What Grandparents Can Bring to Their Grandchildren and Their Parents

By Patricia J. Lesesne 

Ask many grandparents what they want for their grandchildren, and you’ll hear 
responses that recall the ways of life we all cherish but – in the frenzy of today’s fast-paced society – can’t always have.

Take a random sampling of grandparents almost anywhere you go today and you’ll hear themgrandparenting say they’d like their grandchildren to have:

• time to reflect and ask important life questions

• purity and innocence (through adolescence, at least!)

• the untiring attention and support of loving relatives

• adults who are actively involved in their schooling

• safe schools and communities

• positive media with less sensationalism

• nurturing environments in which they can realize their worth and full potential.

In essence, we want our grandchildren to experience the most meaningful aspects of our own and our children’s upbringing – elements that often seem lost in family life today. Families are increasingly recognizing the vital role that we can play in maintaining the quality of life that is crucial to raising healthy children.

“It is up to us to spend time with our grandchildren and expose them to positive values, experiences and points of view – to lend some balance to other external impacts,” says Linda Ohkagawa.

Ohkagawa is one of an increasing number of grandparents who jumped right into an active grandparenting role, starting with attending the births of her grandchildren. She and her husband want the same close and continuing relationship with their grandchildren as their own children had growing up.

“My parents provided our children with a summer vacation ‘home’ throughout their lives,” Ohkagawa recalls. “It was also a treasured place for respite from siblings, where they could visit one at a time and get all the attention and feel really special.”

Intergenerational Involvement 

According to the National Safe Kids Campaign, nine out of 10 grandparents today help care for their grandchildren at some point during the year. And whether grandparents are near or far, regular caregivers or occasional visitors, most parents value their children’s grandparents as sources of additional love for the children, knowledgeable resources for parenting and ties to family values.

Nini Lifarge explains why she cherishes her mother’s role in reinforcing family values with her 17-year-old daughter, Kate: “My mom has a real spiritual basis for all of her decisions, and I rely on her to reaffirm those values with my children – especially with Kate, who is now a young adult and making her own decisions.” Lifarge also has two boys, ages 13 and 6, with whom she encourages her mother to also have one-on-one relationships.

Children don’t put up the same defenses with their grandparents as they do with their parents, and they are more open to a grandparent’s influence, she says. “Having my mom reinforce family values with them is really important to me.”

In more and more families, grandparents are supporting their adult children by taking an active role in primary childcare at times. When Sharman Brown returned to work after her daughter, Aquene, was born, her mother provided childcare during the day. “It gave my mother and Aquene the opportunity to bond,” Brown says. “And it allowed my mother to practice her ideas of nurturing and parenting.”

But child-rearing styles don’t always mesh. “My mother has very specific ideas about the care of children – like what and when they need to eat, how clothes are layered during the winter and things like that,” Brown says. “I tend to explain a lot to Aquene and to be a little more lax about these things, and my mom sometimes gets impatient with me. She tends to think I’m explaining too much.”

But even with these differences, Brown says, she is grateful to have her mom’s input.

Maintaining Good Relationships

Some parents feel that the grandparents are too involved; others believe the grandparents are not involved enough. Some grandparents feel that too much is expected of them, while others would gladly take more responsibility for their grandchildren. Differing values, distance, strained relationships and other problems, both large and small, may hinder the creation of amiable and supportive relationships.

Sometimes old issues rise to the surface and cause unexpected tension, notes psychologist and family counselor Kalman Heller. He sees some parents today who are confused and hurt when they see their own parents be more loving and nurturing to their grandchildren than they were to them as children.

Heller counsels these parents to be attuned to their own feelings and reactions and take the time to go back to try to understand the grandparents’ actions. Many parents may not be fully aware of the pressures and circumstances of their own parents’ lives that contributed to how their parents interacted with them way back when.

Heller encourages parents to lovingly approach their own fathers and mothers by saying, “It seems that you are more relaxed and playful with my children than you were with me when I was a child. Do you see that? Can you tell me a little about what it was like to be a mother (or father) back then?”

And for their part, Heller says, grandparents can be forthcoming with this information and recognize how things are different for both parents and grandparents today.

Another source of difficulty can arise when grandparents are unaware of how to respond to a child with special needs, such as attention deficit disorder, learning disabilities or emotional disorders. They may apply the strict discipline they grew up with, not realizing that it isn’t always effective with a child who has special needs. Heller advises grandparents finding themselves in this position to get a hold of literature to educate themselves about these disabilities.

Communication Is Key

As with most relationships, the biggest challenge in the grandparent–parent relationship is misunderstanding or lack of communication, according to Arthur Kornhaber, M.D., author ofGrandparent Power and president of the Foundation for Grandparenting, a national organization that advocates for and supports grandparents. Being patient and working toward more honest communication can help families establish a level of grandparent involvement that is best for all concerned.

“Be direct and open with your feelings,” suggests Kornhaber. “Roundabout communication accomplishes nothing, and it only allows anger, frustration and disappointment to ferment,” he says. “Instead, hold a family conference. Sit down and state your concerns.” If problems continue, Kornhaber recommends finding a mediator, such as a pastor, mutual friend or family therapist.

George Wyomes, LCSW, a specialist in intergenerational counseling, notes that society at large can learn from communities of color and immigrant communities, where grandparents tend to have a more active role in family life – often living with grandchildren and their parents.

“Grandparents represent tradition and ties to family values,” Wyomes says. “They can pass on these things in today’s society, where parents are generally too busy or stressed to do so.”

Updated August 2012