increased emotional security in a grandchild. Hagestad (1985) called it the benefit of “being there.” Kennedy (1992) mentioned this concept in a study exploring the nature of shared activities between grandparents and grandchildren.
In Kennedy’s study, a total of 391 young adult grandchildren were questioned about their activities with their grandparents. Data analysis of responses showed sociability and companionship activity to be directly related to a feeling of well-being in the grandchild.
The most defining characteristic of effective grandparents we studied was their altruistic orientation towards life. Altruism – derived from the Latin “alter” (other) and the French “autrui” (other person’s) – is defined as unselfish devotion to the needs of others. It is the opposite of egoism or self-centeredness.
People are born altruistic. Child development studies have demonstrated altruism in infants who respond to pain and anguish in others and “mirror” others’ emotions. Pediatrician Dr. Glen Austin (1991) identified altruism as a characteristic of an “optimally competent” child, a healthy youngster who is well-endowed to succeed in the world.
The altruistic individual places a priority on service to others and expresses this value in their behavior. It’s not unusual to find altruistic people working as health care professionals, teachers, social workers or to be engaged in volunteer work. Altruistic people are “value centered.” They find inner strength and direction from a strong set of values that can often put them at odds with the society around them. Altruistic individuals are often religious, self-transcendent and display character traits associated with spirituality (Cloninger, Svaric, Pryzbeck, 1993). They act according to principle rather than convenience.
Responsiveness and empathy distinguish the altruistic grandparent, excellent qualities when relating to children. One altruistic grandfather expressed his philosophy: “I don’t ever want to hurt another human being and that is my life philosophy. Knowing that, I know how to behave in most situations. I think of how my actions will affect people before I do things. I think about how my children would feel about what I was doing and if my actions would be hurtful.”
Altruism as a personality characteristic may explain the biological underpinnings of grandparents’ nurturing, protective and supportive roles. The geneticist Edward O. Wilson (1978) stated, “altruistic genes assure their own preservation.” One grandmother stated, “The most important thing I learned from my own grandfather is that children need protection, guidance and discipline. Each child is a sacred trust. They should be under the watchful eye of a relative until they grow up. When a member of my family is hurting, I actually feel it.”
Because it is based on ensuring the well being and happiness of family members, an altruistic approach to grandparenting guarantees that family members – and thus the genetic legacy of the grandparent – will in fact survive. Maintaining an altruistic view on life, stressing loving, caring and nurturing as personal values, assures that the quality of relationships within the family will be based on positive and emotional priorities. In short, altruistic grandparents create and support well-functioning families. These grandparents have continuity in their existence. Their legacies are transmitted by connected, rooted family members.
Temperament is an inborn psychological tendency to react to the environment in a certain way. Temperamental differences in infants are recognizable at birth. Some temperamental traits that affect behavior have been identified and described by psychiatrists Alexander Thomas, Stella Chess, and pediatrician Herbert Birch (1968). Some examples of temperamental traits are:
- Activity level – Active vs. passive, including the time of day the activity takes place, i.e. “morning people” and “night people.”
- Regularity of patterns – feeding, sleeping, elimination. Order vs. chaos.
- Approach or withdrawal – the nature of a response to a new stimulus. Joy and eagerness vs. fear and hesitancy.
- Adaptability – ease of response to a new situation. Shyness or openness.
- Threshold of responsiveness – intensity of stimulation needed to evoke a response, i.e. “hyper” or “laid back.”
- Intensity of reaction – energy level of response. Enthusiasm vs. slow to respond.
- Quality of mood – pleasant and friendly vs. unpleasant and unfriendly.
- Distractibility – ease in which the direction of behavior is altered by outside stimuli.
- Attention span and persistence – the length of time an activity may be pursued.
The concept of temperament is helpful in understanding behavior and human relationships. Understanding the notion of temperament and how it applies to grandparent-grandchild relationships allows researchers to categorize grandparents in specific ways. Indeed, temperament is an important determinant of what researchers have identified as grandparenting “style.” A naturally outgoing person can be an ebullient grandparent. A reserved person may either be quietly involved or “remote” (Cherlin and Furstenburg, 1986). An aggressive, “take charge” person can be a strong and forceful grandparent and can sometimes function as the head of a clan. An altruistic and sensitive grandparent may serve as the “heart” of a family.
Effective grandparents possess temperamental qualities that are conducive to enhancing interpersonal relationships. Subjects polled frequently mentioned “patience,” the ability to “listen and understand,” and “paying attention” to others as qualities that enhance family relationships. As an important component of personality, temperament can profoundly affect individual grandparenting style and the way grandparents relate to their grandchildren.
Personality is described as the characteristic and to some extent, predictable, behavior response patterns that each person evolves, both consciously and unconsciously. An individual’s personality type determines behavior, emotion and cognition. Many personality traits have been described: introvert, extrovert, emotional, passive, dependent, etc. Personality disorders have been clinically categorized as well: hysterical, obsessive-compulsive, and narcissistic, to name just a few.
The subject of personality is far too complex to delve into in any detail here. Yet personality is important to consider in terms of grandparent development and the way personality affects grandparenting behavior. Grandparents with different personalities can all be effective grandparents. Those who are altruistic can grandparent very effectively because this side of their personality is more important to children than any other aspect.
Vitality is defined as being a support or source of life (is there a better definition for this??). In addition to physical vitality, there is emotional, spiritual and intellectual vitality. Vitality is positively related to mental health. Thus, effective grandparents are vital grandparents. Vital grandparents bring joy, excitement and wonder into the grandchildren’s lives. Effective grandparents and their grandchildren describe a reverberating bio-psycho-social-spiritual resonance – a feedback loop – between them that is psychologically and spiritually illuminating and physically vitalizing.
Kivnick (1980) has alluded to this “revitalizing” phenomenon, “Being grandparents allows/helps many grandparents to counteract some measure of the decrease in morale which frequently results for the various losses that are part of growing older.” In discussing the relationship of grandparenthood to mental health, Kivnick (1985) further notes, “grandparenthood-related experience may be viewed as contributing to psychosocial well-being throughout the life cycle.” This view is supported by Butlerand Lewis (19796) who emphasized the positive role of family attachments in “orienting oneself in time and space as a significant human being.” “I have such a good time with my grandfather. He makes my life sunny,” said Brandon, 10-years-old.
Because their state of physical health may vary, vitality may be more of a spiritual quality in grandparents. One can be physically fit, but not vital. On the other hand, an incapacitated grandparent can certainly be vital. A young boy related that his grandmother was confined to a wheelchair, but “she called me everyday to talk me through my homesickness during my first year in college.”
A grandfather named John from Appalachia, described by his wife as a “pretty lazy guy who sits in the shed all day carving.” But when his grandchildren were interviewed, they described him as “great.” The children spend hours in the shed with John, learning how to carve ducks and birdhouses. One grandchild said, “He seems to be very quiet, but if you listen to him, he’s a very funny person. Grandpa’s eyes sparkle.” The inner spark that makes for a vital grandparent need not reside within an active body. Vital grandparents have a discernible uplifting effect on people. Their energy and enthusiasm spills over and colors everything they do.
Vitality is a two-way street. Grandchildren benefit from their grandparents’ vitality, but are also capable of vitalizing their grandparents. Grandparents who raise their own grandchildren consistently report that they have more energy and vitality since they began caring for their grandchild. “Katie charges my batteries,” one grandmother said of her granddaughter.
In a study measuring grandparents’ expectations of grandparenthood, Fisher (1983) found that “available” grandmothers who lived near their daughters had a clearer indication of what their roles and expectations were. Effective grandparents arrange their time so as to be available to their grandchildren. They are aware that physical proximity is important for enabling them to spend time with their grandchildren and, when possible, they make an effort to be as nearby as possible for as long a time as possible.
Availability is obviously a major challenge for many of today’s grandparents. Effective grandparents who can’t live near their grandchildren still make it a point to spend as much time with them as they can. When they are with their grandchildren, they give them their undivided attention. These grandparents place a high priority on spending time with their families and find creative ways to do so. One grandmother who lives in the country said, “The worst thing that every happened to my family is when they put the road in so my kids could drive to the city. Then they moved to the city. We miss each other so much. My oldest granddaughter cries for me. Now I spend all my money on bus fare so I can get into the city twice a week and see my grandbabies.”
Personal Experience and Philosophy
Many of the grandparents we interviewed described themselves as “family people.” “What I am doing,” one grandparent stated, “is carrying on the tradition I learned from my own grandparents.” Tradition and example are reported to be an important teacher of grandparents (Kivnick, 1980; Bengston, Hagestad, 1986). Paul, the father of 3 children and the son of an involved grandfather, had a very strong attachment to his own grandfather. “I know what I am doing with my family and where I am going. I am pretty much copying the way my grandfather lived. He was a wonderful friend to me. I learned so much from him. At one point in my life, I had a bit of conflict with my dad, and my grandfather always got us together. Now I see my own father doing the same for my kids. I’ll probably do the same for my grandkids. I think I might resent my father interfering with my children if my grandfather hadn’t done the same thing on my behalf. I can identify with my kids’ relationship with my father, so I don’t take playing the heavy too seriously. I guess my grandfather taught me what a good grandfather does without me every knowing it.”
The majority of effective grandparents state they eagerly wanted to become grandparents. Some who became grandparents “too early,” in their words, nevertheless took to the role with enthusiasm. In most cases, an “on-time” (Troll, 1986) grandparent has a better chance to grandparent effectively than an “off-time” one. For example, a 39-year-old grandmother with 2 children living at home has more access to their grandchildren than grandparents whose grandchildren live far away from them. It may happen that when presented with a first grandchild, a new grandparent may be eager and emotionally ready to welcome the child, but not ready from a developmental or life-situation point of view. It is best for grandparents to become grandparents when they are ready.
Ideally, grandparenthood occurs after the grandparents have had a respite from raising their own children and have fulfilled some of their own needs and dreams. It is at that point that they are ready to take up the challenge of finding mental and temporal space in their lives for grandparenting. The satisfaction of “off-time” grandparents in their new role depends on how overburdened they feel. In a study of 43 Latin women (Mink, 1988) explored how mothers of pregnant teens adapted to an early role as grandmothers. The sample scored high on “grandmother satisfaction” and “sense of power.” This was attributed to their strong social and family supports.
The readiness factor is especially important for men. As men age, many become more reflective and contemplative. These are valuable qualities in a relationship with a child, especially with granddaughters. Young girls are captivated with relaxed and mellow grandfathers who can give them love and attention, something that many busy fathers may not find enough time to do (Cath, 1984).
Effective grandparents are creative in overcoming obstacles that prevent them from being with their grandchildren. Their efforts are usually not lost on their grandchildren. 8-year-old Amy said, “My grandpa lives in the next state so I only see him every month. But when he comes and stays at my house he gets up every morning at 6 and drives me to school just because he wants to be with me.” A good example of how grandparents manage to maintain emotional attachments with their grandchildren in spite of living far from them is supplied by “long-distance grandparents” who attend the Foundation for Grandparenting’s Grandparent-Grandchild Summer Camp program. Once a year, these grandparents make it a priority to spend a week alone with their grandchild, even though they may see their grandchild regularly during the rest of the year.
Long-distance grandparents can maintain a strong attachment to their grandchildren by using the phone, mail, or computer. Grandparents can use these tools to minimize the physical distance from their grandchildren. “All of my money goes to the airline so I can get together with my grandson,” a grandmother stated. A 61-year-old man related his feelings for his then 98-year-old grandmother: “My grandmother really loved me. Whenever I did anything, she was always there in the background. When I was sixteen, one summer I took a job in a carnival as an announcer. I was a few hundred miles away from home. I called my grandmother and told her all about it. Well, wouldn’t you know it, when I looked out into the audience that very first night, there was grandma.”
Positive Parent-Grandparent Relationships
For the most part, effective grandparents tend to get along relatively well with all members of their families. The majority of the grandparents involved in the Foundation’s study were involved and loving parents who experienced few major problems with their own children. Whenever a problem did occur, they possessed the ability to quickly identify and resolve it.
When their children married, they welcomed their new in-law as a new child in the family. These grandparents supported their children’s’ marriages, refrained from destructive and unnecessary criticism and respected family boundaries. Their grandchildren felt secure because they were spared the stress of loyalty divisions between their parents and grandparents.
The functioning of today’s society does not necessarily foster intergenerational interaction and support. Effective grandparents are able to be proactive about getting involved in their families’ lives and strive to be a figure of support, strength and guidance for all. By consistently reaching out to their grandchildren, even long-distance grandparents can give their grandchildren the gift of being an effective grandparent.