What’s Your Grandparenting Style?

“. . . Grandmother, as she gets older, is not fading but rather becoming more concentrated.”
Paulette Bates Alden


Grandparents come in all sizes and shape--and degrees of enthusiasm for the job. Anecdotally, it seems that some new grandparents, especially women in their fifties, dread the title, which they say, “Sounds so OLD!” Perhaps that’s why they come up with every nickname under the sun to avoid being called Grandma. Still, for everyone who says, “Don’t count on me to babysit!” or “I have my own life to lead!” there seem to be thousands who can’t wait to get their hands on that little bundle of joy—and keep them there.
Today there are no accepted norms for good grandparenting. Even more than the parent/adult child relationship, it’s very individual and voluntary. On the one hand studies show that the grandparent role looms larger for the working class, less educated, those who are older, unemployed or retired or widowed and those not involved in organized activities. On the other hand, grandparents with greater resources have the ability to help out the grandkids financially, give them new experiences, and travel long distances to be with them.
On opposite sides of the spectrum are the remote individual, who shows up (or is called in) for milestone occasions, and the highly involved individual who either has regular, scheduled caretaker responsibilities or drops everything to babysit when called. There’s also the so-called “fun seeker,” who emphasizes the leisure aspects of the role and primarily provides entertainment for the grandchildren. Finally, there’s the surrogate parent who has to take over the caretaking role when his/her children are unable to do so. This is called a "skip generation family," and it represents 2.7 million grandparents.

“One of the most powerful handclasps is that of a new grandbaby around the finger of a grandfather.”
Joy Hargrove

Whatever your personal grandparenting style, it is undoubtedly the result of many factors. If you’re on the younger end of the spectrum, you’re probably more informal in your dealings with the grandkids. Indeed, in my lifetime we’ve gone from “Grandma Smith” to “Grandma Joan” to, in many cases, just “Joan.” The old model of respect and obedience for one’s elders went out many years ago when the experts told grandparents not to discipline but to cuddle, not to speak authoritatively but rather to listen sympathetically. Along the way grandparents were removed from the child-rearing equation and relegated to the periphery of their grandchildren’s lives. Contributing to the diminution of their role was the fear of being considered “meddlers.” So, rather than transmit their decades of hard-won wisdom, they zipped it, and younger generations lost out on a great deal of cultural and personal lore.

“Grandma always made you feel she had been waiting to see just you all day and now the day was complete.”
Marcy DeMaree


The degree to which grandparents are involved today is shaped by more than personal preference, of course. If you live far away, it’s harder to make it work. AARP found that an overwhelming percentage of grandparents wish they saw their grandchildren more, but only a third lived within 25 miles of them. If the parents are not pro-active—or worse, have posted a “Grandparents Keep Out” sign in front of the kids’ rooms--it’s almost impossible to establish close bonds. If you’re working or have a busy lifestyle, it’s difficult to mesh schedules. Finally, with young people having children later, many grandparents are older and simply can’t be as physical with the kids as they would like. 

“If nothing is going well, call your grandmother.”
Italian proverb

As your grandchildren evolve, your grandparenting style evolves with them. But just because your relationship changes that doesn’t mean it is any less meaningful. The kids might not climb onto your lap anymore, but they will seek you out for guidance and a sympathetic ear. In fact, many grandparents report that their new, grownup relationship with the grandchildren is even more gratifying than when the children were young.

"She's the one who taught me about hard work," he said. "She's the one who put off buying a new car or a new dress for herself so that I could have a better life. She poured everything she had into me."
Barack Obama on his grandmother Madelyn Dunham

No matter what your grandparenting style, or constraints, I urge you not to get into competitive grandparenting. Don’t feel guilty if you are not whisking the whole family away to Hawaii for Christmas. Don’t compare yourself to the Joneses who fly across country once a month to babysit. And don’t fret if the Browns go to every one of their grandkids’ soccer games and you don’t. No matter what it looks like, the grandchild/grandparent relationship is second only to the parent/child relationship in importance. For those who of you who assume the mantle – at whatever level, in whatever way—know that you are making a meaningful, lifelong impact on your grandchildren.

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