Becoming a Grandparent: A Developmental Milestone

Generativity is at the heart of grandparenthood.

Posted Apr 14, 2013

The familiar “life stages” as formulated by the developmental psychoanalyst Erik Erikson postulate that all human beings go through certain critical milestones in development. At each stage the development can take either a positive or negative turn. The stage of older adulthood is defined by Generativity vs. Stagnation.

Generativity is the wish to creatively nurture the development and growth of the next generation. This impulse may be expressed in lots of different ways, from providing direct caretaking to paying for college to cooking the most comforting mac ‘n cheese.

Development is often thought of as being completed at adulthood, but as Erikson shows, older adults continue to develop. One possible milestone of older adulthood is that of becoming a grandparent. And grandparenthood offers many ways for an older adult to express generativity.

An article in The Wall Street Journal recently reported that in a survey done of more than almost 2,000 grandparents fully one quarter of them estimated “they spend $1,000 or more a year on their grandchildren. No, money isn’t everything, but this statistic tells us something about the investment many grandparents make in their grandchildren.

When things have gone well enough in a family, a grandparent often wants to facilitate and nurture the growth of their adult children as they, in turn, become parents to their own children. These older, experienced adults are optimally able to calmly teach and manage the new tasks a parent must learn, such as feeding, bathing and soothing a baby.  Grandparenthood provides a second chance, another opportunity, to be the good, nurturing caretaker.

Frequently it is the grandmother who offers to cook and clean for the new mother until she is better able physically and emotionally to manage her new responsibilities. Sometimes it’s sufficient for the grandmother to nod with approval as the younger mom becomes a competent caregiver in her own right. Simply affirming the skill a new mother displays can be wonderfully supportive for the new mother and a reparative experience for the grandmother as well.

As a psychoanalyst and therapist I have frequently heard patients recall stories from childhood that reveal the very important role a grandparent has played in his or her life. For example, a man who grew up in a big city recalls his delight as he learned to fish and swim during summer vacations spent at a grandparent’s beach house under his grandfather’s watchful eye. Another adult patient has happy memories of a spring vacation trip during which her grandparents indulged her and her younger sister in ways that contrasted sharply with her more withholding parents--they spent two days at an amusement park, were allowed to choose their rides, had ice cream twice a day and did not have to eat their vegetables.

In times of stress or crisis it is often the grandparents who rescue the young children in a family. For instance, a female patient tells me how her maternal grandmother stepped in to take care of her and her siblings for several months when her own mother was seriously injured in a car accident. When this occurred the patient was only eight years old and remembers worrying her mother would die. Although this was a frightening period of time, she recalls the sense of safety and relief she felt whenever her grandmother hugged and reassured her that mom would recover and return home.

In less dramatic circumstances, grandparents are the providers of delightful extras: purchasing that special party dress, baking wonderful cookies, and telling interesting stories about the past. These loving, gray-haired folks can have a profound impact. As life expectancy increases and older people remain healthy longer, grandparents will most likely play a role in a child’s growth for a longer period of time than in the past.

There is evidence that even in cultures vastly different than our own grandparents serve an important function in preserving and nurturing younger generations. Writing in a recent issue of The New Republic magazine, Judith Schulevitz reports on an African tribe of hunter-gatherers living in Northern Tanzania called the Hadza. When anthropologists studied the growth rates of children living in this tribe, they found many children with grandmothers (or great-aunts) grew faster than those without these relatives. Apparently these older women, free from direct child care responsibilities, were able to forage for and obtain more food for the children, while the children’s mothers were busy with direct child care.

When grandparents are missing or unavailable, a therapist or psychoanalyst may find him or herself fulfilling some of the functions of a good grandparent to the children of their adult patients. Some patients may enter psychotherapy because of concerns about the job they are doing as parents. This can be a powerful worry for patients who recognize that their own parents were far from adequate as parents, and are afraid to repeat the mistakes made in their rearing.

Psychoanalysts and therapist don’t usually feel their primary job is to tell patients how to live their lives. However, there are always some circumstances when a supportive, reassuring and educational presence from an older adult is useful and welcome. And assuming a “grandparent” role with a younger, less experienced patient can be a way of expressing generativity for the therapist as well.

Ruth Imber, PhD, is a Fellow, Training and Supervising analyst at the William Alanson White Institute, and member of the Editorial Board of Contemporary Psychoanalysis. She is in private practice in New York City.