Much has been written about the influence of parents on a child’s development. It is an ever-evolving subject. However, the relationship between grandparents and children doesn’t get as much spotlight as the topic deserves. Grandparents, whether involved or indifferent and distant, can influence children’s lives significantly.
There are many stereotypes around grandparents. They are often portrayed in books, movies and other media as extremely aged, domesticated, sickly or strict. From Roald Dahl to Karan Johar, everyone has overtly dramatised the white haired, bespectacled grandparent with walking sticks trope.
However, certain perceptions and stereotypes have caused more damage than the others. According to a research paper, clinical case studies from the 1930s to 1950s, such as ‘The grandmother: A problem in child rearing’ (1937) and ‘Grandma made Johnny delinquent’ (1943) (both published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry), berated the adverse influence of grandmothers, who interfered in old-fashioned and didactic ways with the mother’s child rearing.
This probably triggered a phase of over-indulgent grandparents in the following decades. However, I find today’s grandparents different. Most are educated, engaged and excited to help, rather than simply being the family torch bearers of morals and discipline.
With changing family dynamics, inclusive cultures, growing number of double income households and increased parenting pressures, grandparents are now playing a cushioning role in several families.
Research shows that a high level of grandparental involvement increases the well-being of children. A study of more than 1,500 children showed that those with a high level of involvement by grandparents had fewer emotional and behavioural problems. Research also shows that it is the consistent and regular presence of grandparents that results in closeness rather than the functions that they perform or help they provide.
Precious early emotional bonds between grandchildren and grandparents last. While proximity and frequency of contact play a vital role during the early years, as children grow older, their social circle increases leaving less time for family. However, even so, children who have close bonds with their grandparents continue to stay close and connected with them.
While there are several advantages of grandparental involvement, there are some homes and families that might have a void in this context. It must be said that these children have no compromised emotional make-up. What might help is empathy and an age appropriate discussion about the absence.
Another common aspect is no matter how close the relationship might be, grandparents often confess they prefer not having to play parents again. They proclaim they have done it once, and rightly so, would prefer to not have to do it again. Parents also report several clashes that occur due to differences in nurturing ideals, opinions and practices.
Some helpful practices for the adults in the family would be to be consistent in practice and to have certain small rituals or family traditions involving grandparents. It would also help for grandparents to follow the lead of the parents in schedules and parenting values. This simplifies matters, with parents’ wishes being respected as well as those of grandparents to not have to play parents all over again.
Being a grandparent is not an easy feat. Not only does one play a happy playmate but also feels responsible to share wisdom and set an example. For some, this comes at an age when they find it hard to physically keep up. For others, it may come too early and they might still be working hard. Keeping expectations real, moments light, minds open, and boundaries of all involved clear, can help not just children but also the grandparents.
Shwetambara Sabharwal is a Mumbai based psychologist, psychotherapist and a mother of two.