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Ask Dr. Gramma Karen – The Five Stages of Grandparenting

The five stages of grandparenting


Many of life’s significant events have been described as having stages, that is, particular points or periods in the growth or development of something. For example, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote about the five stages of grief, Jean Piaget detailed four stages of intellectual (or cognitive) development, and Erik Ericson wrote about the eight stages of psychosocial development.

Familiarity with the stages of various occurrences can serve many purposes. This familiarity can:

  • Provide assurance that one is not alone in what is being experienced.
  • Enrich one’s insights into what is happening and what the future might hold.
  • Help us understand and deal with our feeling and emotions.
  • Give us the confidence to deal with new experiences and changes.

Although much has been written about the various styles of grandparenting, there is a dearth of information about the stages of grandparenting.

I have attempted to fill this void. Based on my research, personal experience, and what I have learned from writing my advice column “Ask Dr. Gramma Karen” for over ten years, I have developed what I call The Five Stages of Grandparenting.

            Stage 1: Grandparents as indispensable contributors

            Stage 2: Grandparents as critical contributors

            Stage 3: Grandparents as important contributors

            Stage 4: Grandparents as occasional contributors

            Stage 5: Grandparents as nonessential contributors          

Before I write a few words about each stage, I must point out that these stages are general descriptions: they do not account for the unique circumstances and relationships present in each family, or the grandparents’ access to a grandchild.

The stages I present are intended to provide a framework to think about and better understand grandparenting roles and how these roles change as grandchildren age.

Stage 1: Grandparents as indispensable contributors (From grandchild’s birth to 4 years old)

When a first grandchild is born, these are glorious times for many grandparents! Their grown children, who are now new parents, turn to them for answers and assurance. The grandparents often find themselves instant rock stars, fonts of knowledge, and revered oracles!

During this stage, the grandparents are very involved in their grandchildren’s lives, constantly being called into service by the inexperienced parents, whether it be for advice and counsel, or to be physically present for the many “firsts” – the baby’s first bath, first visit the pediatrician, first time the baby eats solid food, the first time the new parents leave the baby.

In effect, the grandparents partner closely with the new parents. In many respects, they are akin to co-parents, highly valued for their experience and wisdom.

Stage 2: Grandparents as critical contributors (grandchild is from 4 to 8 years old)

As the unpracticed parents become more experienced and comfortable with their parenting roles, they rely less and less on the grandparents for advice and guidance. The grandparents’ greatest value is in spending time with their grandchild, interacting primarily as a buddy, or a playmate.

This is a stage when the grandparents do a lot of “floor time,” spreading out various building activities on the floor and playing games with their grandchild. This is also when many a favorite book gets read, over and over and over. Because they are good buddies, this is a time for lots of hand-holding while taking walks or strolling the aisles in the grocery store.

Grandparents play an important role in this stage as they teach their grandchild outdoor physical activities – how to ride a bike, skateboard, plant a garden – as well as indoor activities – how to make pancakes, build LEGOS®, and play board games.

This is when grandparents do a lot of teaching and educating, and their grandchild is perfectly content to spend lots of time hanging out with them. At this stage, if asked who their best friend is, many kids will say that their grandmother or grandfather is their best friend.

This is a time many grandparents enjoy a lot of physical and emotional closeness with their grandchild.

Stage 3: Grandparents as important contributors (grandchild is from 8 to 12 years old)

For kids in this age group, from about 8 to 12 years old, their friends become their focal point, and grandparents become less of the main attraction.

Sure, the grandchild still wants to play miniature golf or go to the movies or get ice cream, activities they used to do alone with their grandparents, but now an invitation to a grandchild to do something with a grandparent is usually coupled with this phrase: “Can my friends come too?” Spending time with a grandchild has now become a package deal!

In this stage, the grandparents’ role is all about being social directors and chauffeurs, helping with the arrangements and transportation to help the grandchild be with his/her friends. Also, as the grandchild’s life involves more sports and other activities, the parents often call upon the grandparents to relieve some of the pressure on them by transporting and/or cheering on the grandchild as he pursues his/her activities.

This stage involves a lot of chauffeuring and supporting the grandchild from the sidelines.

Stage 4: Grandparents as occasional contributors (grandchild is from 12 to 16 years old)

This is where things can get more challenging for the grandparents who, heretofore, have enjoyed being a consistent and important part of their grandchild’s life.

Of course, grandparents smile and say it is just wonderful to see their grandchild mature, become independent, and build a social life with friends. Yes, it is all that, but it is understandable that grandparents now and then yearn for those earlier days, times when they felt a greater sense of purpose and involvement.

The reality for many grandparents in this stage is that their grandchild and his/her parents need them less and less to be an active part of their lives. Their main role now is to provide backup now and then, for example, taking the grandchild to some activity when the parents have other commitments that cannot be easily changed.

Stage 5: Grandparents as nonessential contributors (Grandchild is 16 years old and on his/her way to adulthood)

Ah, this is a bittersweet stage. On the one hand, grandparents are so proud of the wonderful and accomplished young person their grandchild has become. They hope their loving and supportive involvement through the years has played some part in the development of their awesome grandchild.

On the other hand, although this may be difficult to accept, the grandparents realize that they are no longer needed. It is time for them to acknowledge that their work as active and contributing participants in the ongoing growth and development of their grandchild is done.

This is when many grandparents start fantasizing about becoming great-grandparents!

A final word about the stages of grandparenting

The stages of grandparenting described above apply mostly when the first grandchild is born into his/her family. As additional grandchildren are born into the same family, the stages may be repeated, but with modifications.

For example, because the parents are no longer novices, the grandparents’ initial expertise is no longer needed. Or, by way of another example, as older grandchildren get their licenses to drive, this may mean that the grandparents are needed less, or not all, to help transport younger grandchildren or to backfill for the parents.

Regardless of how the stages play out for each grandparent, I hope all grandparents feel that their input has made a positive difference, that their contributions have been appreciated, and that they are heartened by a reservoir of wonderful memories of their precious interactions with their grandchild.


Christine Crosby

About the author

Christine is the co-founder and editorial director for GRAND Magazine. She is the grandmother of five and great-grandmom (aka Grandmere) to one. She makes her home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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