child caring

The importance of grandparent relationships

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Staff / February 23, 1990

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Children and their grandparents make up the largest mutual admiration society going. It's no wonder, for each offers the other a special gift. Children give their grandparents a sense of immortality; in return, they receive unconditional love.

It is so powerful and important a relationship that psychologists and researchers advise parents to do everything possible to foster it, even if that means squelching their own needs.

"You can't overestimate the importance of grandparenthood to children and grandparents," says Chicago psychologist Helen Kivnick, who has been studying grandparenting for 15 years.

"There is no good result for children who have great physical and emotional distance between the generations," says Carolyn Edwards, professor of education and human development at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

What makes this relationship so special?

Blythe and Evans Clinchy, who have a 3-year-old grandson, say they have all the fun of parenting and none of its horrors. Blythe describes her relationship with her grandson Evans, who is named for his grandpa, as a source of unmitigated joy and passion. "I had no idea it could be this intense," she says.

For most grandparents, it is that, and more.

At every age in our lives, we need to feel useful and capable of love. As we get older, outlets for these needs diminish. Grandparenting, says Kivnick, is one way for many older adults to feel valuable. For some, having a young child regard them as wise, is the most important aspect of their role.

Others most value the gift of immortality grandparenting offers. It is the first thing, for instance, that Evans Clinchy mentions when he talks about being a grandfather: "You begin to get a sense of the continuity of generations," he says.

But by far, what makes this relationship so special is the ability to indulge, not in material ways, but in emotional ones. Grandparents' love is unconditional; they are less judgmental than parents.

"It's the kind of love that is born of patience, experience and age," says Vern Bengston, a sociologist at the University of Southern California who has written extensively on the subject. "It is a love that listens to stories, takes delight in games and tunes the rest of the world out to focus only on the child. It is a love that is tolerant and relaxed."

Grandparents also are not so anxious as parents. "If a 9-year-old forgets to say thank you, the grandparent knows he isn't turning into a delinquent," says Louise Guerney, professor of human development at Pennsylvania State University.

Such unwavering love gives a child a sense of affirmation. "They see they are wonderful in that grandparent's eye, no matter what. That kind of love validates them. It builds self-esteem," Bengston says. Every child needs it, Guerney adds.

There are other benefits to children in having grandparents who are involved in their lives. According to Edwards, Bengston, and Guerney, grandparents provide children with:

- An example of courage and fortitute in the face of life's problems, such as ill health and death.

- Positive images of growing old.

- Reinforcement of moral values.

- A sense of personal identity and family history.

- A sense of global history from someone who has lived the real thing, whether it's World War II or early rock 'n' roll.

If all of this can be intoxicating for grandparents and irreplacable for grandchildren, it can seem indulgent to parents.

"Parents worry that grandparents are too easy," says Guerney. "That there are not as many demands to be met, that the children will be ruined.

"Don't worry about it," she advises.

Under scrutiny, Guerney says most issues are not worth a struggle. Perhaps by your standards, they are spoiling your child, but maybe that's not so awful, especially if grandparents are geographically distant and visits are infrequent. Basically, she and others agree, you should just put up with it.

This doesn't mean grandparents can do no wrong. There are plenty of times when they are a destructive influence -- they butt in where they shouldn't, ignore rules parents have struggled to establish or criticize parents in front of a child.

But it means you need to minimize conflict. Guerney offers some suggestions:

- Recognize from the beginning that you'll have differences. Children understand that the rules at grandma's house are different from the rules at home. The only time they will play parents and grandparents against each other is when they see you don't respect each other's differences.

- Talk through serious issues -- if grandparents smoke around an infant or feed your child something he's allergic to. Be firm in a non-threatening way. Guerney says grandparents who feel too controlled can become hostile or competitive. It is the child, not the parent, who gets hurt.

- When you take a stand with your parents, make sure it's the health, welfare and development of your child you're responding to and not some issue left over from your childhood.

Grandparents who live nearby are another story.

"You've got to find a way to make the realtionship exist so it's not a strain on you," says Kivnick. Often a solution is so simple it escapes you. She offers this real-life experience:

A grandaughter with a working mother went to grandma's everyday after school, and every day grandma baked cookies. The mother asked her -- begged her -- not to, but she continued. It was making the mother crazy. Finally, the mother asked her daughter if she liked the cookies.

"Not really," the 8-year-old said. "I just eat them to be polite to grandma." Together, the child and grandparent agreed on a different, healthier snack: celery sticks.

On the other end of the spectrum are grandparents who aren't involved at all. "Some people think they are too young to be grandparents and let the stereotypes get in the way," says Bengston. "Others fear being sucked into a parenting role that they've already had, thank you."

More and more grandmothers are pursuing full-time, high-powered careers, resulting in less time for traditional grandmotherly activities. Another growing group of grandparents who spend less time with grandchildren are those who are old or infirm by the time the grandchildren are born.

In these cases, parents and grandparents need to find ways to make the most of what little time and activities they can enjoy together. When no grandparent is available, Edwards suggest finding surrogates -- elderly uncles and aunts, for instance.

Children being born now and in years to come are likely to have grandparents whose influence is more profound than ever. Longer lifespans are giving grandparents the unique opportunity to know their grandchild well into his adulthood.

"Grandparenting today is an uncharted field," Bengson says. "It is the undiscovered role in modern industrialized society.

"Personally," he says, "it's something I look forward to."

AFTERTHOUGHT -- One way to teach a 2- to 3-year-old to take turns and to share is by playing with hand puppets, stuffed animals or dolls.

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