As an adult, I still think about my grandparents on a near daily basis, even though they’ve been gone for decades.
My father’s mother, in particular, holds an almost mythological place in my mind. She ruled with an iron fist, as only the mother of a very large family can do. With 12 children and 15+ grandchildren, there was no room for nonsense.
Yet, she was still loving and kind.
Every Sunday, the entire family would gather for dinner at Grandma’s house. The door was left open, and anyone that was able could just amble in and sit down. There were always uncles playing cards, aunts telling jokes, and grandma making her famous homemade rolls. Grandchildren held a special place in her life, and she always sneaked us treats that mom and dad wouldn’t otherwise allow.
She was the glue that held the family together. As soon as she passed, those dinners stopped, and the family scattered around the country.
Much has been written about the importance of those grandparent-grandchild relationships. Although it’s not frequently discussed, a strong grandparent-grandchild bond can have a lasting impact on the happiness and wellbeing for people on both sides of the equation. Here’s why:
Why Intergenerational Bonds Matter
When a grandparent and a grandchild have a strong connection, it’s usually a sign of a close family overall – but intergenerational bonds have several distinct benefits of their own.
- Emotionally close ties between grandparents and grandchildren result in fewer depressive symptoms in both groups
- For grandparents, relationships with grandchildren provide a connection to the outside world and exposure to different ideas, which they may not otherwise get
- For grandchildren, grandparents can offer wisdom that may help them navigate difficult times
- Grandparents can offer first-hand historical perspective that enriches the child’s understanding of the past (for example, many of today’s grandparents likely remember first-hand the American Civil Rights Movement or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy)
- Involvement with grandchildren can help older adults stay mentally sharp and physically active
- Often, children will listen to their grandparents even when they won’t listen to their parents or other adults
How to Foster a Strong Grandparent-Grandchild Relationship
It may seem that grandparent-grandchild relationships just come naturally, but that isn’t necessarily so. Due to many factors, such as a large age gap, many children may find it difficult to bond with grandparents without the proper encouragement.
Several researchers, including Merril Silverstein and Vern L. Bengtson, have studied the issue and identified six factors they say lead to “intergenerational solidarity”. While some of them are beyond our control, many are not.
Knowing what these factors are can help grandparents, even if they’ve lost touch with their grandchildren, form a stronger relationship and build a lasting connection:
- Physical Proximity: Geographic closeness is one of the strongest predictors of a close relationship between grandparents and grandchildren. For grandparents who are unable to be physically close to grandchildren due to health, mobility, or other issues, technology can mimic that feeling of proximity. Apps like FaceTime, Skype, or even Facebook Messenger have made it possible to have a “face-to-face” conversation without even leaving the home.
- Frequent Contact: Almost as important as one-on-one interaction is how often that interaction occurs. It seems almost too obvious to state, but grandparents who have more frequent contact with their grandchildren also tend to have closer relationships.
- Grandparents’ Function Within the Family: Many grandparents provide childcare for young grandchildren and that regular interaction can help forge a stronger connection. As an added bonus, research suggests that grandparents who babysit live longer.
- The Concept of Normalcy: Families that expect strong relationships between generations are more likely to have them. Often, this is a cultural function, as certain societies tend to encourage more intergenerational interactions than others. In such families, tasks and duties are expected to be shared among generations, and those values are taught at a very young age.
- Emotional Bonding: Although bonding among generations is highly important, grandparents often report feeling a closer bond than do grandchildren. This makes sense, as older adults have a shrinking circle of friends and loved ones, and their children and grandchildren often occupy a space of high importance. Children, however, tend to value their peers above all others, closely followed by parents and siblings.
- Reaching a Consensus on Values: Grandparents and grandchildren naturally have different values, especially as the children age. The younger generation may find grandparents’ ideas “out of touch” or even downright objectionable. While older adults shouldn’t change their ideologies or values, it is important to listen to the younger crowd. The simple act of being heard can go a long way in forming a bond.
Parents, remember: Building a strong grandparent-grandchild relationship ultimately falls on you. The middle generation is the one that can bridge the gap between old and young, and help build and shape those connections.
While the six factors above can influence the strength of such bonds, parents need to help facilitate the connection. Children learn their values and ideals from you, and you must teach them that grandparents hold a place of honor within the family!
On that note, I’ll end with another story: I distinctly remember my mother once whacking me on the bottom with a wooden spoon after I stuck out my tongue to my grandmother. I never tried that again . . . and I also learned that grandma was to be respected at all times.
Tell us: What do you do to foster the grandparent/grandchild relationships within your family?