What it means to be a grandparent in the 21st century.

By Penelope Leach, Ph.D.
October 05, 2005
Credit: Violet Fraser

Grandparents matter. Those who are physically available are best, but even when they're far away or long dead, the importance of grandparents filters into children's lives through a mishmash of memories and myths. My maternal grandmother is entirely mythical to me because she died in childbirth when my mother was a teenager. But her raising of my mother, and the grief of its premature ending, shaped my mom and, through her, me.

Just being a grandparent makes you important to children, but being a beloved grandparent is something that must be earned. I hope I shall be remembered as warmly as my mother is remembered by my kids. While they were growing up, we shared a three-family, three-generation household, and all of us, including our grandchildren, who have heard so much about her, regret that we didn't manage to make it four.

Just as memories of grandparents vary, so do the realities of grandparent-parent-child relationships. The myth of family fragmentation, for instance, says that we don't have extended families anymore. And while it's true that families have changed more rapidly in the last 20 years than ever before -- and are still changing -- grandparents are also living longer, more active lives, and it's only a minority who have pulled up stakes and retired to Florida. In many parts of many states, perhaps especially in cities, at least one grandparent lives close enough to see at least one family of grandchildren as often as every week.

People say it's their age that makes grandparents special to children: the calm and lack of rushing that come from being retired and elderly, the stories and games from another era. That may be true for some grandchildren, but many of today's grandparents (including me!) are not yet retired and are no less stressed or rushed than their grown-up children. As for elderly, the youngest grandmother I know is 38 years old and could easily be her grandchildren's mother. Far from being a source of old stories, she's a whiz on the Internet.

I know from experience (four times over so far) as well as observation just how close, even magical, relationships between grandkids and grandparents can be, but I have a different take on the reason. From a child's perspective, I think what's uniquely important about a grandparent is that he or she is an adult who knows you (since forever), loves you, and can take care of you and who also loves and is loved by your parents. That's the safest and most comfortable feeling in the world. If Mom were ill, Gran would come not just to take care of you but to take care of Mom. If Grandpa offers an indulgence that's forbidden at home, it's naughty enough to be fun. No wonder 3- to 6-year-olds are so keen on learning the ramifications of family relationships and so fascinated by grandparents' stories and by photographs of their parents as little kids.

If the children trust a grandmother because they know that she loves and cares for them and for their mother, and the mother trusts the grandmother because she knows she loves the children and herself, that grandparent can be a steadying fourth leg whenever the three-legged family is feeling wobbly. She doesn't have to be retired and looking for something to fill her days to be there for her grandchildren, whether it be as a confidant, a haven, or a treat.

However busy Grandma and Grandpa may be, they are extra people your children love and welcome and who might find time to attend a school function or step in for a weekend when both parents are out of town. Even if grandparents can't provide routine daycare for your baby, they are your best bet during every kind of emergency. And during those times when you're out of your mind with worry about your child's behavior and everyone else is bored to death with your going on about it, it's the grandparents who will ask and listen -- and manage to be on your side without being against your child.



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