Positive psychology

The Influence of Grandparents

By Carol Parker Thompson, Ph.D.

Grandma Daisy was stooped so that when she looked at me, it was with a sideways turn of her head. She had long, silky gray hair that hung to her waist when down and which she wore most times in a little knot on top of her head. Grandma was pleasingly plump so that when I hugged her, she felt soft and welcoming.

Until I was five years old we lived across the street from Grandma. When my siblings and I would visit she would sing some of the old songs to us like “Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines” and another of her favorites, “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey, a kiddley divey too, wouldn’t you?”

Grandma Daisy lived until she was 86.years old. She has been gone now for many years, but she comes to mind especially on “Grandparents Day” which we will observe this year on Sunday, September 9.

National Grandparents Day has been observed since September 9, 1979 when Congress passed legislation and President Carter signed the proclamation honoring Grandparents.

The legislation or the attention paid to the proclamation seemed to have sparked a new interest in the importance of grandparents to grandchildren. Perhaps it is because we are living longer, and it is not unusual to find multi-generational families.

Grandparents influence their grandchildren directly and indirectly according to a study undertaken at North Dakota State University by authors Gebeke, Dunlop and Bjelland (2006).

Activities that grandparents and grandchildren participate in together such as going to movies, camping, going out to eat, or talking on the phone provides direct influence. Indirect influence comes from emotional support.

Grandparents are important in grandchildren’s lives. “Grandchildren exposed to such contact are less fearful of old age and the elderly,” according to the authors.

I remember and honor Grandma Daisy because she had a profound influence on me. While she lived near us she took an active role in our lives.

She provided many of the benefits accrued to grandchildren. She gave unconditional love and she was a source of stability and security. She played many of the traditional roles that most grandparents play: historian—she told us many stories about the past; mentor—she shared homemaking skills and talents; nurturer—she provided encouragement and support; and friend—she was a pal, a kind of secret confidant who would listen.

The influence of grandparents over older grandchildren often appears to lessen in importance. Like many young people who are starting a family and developing a career, I spent less time with Grandma Daisy. I can only imagine how she felt when she may have thought that her influence was no longer relevant.

Grandparents often expect the grandchildren to initiate contact, assuming that it is their responsibility. When contact is not forthcoming, grandparents may feel hurt, isolated, lonely, sometimes irritated. Even grandparents who are actively engaged in their work or community long for interaction with their adult grandchildren.

To avoid feeling hurt or neglected, it is helpful to know what normal behavior is for children of different ages. That way, grandparents are less likely to be hurt when grandchildren do not behave as expected.

Parents know that teens and young adults can be difficult as they begin to desire more freedom and independence and establish their own identity. Many often become less communicative, and less willing to share their thoughts, activities, and friends with their parents and grandparents.

During this period of growth and maturity their needs change, their priorities are altered, and their focus is on their own age group whose interest and pursuits are similar. It becomes more difficult to bridge the generation gap. But the influence of grandparents is of no less importance.

At this juncture, it is increasingly important for grandparents who desire a close relationship with their adult grandchildren to initiate and maintain contact. Here are some suggestions for doing so:

• Be mindful of the roles that good grandparents have always played in the family structure. Develop and/or continue those roles as historian, mentor, nurturer and friend.

• Initiate and maintain frequent contact with grandchildren through texting, tweeting, email, social media, or skyping.

• If you are not computer savvy, telephone, make audio tapes or discussions of activities you both enjoy, make frequent use of snail mail—letters, pictures and postcards—all these will let grandchildren know that you care.

• Discuss activities that you both have engaged in in the past and may still enjoy.

• Discuss your life and activities. (No complaints! No health issues unless they directly impact your grandchild or are of immediate concern).

• Keep messages and contacts light-hearted, positive, and fun.

• Be persistent! Ask for responses and show that you really are interested in their lives.

When the grandparent/grandchild’s relationship is positive and continuing, grandchildren benefit from the circle of caring people who will be there for them. Grandparents benefit from the positive influence they have provided, the history they have shared, and the continuing connection and enriching bond with ones they value highly—their grandchildren.

Celebrating National Grandparents Day September 9 is an affirmation of the positive influence grandparents have played in grandchildren’s lives.  But it may be up to the current grandparents to take the lion’s share of sustaining the relationship with grandchildren.

Contact Dr. Thompson at caroltmcc@comcast.net