On the Grandness of Grandparents

Research on what makes grandparents so special.

Posted Nov 05, 2018

Like a lot of my friends, I went to college out of state and stayed out of state for a while after graduating. Several years ago, I got a job close to my parents who live about 45 minutes away. I considered myself pretty lucky to get a job where I could live so close to where I grew up, but I didn’t know just how lucky I was until I had children. When my first son was born three years ago, my parents fully embraced their new roles as grandparents in the most helpful ways possible. They babysit weekly, they change poopie diapers (at least grandma does), they get on the floor to play, they hide and they seek, and they are not at all afraid to get sticky. They do all of this regardless of the fact that they already did it as parents themselves (which they like to remind me of as much as possible). Their support is not only helpful to me as a parent, but it’s also beneficial to my kids, who love their grandparents. I can leave my kids with my parents stress- and worry-free, knowing that they fully understand my kids’ needs, and knowing that my kids are more than happy for me to leave them with their favorite playmates.

Freeograph/Shutterstock
Source: Freeograph/Shutterstock

Although not every set of grandparents is alike, research supports the idea that maintaining a close relationship between grandparents and their grandchildren is good for everyone involved. In fact, adult grandchildren who have a close relationship with their grandparents are less likely to have symptoms of depression than adults who don’t have this kind of relationship (Moorman & Stokes, 2014). This is true for the grandparents as well, who are also less likely to have depressive symptoms if they have close relationships with their grandchildren. In fact, research suggests that providing some kind of care for a grandchild—by babysitting on the weekends, for example—is related to longer life expectancy for the grandparent when compared to grandparents who don’t take care of their grandchildren or adults of the same age who aren’t grandparents at all (Hilbrand, Coall, Gerstorf, & Hertwig, 2017).

Anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists have even suggested that grandparents—and grandmothers specifically—have played an important role in human survival throughout evolution. The “Grandmother Hypothesis” proposes that help from the maternal grandmother would lead to increased resources for the child, a higher survival rate, and, ultimately, longer life expectancies for humans in general.  In a meta-analysis of 17 different studies, researchers confirmed that the survival of both maternal grandparents was associated with survival of their grandchildren (Strassmann & Garrard, 2011).

Along the same vein, several researchers have suggested that the most advantageous way to raise children is by surrounding them with a system of caregivers (like grandparents) that provide the children (and the mother) with love and support. This type of system is called alloparenting, and involves situations where several people are involved in caring for a child besides the child’s biological parents (Hrdy, 2011). The idea, similar to the “Grandmother Hypothesis,” is that the more support children and mothers get—particularly from people like grandmothers who already have experience raising children themselves—the better the children will fare. Indeed, research suggests that the number of close and caring relationships one has, the better the person’s health and wellbeing will be throughout life (e.g., Feeney & Collins, 2014).

Of course, it’s pretty intuitive that a helping hand from a grandparent can be beneficial for the everyday lives of their grandchildren. What’s not as intuitive is the long-lasting and potentially vital role that grandparents may have played in raising children throughout human history. And we’re just talking about grandparents who help raise their grandchildren; there are about 2.9 million more grandparents in the U.S.—called custodial grandparents—who raise their grandchildren on their own, often at the expense of their own health and well-being (Hayslip & Kaminski, 2005). So apparently, we have a lot to thank grandparents for, which I’m sure they’ll be happy to remind us of for years to come. 

References

Feeney, B. C., & Collins, N. L. (2015). A new look at social support: A theoretical perspective on thriving through relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 19(2), 113-147.

Hayslip Jr, B., & Kaminski, P. L. (2005). Grandparents raising their grandchildren: A review of the literature and suggestions for practice. The Gerontologist, 45(2), 262-269.

Hilbrand, S., Coall, D. A., Gerstorf, D., & Hertwig, R. (2017). Caregiving within and beyond the family is associated with lower mortality for the caregiver: A prospective study. Evolution and Human Behavior, 38(3), 397-403.

Hrdy, S. B. (2011). Mothers and others. Harvard University Press.

Moorman, S. M., & Stokes, J. E. (2014). Solidarity in the grandparent–adult grandchild relationship and trajectories of depressive symptoms. The Gerontologist, 56(3), 408-420.

Strassmann, B. I., & Garrard, W. M. (2011). Alternatives to the grandmother hypothesis. Human Nature, 22(1-2), 201-222.

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