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Five types of grandparents and how they shape our lives

Which type of grandparent did you have?

Those of us lucky enough to have grandmothers and grandfathers know how influential they can be in our development. If you are or are becoming a grandparent, you most likely appreciate this role, perhaps more than any other you've ever had.  It's a well known fact that grandchildren provide the focus for many older adults. 

The bragging rights that grandparents claim about their descendants are legendary. Having grandchildren is, for many, a major source of fulfillment. But we know much less about the meaning of grandparents for the young.

One person we know very well whose grandmother made a difference in his life is Barack Obama. Raised by Madelyn Dunham, his maternal grandmother, she died on the eve of his election. Obama cited his relationship with her as both formative and transformative. "She's the one who taught me about hard work," he said. "She's the one who put off buying a new car or a new dress for herself so that I could have a better life. She poured everything she had into me."

Less celebrated and well-known are the millions of grandparents in the U.S. who are solely responsible for the upbringing of their grandchildren, estimated at 2.5 million in 2009. From you can learn the facts and figures as well as resources containing valuable advice and suggestions. This situation, referred to as a "skip generation family," may occur for a variety of reasons, including substance abuse by parents, child abuse or neglect by parents, teenage pregnancy or failure of parents to handle children, and parental unemployment, divorce, AIDS, or incarceration. Although only a small percentage (14%) of grandparents in these situations are over the age of 60 years, substantial percentages have a disability (40%) or live in poverty (21%). However, on the positive side, the role of surrogate parent can contribute positively to the grandparents' sense of identity, particularly for African American grandmothers. Furthermore, feeling that others are supportive can help ameliorate the negative effects of the stress and strain of caregiving for the grandchild and help preserve the grandparent's health.

Personally, I was close to my maternal grandmother, who lived with my family during my teen years. Apart from a few disagreements about dating, she was an important figure in my life. An expert seamstress who made a living as a master glovemaker (her gloves were sold to Queen Elizabeth), she shared with me her incredible talents and it was thanks to her that knitting is my favorite hobby. She also was an inspiration to me. At the end of her life, when she could no longer see, she switched her craft to making woven potholders, just to keep her hands busy. She was super-proud of me perhaps just as much for my education (she lived until my second year of grad school) as for my hand-knit creations.

There is no official estimate of the total number of grandparents in the U.S; the best guess is about 56 million. And in contrast to what is known about the skip generation family, there is virtually nothing known about grandparenting in general. The last thorough study of grandparenting was conducted, if you can believe this, in 1965! University of Chicago's Bernice Neugarten, one of the leading gerontologists at the time, identified 5 patterns of grandparenting. See if you can relate your grandparents to one of these:

1. Formal grandparent: follows what are believed to be the appropriate guidelines for the grandparenting role, which includes providing occasional services and maintaining an interest in the grandchild, but not becoming overly involved.

2. Fun seeker: emphasizes the leisure aspects of the role and primarily provides entertainment for the grandchild.

3. Surrogate parent: takes over the caretaking role with the child.

4. Reservoir of family wisdom (usually a grandfather): the head of the family who dispenses advice and resources but also controls the parent generation.

5. Distant figure: has infrequent contact with the grandchildren, appearing only on holidays and special occasions.

Unfortunately for most grandparents, contact with their grandchildren declines steadily through the grandchild’s early adulthood particularly when they leave the home of their parents and start an independent life of their own. Grandparents who are unable to maintain contact with their grandchildren due to parental divorce or disagreements within the family are likely to suffer a variety of ill consequences, including poor mental and physical health, depression, feelings of grief, and poorer quality of life.

So, they need us and we need them. Yet, there are many misunderstandings about the role of grandparents in the lives of young adults. I see this very often on my college campus, when other faculty members complain about the infamous student excuse, "My grandmother died so I can't..." (a) take the exam (b) hand in my paper (c) attend class (d) etc. etc. I recall reading an article somewhere (I think) with a title to the effect of "We're Killing the Grandmothers." There is even something complained about by graduate teaching assistants called "Dead Grandmother Syndrome." 

Having taught a course on the psychology of aging for a number of years, I was intrigued by this particular excuse. Students in my class often spoke of how important their grandparents were in their lives and when a student reported a death it was generally with great sadness. It seemed to me that most of the grandparent death excuses were sincere, not made up. So I began to embark on a study of grandparent excuses that still continues to this day. The first study asked students to indicate (anonymously) which excuses they fabricated and which reasons for missing an exam, paper, or whatever, were genuine. It turned out that the grandparent excuse was not a lie. The excuse that students used when they were lying was "family emergency." To this day, the anonymous surveys on excuses that I now use in my intro psych class (on 1000's of students) confirms the validity of the grandparent "excuse."  We are not killing the grandparents, we only learn about their death on days that it counts. In reality, students value their relationships with their grandparents more than anyone realizes.

I'd like to close by asking the question - why does psychology know so little about this hugely important phenomenon in our lives? Why is the death of a grandparent seen as a joke? Why do we know so little about the meaning of grandparents in their lives. And finally, why can't the U.S. Census, with its wealth of data, even tell us how many there are? 

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. 

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2010


Caron, M. D., Whitbourne, S. K., and Halgin, R. P. Fraudulent Excuse Making Among College Students. Teaching of Psychology, 1992, 19, 90-93.
Geurts, T., Poortman, A.-R., van Tilburg, T., & Dykstra, P. A. (2009). Contact between grandchildren and their grandparents in early adulthood. Journal of Family Issues, 30, 1698-1713.
Musil, C., Warner, C., Zauszniewski, J., Wykle, M., & Standing, T. (2009). Grandmother caregiving, family stress and strain, and depressive symptoms. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 31, 389-408.Neugarten, B. L., & Weinstein, K. K. (1964). The changing American grandparent. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 26, 199-204.