The parents of one's mother and father.
Grandparents can play an important role in children's lives, providing love and comfort, as well as stability and a sense of family identity. There are about 50
Grandparents have a unique role to play in the life of a family. They can provide their grandchildren with comfort and companionship in a relaxed atmosphere removed from most of the disciplinary tensions that are often unavoidable between parents and children. Grandparents can be a source of refuge and strength in times of crisis. They can also help relieve some of the everyday stress faced by working couples by offering babysitting, advice, and other forms of assistance. Their own work commitments keep some grandparents in their forties and fifties as busy as their children. In other cases, though, a grandparent may have precious extra time—often lacking in busy dual-career families—to spend with grandchildren, talking with and reading to them, listening to their thoughts, and perhaps accompanying them on outings, such as a trip to the movies or the zoo. Grandparents can also help diffuse tensions between parents and children. If they are able to avoid taking sides, they can serve as sympathetic and insightful listeners.
In addition to increased longevity, another major factor that has led to an increased role for many grandparents is the rising divorce rate. Many older people will see at least one of their grown children divorce. A divorce can bring grandparents closer to both their children and grandchildren. They may be called on for help ranging from moral support, advice, and babysitting, to financial assistance and a place to live. In most cases, maternal grandparents become closer to the children following a divorce, while the children's contact with paternal grandparents often decreases. Sometimes grandparents on the noncustodial side are placed in the uncomfortable position of trying to maintain good relations with the custodial parent—at the risk of alienating their own child—to ensure continuing contact with the grandchildren. In the past, grandparents had few legal rights when it came to their grandchildren and could be denied contact at the whim of a daughter- or son-in-law who had custody. Today grandparents in all 50 states can petition for visitation rights in the event of a divorce. Such rights may be formally included in the final divorce settlement by the parents' lawyers or granted in court by the judge. In some states grandparents also have the right to petition for custody if a court finds both parents unfit to care for a child. However, the granting of such rights is rare and generally limited to extreme cases. Also, like other aspects of custody law, laws pertaining to grandparents vary from one state to another.
In addition to those few who are legally granted custody in divorce cases, an increasing number of grandparents are informally taking over the primary responsibility for raising their grandchildren due to parental neglect, abuse, or abandonment, or following the death of a parent. The number of grandparents assuming full-time responsibility for their grandchildren rose 41% between 1980 and 1994. Today over three million children in the United States live with their grandparents. Suddenly finding themselves with young children at home at a time when they had expected to have leisure in their lives is difficult for both middle-aged and elderly grandparents. Younger grandparents may find themselves "sandwiched" between taking care of their grandchildren and
Another current demographic trend that poses a challenge for grandparents is geographic mobility, which makes for many long-distance grandparenting relationships. There are a variety of ways that grandparents who live too far away for regular visits can still remain an active and visible part of their grandchildren's lives. Occasional visits both to and from one's grandchildren are, of course, the best means for establishing and maintaining a close relationship. Whether or not this is possible, there are other ways that contact can be maintained, including letters and audio or videotapes. Imaginative ideas for keeping in touch include joint projects, such as having a grandparent and grandchild plant matching gardens and compare their progress, or take turns composing a joint story and mailing the latest installment back and forth. Parents can mail or fax the children's drawings and keep grandparents up to date on the youngsters' latest interests so they can treat them to appropriate small gifts from time to time.
One of the most important roles a grandparent can fulfill is that of historian, passing on to grandchildren a sense of family history and identity. Even seemingly ordinary details of grandparents' lives, such as descriptions of everyday life when they were young or of famous historical events they remember, can be fascinating to children. Grandparents can also share family stories. Often they remember stories the children's own parents are familiar with but have never thought of telling their children. Grandparents can leave their grandchildren (and future generations) a unique legacy by creating a record of their recollections, either written or on tape. An enhanced sense of history can be imparted by including photographs, old letters, and other souvenirs, and also by recording lullabies or other songs that are part of the family's traditions. Yet another way that a grandparent can help keep the family in touch with its roots is by creating a family tree, complete with pictures, if possible.
Carson, Lillian. The Essential Grandparent: A Guide for Making a Difference. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1996.
Dodson, Fitzhugh. How to Grandparent. New York: Harper & Row, 1981.
Kornhaber, Arthur. Grandparent Power! How to Strengthen the Vital Connection Among Grandparents, Parents, and Children. New York: Crown Publishers, 1994.
AARP Grandparent Information Center
Address: American Association or Retired Persons
601 E St., NW
Washington, DC 20049
Telephone: (202) 434-2296
Grandparents As Parents (GAP)
Address: P.O. Box 964
Lakewood, CA 90714
Telephone: (310) 924-3996
Grandparents United for Children's Rights
Madison, WI 53705
Telephone: (608) 238-8751