Chelsey Byers Gerstenecker
Extension Educator, Family Life
As an adult in my mid-thirties, I know that it is quite the luxury to have three of my grandparents still active and healthy and to have had a relationship with all four of my grandparents until I was almost thirty. I even knew one of my great-grandparents growing up; this was not very common among my friends. As a kid, I was lucky enough to live right down the road from one set of grandparents and across town from the other set. This may have been the norm for a lot of grandchildren and grandparents; however these relationships today may look a bit different from 30 years ago due to our changing world.
There are almost 90 million grandparents living in the United States today. The average age a parent becomes a grandparent is between their mid-forties and mid-fifties. Many can spend up to 40 years as a grandparent and even a great-grandparent. Due to our mobile society up to half of all grandparents now live at least 200 miles away from their grandchildren. On the other side of that, 7 million grandparents have a grandchild living with them.
Grandparents now are so different - some are as young as 30 while others are in their one hundreds; some are working and others long retired; some living next door to their grandkids, other across the country or world; some present daily in the their grandchildren's lives, others communicating only from a distance— there really is no one-size-fits-all prescription for making the grandparent relationship work.
Family relationships and dynamics can sometimes be tricky. For the most part, adult children will encourage the relationship between their child and their parents. However, the relationship between a grandparent and their adult child can directly affect the relationship between the grandparent and the grandchild.
Grandparents do not typically want to be disciplinarians or full-time caregivers. They want to play with and enjoy the grandchildren. Research has identified some common roles that grandparents take in a child's life; they include family historian, mentor, nurturer, role model, and playmate. These roles may change depending on the age or stage of the child and the grandparent.
There are numerous factors that can affect the level of involvement a grandparent may have in a child's life. Some of the factors that can lead to distant or less engaged grandparenting include: family diversity, differing beliefs, divorce, distance, health, and/or busy schedules for both the grandchildren and grandparents.
Grandparents can build connections and strengthen their relationship through purposeful effort. Building connections is often easier when you spend time together. Even when you live at a distance from the other you can reach out and build those connections. Sometimes we have to get out of our comfort zone and meet the grandchildren where they are via text, Facebook, or even Skype. No matter what method you use to communicate, remember that you will build the connection through healthy communication. The words we choose, the tone of voice we use when we speak, the assumptions we make, body language and behavior, all have an effect on the listener. It is important to listen attentively and without judgment.
It is also important to spend purposeful time together by:
Positive healthy relationships are valuable to both the grandchild and the grandparent. Whether your connections are spontaneous or intentional, ongoing interactions can increase closeness between the generations and the emotional well-being of all involved.
Grandchildren, who report having close relationships with their grandparents are more likely to engage in activities with them, see benefits to spending time with their grandparents and are likely to be influenced by their values and beliefs. In turn, grandparents may also function as a source of social support and family history. Older adults can enrich the lives of younger people by providing continuity between the past, present and future as they share stories and memories.
Grandparents have many important gifts to offer – gifts that cost little to nothing, but build character and create fond memories. Today's fast paced lives can create barriers for grandparents as they search for ways to show their special kind of love. It is well worth taking the time to think creatively and find ways to connect and enrich the lives of grandchildren.