Grandparents Play the Role of a Lifetime

by Parri Black, Courier & Press, February 10, 2015 —

At this point in my life, nothing gives me greater joy than my grandchildren. The feelings I have for them are almost indescribable. It’s a combination of deep affection and perhaps an even deeper connection.

They link my past, present, and future, and God willing, they will carry a part of me into a time I will never know. Like most grandparents, I only want the best for them, but I am not ultimately responsible for them.

Fortunately, my grandsons are in good hands with two terrific parents. They also benefit from having two sets of grandparents and even four great-grandparents who love and adore them.

The bond between grandparent and grandchild can be one of the most significant relationships in a child’s life. Grandparents can be great playmates, encouragers, and guides without the burden of being the primary caregiver, provider, and disciplinarian.

Though we may worry about our grandchildren, typically, grandparents don’t have to raise them. We have other important functions in the family system, according to Arthur Kornhaber, M.D., founder of the Foundation for Grandparenting.

He has identified 11 special roles that grandparents play in the lives of children. They are:

  • Ancestor — a link to past generations and a living example of survival and resilience.
  • Buddy — a trusted pal and confidante.
  • Hero — an inspiration and even a rescuer in times of need.
  • Historian — a witness to the value of belonging to the family unit.
  • Mentor — a cheerleader who boosts dreams, growth, and self-worth.
  • Nurturer — an emotional and social safety net, especially when the family is in crisis.
  • Role Model — an example of how to behave, interact, and care for others.
  • Spiritual Guide — a compass for developing morality, principles, and beliefs.
  • Student — a willingness to learn from the younger generation and empower their leadership.
  • Teacher — an experienced instructor sharing knowledge, skills, and life lessons.
  • Wizard — a friend who enjoys imaginative play and turning the simplest tasks into something magical.

Many grandparents experience a fun phenomenon: grandchildren somehow make us feel more youthful. We have the time and the freedom to view life through the lens of a toddler and enjoy every minute of it.

On the other hand, the parents of the same preschooler may feel too stressed and stretched by life’s circumstances. If the situation reaches a breaking point, the grandparents may have to step in and take on the role of parenting their grandchildren.

Research affirms the protective role of grandparents, especially when a family is in crisis. A University of Southern California study (Silverstein & Ruiz, 2006) looked at 2,280 grandchildren with mothers who exhibited symptoms of depression.

The grandchildren who were less connected with their grandparents were more likely to have their own symptoms of depression. The grandchildren who were more integrated with their grandparents did not follow in their mother’s footsteps.

The study concluded that the following factors create a strong grandparent-grandchild relationship:

  • The child feels a sense of emotional closeness to the grandparent.
  • The child has regular contact with the grandparent.
  • The child views the grandparent as a source of social support.

When I hear my grandson call me “Nana” and I see the huge smile on his face, my heart melts, and I believe the feeling is mutual. It is amazing to realize that the bond we share passes from generation to generation, from my grandparents’ grandparents to my grandchildren’s grandchildren and beyond. The role of grandparent is truly the role of a lifetime.