This is a column that I dedicate to my parents who adore all their grandchildren and have been rewarded for surviving their children’s growing up.
What if, in the battle of parenting, you had a reserve force to call in when needed? A buffer against the infiltration of stress into every pocket of your life. Someone who can step in when you are incapacitated. Someone whose knowledge, hard-won in previous conflicts, you can draw from when needed. Actually, many of us do have access to such sources of help. They are called grandparents.
‘Perfect love sometimes does not come until the first grandchild,’ goes a Welsh proverb, hinting at the often easier relationships grandparents have with their grandchildren. The very word ‘grandparent’ comes with a powerful, positive association for many people: someone who makes the best milk tart in the whole world; someone who holds your baby while you keep a family celebration going; someone who agrees to look at your son’s latest experiment bubbling in a test tube. My own son says he loves his grandparents because they are funny, they tickle him and they give him lots of presents. In this way, grandparents get a second chance to be the attentive, goofy parent few people can manage when they raise their own children – mainly because it’s easier to be the model parent when you only have to do it occasionally.
Sometimes grandparents are not just the reserve force, but must step in and actively parent for longer periods. In South Africa, with its legacy of migrant labour and disruption to family life, many children are still raised by grandparents in rural areas while their parents travel to the city to find work. Barack Obama was also largely raised by his grandparents, and he said, “My grandmother poured everything she had into me and helped to make me the man I am today.” Not a bad epitaph to have on one’s gravestone.
Study after study conducted into the role and impact of grandparents shows that they have a strong containing influence on households, especially ones under stress, experiencing divorce, bereavement, poverty or job loss. In these situations grandparents lend an ear, fetch kids from school, visit in hospital or give members of the nuclear family a much-needed break from each other.
But sometimes this can go too far. One of my clients, who worried about feeling useful in her old age, discovered that she was soon an essential part of the everyday life of her daughter’s children. She said, “I wanted to be needed, but I don’t know if I wanted to be needed this much!”
Nevertheless, grandparents often offer stability and continuity for a child whose world has been turned upside down. Perhaps this is why humans live so long, so that grandparents can lead children and grandchildren along the practised routes of life.
Grandparents and grandchildren form a natural alliance, sometimes against the parents! This is not generally a problem but could become one if you have had a troubled relationship with your parents. I have also seen grandparents fail to take up the nurturing role at all, as tension between mother and daughter leads to resentment projected onto grandchildren. In other cases, grandparents are alienated from their grandchildren because of a divorce or a failed relationship with a son-in-law or daughter-in-law. What a pity this is. Unless your parents really are a negative influence, you owe it to them, yourself and, above all, your children, to nurture these intergenerational relationships.
Although one shouldn’t be mercenary about it, it’s worth noting that grandparents are part of the informal economy, contributing a huge amount to social cohesion without costing government a cent. In Britain, apparently, 60% of childcare provision is supplied by grandparents, saving Britain ₤4 billion a year.
To build positive grandparent-grandchild relationships there are various measures you can take:
- Visit regularly and celebrate important occasions with all generations of the family
- When visiting, bring activities for your child as they can easily become bored – you can’t expect grandparents to have your patience and energy levels
- Encourage grandparents to keep a set of toys at their home – a pack of cheap plastic building blocks will do just fine
- Tell your children interesting or funny stories from the past, featuring your parents
- Articulate ground rules for your kids when they visit or are looked after – so everyone knows what is acceptable
A final word to all grandparents-to-be. Enjoy the new relationship – after all, grandchildren are your reward for not killing your own children.