A very special relationship
Brooke Broadbent, MA
Grandfathers are important people. Recent research shows that grandfathering helps support grandchildren as they grow and develop.
Have you celebrated your grandfather lately? If we’re lucky, we have treasured memories of time spent with our grandparents. And if we’re luckier still, our grandfather spent quality time with us—sharing a corny joke, pulling coins from behind our ears, or listening to us when we needed a sympathetic ear.
Good grandpa— good health?
It seems intuitive that a positive relationship between a grandfather and his grandchild would be a good thing. In fact, studies show that being a successful grandfather contributes to the good health and happiness of both grandfathers and their grandchildren.
The research shows that involved grandfathers have fewer depressive symptoms than do disengaged ones. And the grandchildren of grandparents who connect with them in a significant way are happier than those children who do not have this type of deep connection.
In traditional families, grandmothers did much of the heavy lifting when it came to grandparenting: supporting parents with advice, providing childcare, buying gifts, entertaining, and more, while grandfathers helped with such things as games and finances.
Nowadays, grandfathers are becoming more involved in roles previously the domain of grandmothers. In divorced couples, grandfathers sometimes do it all. To complicate matters even more, in blended households there are sometimes more than two grandfathers.
Being a successful boomer grandfather means more than showing up with dolls, trucks, and teddy bears. It means getting involved. With divorce rates hovering around 40 percent among boomers in what’s termed “grey divorce,” relations between grandfathers and their adult children can become strained.
And research shows that divorced grandfathers tend to live farther from their grandchildren than do grandmothers. These factors often leave grandfathers at a greater disadvantage when it comes to their relationships with grandchildren. (See sidebar, page 53, on long-distance grandfathering.)
Being a successful boomer granddad includes learning about changing values and child-raising approaches. Boomers raised their own children, according to the advice of Dr. Benjamin Spock, to be more flexible and affectionate or in line with Dr. Thomas Gordon’s ideas about parent effectiveness training and logical consequences.
But many of today’s children are being raised with brain development in mind, as proposed by Dr. Clyde Hertzman. Knowing the latest thinking about raising children will enhance a grandfather’s capacity to help with grandchildren, while also keeping in mind that his job is not normally to raise the children. A granddad is a helper, albeit an important one.
Grandfathers are important people
Grandfathers perform many important roles in the lives of their grandchildren. By conscientiously engaging in each of these roles, granddads foster relationships that contribute to both their own happiness and their grandkids’.
This is the easiest role for most granddads and the first block of a solid grandfathering foundation. Many grandchildren invent games and invite grandfathers to join in. Conversations during games offer opportunities for fun connection and creating memorable shared experiences.
Teaching grandchildren board games, such as chess, or card games, such as cribbage, allows a grandfather to share his knowledge and experience while at the same time helping to guide his grandkid toward new interests—and acquiring some valuable cognitive skills in the process.
Teaching family values
Through play, grandfathers can help to develop values associated with sharing, consideration, and fun. Thoughtful mediation, by a grandfather, while grandchildren play can be a way to demonstrate family values.
Sharing values of good citizens
Daily occurrences offer opportunities to demonstrate good citizenship. When grandfathers show consideration to parents, pick up trash in the park, or obey signs in public spaces, they also create learning opportunities for their grandchildren. Even if these opportunities aren’t discussed at the time, they’re still setting a subliminal pattern of good citizenship that provides a good example for the grandchild to follow.
Sharing practical skills
Grandfathers have interests, and they’ve developed passion and skills associated with these interests. When grandkids participate in granddads’ interests they can experience the benefits of skills such as planning, organizing, implementing, and evaluating—and having fun. A granddad’s passion for birdwatching might spark a lifelong interest in the outdoors and the environment while his skill at playing the guitar may lead to a love of music.
Providing comfort and support
Because grandfathers are once removed from the day-to-day responsibilities of the parents, they’re often able to provide time and a compassionate ear when troubles are too difficult to share with Mom and Dad. By supporting grandkids when they are sad, a granddad’s actions can also help to develop caring capacities in his grandkids.
Teaching family history
Telling family stories helps to connect grandchildren to the lives, experiences, and traditions of their parents. Nothing interests young children more than learning about the silly things their parents did when they were young. Looking at family photo albums also helps them to envision the people, places, and experiences in their parents’ lives.
Conducting ancestral research with grandchildren also develops research skills and encourages strong family ties. Taking photos of children with other family members and giving albums of these photos as gifts is a way to generate a sense of family history.
Did you know?
Here’s a ray of hope for grandfathers of young children who feel they’re living in the shadow of grandmothers: a British study reports that grandkids often prefer grandmother until they get closer to their teen years, and after that granddad gets his day in the sun—at least with the boys.
Since 1995, National Grandparents’ Day has been celebrated on the second Sunday in September of each year. It acknowledges grandparents’ important role in the nurturing, upbringing, and education of children.
Long-distance grandfathers can still have healthy and happy relationships with their grandchildren. Using media to keep in touch, granddads’ roles can be just as powerful from far away.