If you're like many 50- and 60-somethings, you may be relishing your role as grandparent. If not, you may be eagerly awaiting and hoping for this new status. Indeed, for many people during this period, the rewards of family life grow much richer as each new grandchild enters the world.
You've probably heard, and may feel, that grandparenting beats parenting by a long shot. You can enjoy your babies, kids, or teens and then, when your time together is over, you can also enjoy your peace and quiet. No diapers to change or crying babies to wake you up in the middle of the night. You don't have to deal with helping kids with their homework (unless you want to), teaching the teens to drive (again, unless you want to), and fewer bills to pay (yet again, unless you want to help out).
Many people still think of grandparents as the warm, generous, older adults portrayed in storybooks as kindly relatives who have ample time to spend with their families and want to do so. However, as you undoubtedly know from your own experience, there are all kinds of grandparents. Some actually don't have the luxury of saving the arduous parenting tasks for the grandchildren's parents. In the U.S. alone, 2.9 million grandchildren live in the home of their grandparents with no parents in the home at all. In these "skip generation" households, the grandparents raising grandchildren may be under considerable economic and emotional stress. Only a small percentage of these grandparents are over age 60, but a substantial percent live in poverty and have a disability.
Other grandparents spend very little time with their grandchildren, due to the parents moving away for their own jobs or other responsibilities, or because the grandparents move to a retirement destination. In between these extremes, about one-fifth of grandparents in the U.S. are involved in some form of caregiving, and slightly more in Europe take on these roles (one-third of grandmothers and one-fourth of grandfathers).
It's safe to say that, no matter what the specifics are of the role in the grandchilren's lives, researchers find that the role of grandparent contributes to an individual's overall sense of identity and well-being by providing a strong sense of connection to the younger generation. Grandparents who are unable to maintain contact with their grandchildren due to parental divorce or disagreements within the family are likely to suffer a variety of ill consequences, including poor mental and physical health, depression, feelings of grief, and poorer quality of life. Although we see much mockery in the media made of the grandparent as mediator (if not nosy buttinsky), researchers show that intergenerational relationships are a two-, if not three-way, street. Grandparents often play an important and valued role in helping parents and grandchildren negotiate conflicts.
Given how important grandparenting is to the mental health of so many midlife and older men and women, how can you maximize your own chances of grandparenting success? We can get some answers from a 2013 study conducted by Central Michigan University researchers Mikiyasu Hakoyama and Eileen Malonebeach, who conducted an intensive study of 470 young adults (18-27) on how they felt about their grandparents when they were children, adolescents, and young adults. The researchers also looked at what grandchildren had to say about the personalities, health, and educational status of their grandparents as well as what they thought their parents would say about how well the grandparents were performing their roles. Here's what their study suggests:
1. Get to know them early. The grandchildren who felt their grandparents played an important role in their lives when they were young also felt closer to them when they were older. Investing the time in the tasks of grandparenting (yes, even changing those diapers) will pay off richly as you become an integral part of your grandchild's developing sense of self and family.
2. Get along with your own children. The grandchildren's parents, for better or worse, are often the gatekeepers for you to maintain contact with your precious grand-progeny. This relates to the next point, as well, which is to---
3. Do a good job of grandparenting. From the grandchildren's point of view, at least, when parents perceived that grandparents were good in their role, the grandchildren felt closer to them. This may be attributed to that gatekeeping role of parents, but also that the children feel more comfortable when the grandparents allow them to feel safe and well-cared for.
4. Adapt to your grandchildren's personalities. A personality match between grandchild and grandparent predicted greater closeness of contact. It makes sense that you may have a "favorite" grandchild whose personality seems similar to yours. However, if you want to have a good relationship with all the little ones in your extended family, you may need to do a little adjusting, at least while their personalities are still in their early developmental stages. You want them to feel comforted, not challenged, by your personal style.
5. Stay in good health. Stated in its most extreme form, I guess I'd have to say that it's easier to be a good grandparent when you're alive than when you're dead. Being healthy will allow you to be around longer. However, being healthy also has the benefit of allowing you to do more with your grandchildren, enjoying more of the activities that they enjoy without your feeling restricted. This, also, is a two-way process. The healthier you are, the closer you are to your grandchildren, and the better you'll feel, both mentally and physically.
You may be thinking by now that you would love to be closer with your grandchildren, but distance prevents you from achieving this goal. Take heart. A 2012 study conducted by Veronica Rempusheski of the University of Delaware School of Nursing showed that college students who spoke frequently with their grandparents by phone had more positive perceptions of their grandparents than those who didn't. Phone contact predicted positive feelings almost as much as did face-to-face get-togethers. Add to this phone contact the many opportunities to connect through face time, Facebook, and email, and the miles between you can melt away. Of course, this cuts both ways. Grandchildren who feel positively about you want to spend more time with you; but that's the point, isn't it?
Ultimately, being an active presence in your grandchildren's mind isn't just good for your mental health. That special bond that skips the generation can enrich the lives of the young as much, if not more, than your own.