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Grandparenthood is a significant status in the life of many older adults; more than three-fourths of all people aged sixty-five and older are grandparents. It is a kinship status, and, as such, is dependent on the structure and norms of the kinship system. The contours of the grandparental role have changed dramatically over the last century due to demographic and socio-structural factors, and diversity in grandparent/grandchild (or cross-generational) relationships has become the rule rather than the exception. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, perhaps the most significant single fact gleaned from decades of research about grandparenthood is the heterogeneity of the grandparental experience.

The demography of grandparenthood

Demographically, increased longevity, decreased and delayed fertility, and changing patterns of geographic mobility have altered the dimensions of grandparenthood. Longevity is affected by mortality rates, and over the last century, declining death rates have made it more likely that children and young adults will have multiple grandparents in their family networks. Whereas in the nineteenth century few people lived long enough to enjoy the status of grandparenthood for very long, by the end of the twentieth century, grandparental careers spanned several decades. Additionally, changes in mortality have made great-grandparenthood more common; according to Roberto and Skoglund between 40 and 50 percent of all older adults are great-grandparents. Life expectancies that reach into the eighth decade have increased the number of grandparent/grandchild relationships, elongated the grandparental career, and fundamentally altered the interactions between grandparents and grandchildren. Grandchildren increasingly see their grandparents age from young-old to old-old; similarly, grandparents increasingly see their grandchildren age from childhood to adulthood.

Decreased and delayed fertility during the twentieth century also altered the face of grandparenthood. Twentieth-century fertility, despite significant swings during the Great Depression and postWorld War II years, declined from an average of four children per family in 1900 to approximately two children per family in 2000. At the same time, delayed childbearing and increased childlessness have also altered the childbearing experience in ways that have had significant effects on grandparenthood. Although it is still true that the overwhelming majority of older persons are or will become grandparents at some point in their lives, declining fertility means that each grandparent will have fewer grandchildren and that fewer grandparents will attain that status while still raising children of their own. Delayed childbearing has the potential to delay the entrance into grandparenthood, although most who become grandparents do so by age fifty (Uhlenberg and Kilby). Finally, rising levels of childlessness recorded at the end of the twentieth century make it likely that more than a quarter of all older persons will never become grandparents in the twenty-first century.

High rates of geographic mobility, distancing parents from grown children and grandparents from their grandchildren, have also necessitated a change in the way that the cross-generations relate to each other. Over the twentieth century, declining numbers of children lived in extended family households (consisting of a child, a parent, and a grandparent under one roof) and the physical distance between residences increased, with the potential for decreasing interaction opportunities for grandparents and grandchildren. Despite changes in geographic proximity, however, it is also true that even at the end of the twentieth century, more than three-quarters of all older persons who had children lived close to at least one child, which means a greater likelihood of access to grandchildren. Research consistently shows that strong bonds between the generations are maintained despite geographic distance, but the mode of interaction is often something other than face-to-face contact. Technological advances in communication (such as telephones and the Internet) and transportation (rapid rail and air travel) have allowed grandparents and grandchildren to maintain strong relationships despite physical distance.

Socio-structural changes affecting grandparenthood

Major changes in family structure and women's status during the twentieth century also affected the role of the grandparent. Often socio-structural changes had consequences not just for the demographic aspects of grandparenthood but also for the relational aspects as well. Increasing diversity of family structure, manifested in high rates of divorce, single parenthood, and teen parenthood, has created new roles and responsibilities for grandparents. Additionally, as women's status rose throughout the century, grandparents were challenged to adjust from traditional to modern modes of interaction.

In a society where large percentages of children spend at least a portion of their lives in one-parent homes, grandparental roles become more blurred and less well defined. High rates of divorce present grandparents with a variety of possibilities, highly dependent on the attitudes and behaviors of the middle generation. For maternal grandparents, divorce of their adult child often means an added set of instrumental and emotional responsibilities and, therefore, closer ties with grandchildren. This stems, in part, from the common practice of awarding custody to the mother, who then turns to her parents for increased support. For just that reason, the relationships between grandchildren and paternal grandparents tend to suffer after a divorce. Although attention has been focused more on the shrinking ties between the cross-generations after a divorce, remarriage brings with it the possibility of new family roles (such as step-grandparent and step-grandchild) and grandparents often find themselves with additional family roles. The complexities that arise in family constellations as a result of divorce have had another unintended effect on grandparent/grandchild relationships. Divorces among the middle generation have prompted policy action to assure biological grandparents the legal right to maintain ties with their grandchildren.

The steep rise in the divorce rate during the 1970s and 1980s resulted in legislation in all fifty states that allowed grandparents to petition the court for visitation rights with their grandchildren. Although Congress called for a uniform statute as early as 1983, there is, as of 2001, still a wide variety of state policies. At one extreme are several states that allow grandparents to petition for visitation under any circumstances. More frequent are the state policies that specify certain conditions that must be met in order to file, such as the disruption of the child's family through death or divorce, an unfit parent, or a prior custodial role by the grandparent. In virtually all cases, the court must weigh these circumstances against the best interests of the child, and it is such a determination that makes this a complex legal action. At the onset of the twenty-first century, grandparents' rights have become an issue at both the state and federal levels.

One-parent households do not just result from divorce; single, never-married parents and teen parents also contribute to the late-twentieth-century phenomenon of the one-parent household. Traditionally, grandparents have often played the role of family rescuers, and, increasingly, they are being called on to support single and teen mothers during times of family hard-ship. That support most often takes the form of instrumental aid, such as financial assistance and babysitting, but grandparents are increasingly enlisted as primary caregivers for their grandchildren when crises, such as the illness, death, substance abuse, or incarceration of a parent, occur. The rising number of caregiver grandparents has necessitated a redirection of research and policy efforts to explore and deal with the immediate and long-term consequences for both grandparents and grandchildren.

Over the last century, society moved in the direction of less differentiated gender roles and that trend has significant implications for the role of grandparents. Whereas traditional studies have emphasized the primacy of the grandmother over the grandfather in family relationships and the maternal grandparents over the paternal grandparents, current research challenges or at least refines that conclusion. As the status of women has increased, mothers and grandmothers are more likely to be engaged in jobs and careers than in the past; fathers and grandfathers are more likely to be engaged in family tasks than in the past. A blurring of the division of labor within families may indicate a more balanced perception of grandparental roles in the future.

Grandparent/grandchild relationships

Grandparent/grandchild relationships exist along a number of dimensions: association, affect, role meaning and significance, and exchange. Significantly, the quality of the relationship along these dimensions is often mediated by the middle generation. Just as it is true that a parent only becomes a grandparent because of the actions of his/her child, it is also true that the strength of the cross-generational relationship is dependent on attitudes and behaviors of the middle generation. Adult children who maintain close ties with their own parents provide the norms for strong links between grandchildren and grandparents.

The frequency of contact between grandparents and grandchildrenthe associational dimensiondepends on a number of factors. Primary among these factors is the geographic proximity of the two generations. Frequency of contact is higher for those who are proximate; interaction is highest for those grandparents and grandchildren who co-reside and lowest for those who are separated by the greatest distance. Although declining proportions of grandparents live in the same household as their grandchildren, the overwhelming majority of older parents live close to at least one of their adult children and opportunities for contact are high. Studies have shown that interaction between the cross-generations are highest when the grandchildren are young and dependent, presumably because of the intervention of the middle generation. As grandchildren reach their teenage and college years and strive for independence, they are less likely to be in frequent contact with their grandparents, but that pattern is reversed as they reach adulthood and establish their own families. At the end of the twentieth century, patterns of association between grandparents and their grandchildren appeared to be curvilinear.

Despite the physical distance that separates many grandparents from their grandchildren, the affectual or emotional bonds between the generations remain strong. Differentials do exist in the degree of closeness, including whose perspective is recorded, the gender of each generation, and the feelings of the middle generation. For example, grandparents are more likely than grandchildren to report that their relationship is close; studies conclude that the older generation has more at stake in perceiving intimate bonds. But grandchildren of all ages consistently report the warmth of their affection for their grandparents. Gender also appears to be important; grandmothers, and particularly maternal grandmothers, have the closest relationships with their grandchildren. Traditionally, this finding stems from the special kinkeeping role of the woman in the family. This is also connected to the importance that the middle generation plays in establishing and maintaining the closeness of the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren. Because mothers and daughters tend to maintain closer ties as they age than do other family dyads, they foster closer ties with the next generation.

Grandparenthood is a significant and meaningful role for older persons. Research findings consistently show the high levels of satisfaction and pleasure that older persons derive from their grandchildren, and the salience of the relationship is something that is reciprocated. In past centuries, the grandparent was likely to be a figure of authority, based on the economic and social interdependence of family members. But the twentieth century, with its emphasis on independence and autonomy, produced a person more comfortable with a companionate role than an authoritarian one. Nevertheless, grandparents play many different types of roles for their grandchildren, including that of historian, mentor, role model, and surrogate parent. And they carry out these roles by assuming a variety of grandparenting styles, some remotethose who see their grandchildren infrequently and whose interaction is mostly ritualistic; others companionatethose whose focus is on leisure-time activities and friendly interactions, and yet others who are involvedthose who take an active role in rearing their grandchildren.

Despite the ideal of independence and autonomy in early twenty-first century families, there is a high degree of obligation and exchange among the generations. Many types of aid flow between the bonds of grandparents and grandchildren. Each generation both gives and receives, depending on life stage, health, and economic circumstances. Significantly, each generation expresses the belief that it has a filial obligation to the other to provide various types of assistance. Instrumental or physical aid includes assistance with chores, financial assistance, and caregiving. Most often, grandparents offer financial help to and babysitting for their grandchildren; in return, grandchildren, when they are old enough, perform chores for their grandparents. Emotional or expressive aid consists of nurturing, social support, and friendship, important commodities that flow both ways throughout the life of the relationship.

At the close of the twentieth century, a new focus on two ranges of exchange emerged. The first was on custodial grandparentingwhere grandparents became surrogate parents for young grandchildren because of some catastrophic circumstances surrounding the middle generation, such as death, illness, divorce, drug addiction, or incarceration. On the one hand, studies report that the caregiver grandparent, most often the grandmother, tends to be more stressed, socially isolated, and generally less happy than other, noncustodial, grandparents. But recent research points out some of the more positive effects of the role such as the satisfaction of bettering the life of a grandchild. On the other side of the exchange spectrum is the growing recognition that long life brings the increased likelihood that a grandparent will spend a part of his/her final years in some degree of dependency. Grandchildren are part of the family constellation or the support convoy that may be called upon to offer assistance. Studies show that once they reach young adulthood, grandchildren not only accept their "grand filial" responsibility in theory, but practice it, in fact. Older grandchildren report that they provide both instrumental and emotional aid to their dependent grandparents.

Diversity in grandparenthood

Given all that has been reported about grandparenthood, the most significant general conclusion is the tremendous heterogeneity of grandparenting experiences. That is due, in large part, to the demographic and sociocultural shifts that have taken place over the last century. Grandparents defy generalizations because they represent such a diverse group. For one, grandparents range in age from persons in their twenties to centenarians; thus they might be men and women who are still in their childbearing years themselves or they might be men and women who have great-great grandchildren. In terms of their life stage, they could be fully employed in the labor force, at the peak of their careers, or retired for decades. Such an enormous age and life-stage range among grandparents is mirrored by a similar age and life-stage range for their grandchildren. Although the predominant image of a grandchild is one of a toddler, the truth is that grandchildren are also young adults in their high school and college years and, increasingly, mature adults forming families of their own.

Diversity also comes in the form of widely different grandparenthood experiences depending on race and ethnicity. Although studies focusing on minority grandparents are limited in number and scope, the conclusions are consistent along several dimensions: specific minority groups are, themselves, very diverse and thus, defy generalization; differentials exist in the grandparenting experience based on whether or not the grandparent was born in the United States; and family structures are affected by the groups' social placement in the larger society and must be analyzed as such.

African-American grandparents are an important resource for their grandchildren, especially given the importance of extended kin networks and intergenerational ties within the social organization of black families. For example, despite increasing heterogeneity in their family structure, African Americans are more likely to live in extended and multigenerational family households than are white Americans, and this experience leads to greater contact with grandchildren. Grandparents are seen as playing a pivotal role in the lives of these children, a role rooted in African-American culture and the socioeconomic realities of their lives.

Hispanics (the term here referring to a number of separate and distinct subgroups including Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and other Latinos coming from Central and South America) differ in their grandparenthood experience from white Americans and African Americans. Acknowledging that there is tremendous diversity within the Hispanic community itself, the limited number of studies that have focused on this population conclude that strong familistic ties translate into frequent contact, high satisfaction, and a high level of social support between the cross-generations.

Asian Americans (the term here referring to subgroups including those from China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, India, and others coming from Southeast Asia) share an adherence to filial responsibility and gender hierarchy that influences grandparent/grandchild relationships. High rates of coresidence among three generations lead to strong and supportive cross-generational ties, but unlike the case of African Americans, whose extended family structure and households are quite often matrilineal, Asian-American grandparents are more likely to live with their sons than with their daughters. The primacy of age seniority in the traditional cultures represented among Asian Americans makes it likely that grandparent/grandchild interactions are more formal and authoritarian than those of other racial or ethnic groups.

Grandparenthood is a status and an experience that is significant to many older adults. Decades of research have contributed to an understanding of the concept but variations based on age, race, and ethnicity as well as gender, marital, and health statuses make definitions of "grandparenthood" particularly complex. Much in the same way that the U.S. population in the twenty-first century will be defined by tremendous heterogeneity, so, too, will relationships between grandparents and grandchildren.

Lynne Gershenson Hodgson

See also Intergenerational Exchanges; Kin; Parent-Child Relationship.


Aldous, J. "New Views of Grandparents in Intergenerational Context." Journal of Family Issues 16 (1995): 104122.

Bengtson, V. L., and Robertson, J. F. Grandparenthood. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1985.

Burton, L. M., and Dilworth-Anderson, P. "The Intergenerational Roles of Aged Black Americans." Marriage and Family Review 16 (1991): 311350.

Cherlin, A. J., and Furstenberg, F. F. The New American Grandparent. New York: Basic Books, 1986.

Dressel, P. "Grandparenting at Century's End." Generations 20 (1996): 378.

Fuller-Thomson, E.; Minkler, M.; and Driver, D. "A Profile of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren in the United States." The Gerontologist 37 (1997): 406411.

Johnson, C. L. Ex Familia: Grandparents, Parent, and Children Adjust to Divorce. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988.

Kahana, B., and Kahana, E. "Grandparenthood from the Perspective of the Developing Grandchild." Developmental Psychology 3 (1970): 98105.

Kivett, V. R. "The Grandparent-Grandchild Connection." Marriage and Family Review 16 (1991): 267290.

Roberto, K. L., and Stroes, J. "Grandchildren and Grandparents: Roles, Influences, and Relationships." International Journal of Aging and Human Development 34 (1992): 227239.

Robertson, J. F. "Grandparenting in an Era of Rapid Change." In Handbook on Aging and the Family. Edited by R. Blieszner and Victoria H. Bedford. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1995. Pages 243260.

Szinovacz, M. E. Handbook on Grandparenthood. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.


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Since the mid-1970s, there has been an enormous increase in scholarly interest in grandparenthood. This is largely due to the greater prevalence of grandparents and an increase in the number of years that people experience in the grandparent role.

Prevalence and Increasing Interest

Increases in life expectancy have made grandparenthood more prevalent. Although only about 39 percent of all males and 43 percent of all females born between 1900 and 1902 survived to age sixty-five, projections for those born between 1949 and 1951 are 62 percent for males and 74 percent for females (Anderson 2001). Whereas the number of people aged sixty-five or older was 3.1 million (4.1% of the population) in 1900, it increased to 35 million (12.4%) in 2000, and it is projected to be 70 million (20%) in 2030 (Administration on Aging 2001).

Of children born in 1900, only one in four had all four grandparents alive, and by the time they reached fifteen years, only one in fifty still had all four grandparents alive. In comparison, approximately one-third of those who were twelve years old in the early 1990s had all of the four grandparents alive, and approximately 70 percent had at least two of them alive when they reached adulthood (Szinovacz 1998).

Longer life expectancy has also led to a longer period of grandparenthood. Once someone becomes a grandparent, he or she will have that status for a much longer time than previous generations. It is typical for one to become a grandparent in his or her forties, and some people, particularly women, become grandparents in their thirties (Timberlake and Chipungu 1992). Because some people may be grandparents for several decades, grandparenthood has become a more meaningful stage in one's life course. An increase in the number of single-parent households, resulting from either divorce or birth out of wedlock, has made the role some grandparents fulfill in rearing children more important than it had been previously. Instead of playing merely a supportive role for grandchildren, many grandparents now play an active role in rearing and socializing their grandchildren. Due to prevalence of three-generational households and stronger intergenerational relationships and norms (such as the idea of filial responsibility and familism), grandparenthood appears to be emphasized in foreign countries, particularly in Asia and Latin America.

Grandparenting Styles

Having all of one's grandparents alive was a rare event in the past. It is possible for today's grandparents to be young enough to be in their thirties and for some grandchildren to be old enough to retire. As a result, despite a clearly defined status of grandparenthood, there is not a clearly defined role of grandparenthood. Without good role models or clearly defined social roles, today's grandparents tend to interact with their grandchildren in a more flexible manner, relatively unconstrained by rules and expectations (Johnson 1988).

Traditional literature on grandparenthood focused on how grandparents interact with their grandchildren. Bernice L. Neugarten and Karol K. Weinstein's (1964) pioneering study examined whether grandparents engage in a formal, funseeking, or distant-figure style of grandparenting. A formal style of grandparenting follows its traditional norms, which are clearly distinct from those of parents. A fun-seeking style is characterized by informality and playfulness, whereas a distant-figure style is characterized by infrequent contacts, mostly on ritual occasions.

Using different criteria, Andrew J. Cherlin and Frank K. Furstenberg, Jr. (1985) classified styles of grandparenting into five groups: detached, passive, supportive, authoritative, and influential. Although both detached and passive grandparents have little interaction with their grandchildren, the detached do not see their grandchildren often whereas the passive do. The supportive type refers to those who have interactions involving helping each other and running errands or chores for each other. The authoritative type refers to those who have high scores on parent-like behaviors such as disciplining, giving advice, discussing problems, correcting behavior, and being asked for advice by grandchildren. Finally, the influential type refers to those who have high scores for both supportive and authoritative dimensions. As for cultural norms about dealing with young grandchildren in the United States, Colleen L. Johnson (1988) states that there are more "should nots" than "shoulds" on enacting a grandmother's role. Grandmothers should not interfere, should not give too much advice, and should not discipline young grandchildren. Grandparents should not overpower, spoil, or buy love from grandchildren. They should not nag, and should not be disappointed if the grandchildren do not return the favors. On the other hand, they should be fun to be with, should be loving, and should make it easier for parents by providing such service as baby-sitting. Other than baby-sitting activities, these "shoulds" are not well delineated.

Quality of Relationship

Quality of relationships between grandparents and young adult grandchildren was assessed by Gregory E. Kennedy (1992). He claims that five elements of the relationship are important to evaluate the quality from the grandchildren's viewpoint. They are sense of closeness, being known, knowing grandparents, being positively influenced, and having an authentic relationship independent of the parents. In general, the quality of the relationship is better with grandmothers than with grandfathers. The quality is also generally better when grandparents live nearby or with grandchildren, when they are in frequent contact, when the parents experience either divorce or single motherhood, and/or when the grandchild is an only child or a first born child (Roberto, Allen, and Blieszner 2001).

Thomas E. Denham and Craig W. Smith (1989) categorize the nature of grandparental influence into three kinds: indirect, direct, and symbolic. Indirect influence refers to factors that affect grandchildren only through the effects on the middle-generation parents, such as psychological or financial support and/or stress. Direct influence refers to face-to-face grandparent-grandchild interaction. Grandparents may baby-sit grandchildren. They may joke, watch television, or go out with grandchildren, thus providing fun. They may give grandchildren advice, teach them skills and games, and even discipline them. They often give grandchildren money and presents. By telling grandchildren what it was like growing up themselves, grandparents serve as observational models for grandchildren. In some cases, grandparents work as "arbitrators" between their children and their grandchildren in confrontations between two different values and personalities.

Symbolic influence, on the other hand, refers to the effect of grandparents just being there without necessarily performing concrete functions. Grandchildren feel good to have grandparents as a stress buffer, whom they can go to in case of conflict among family members. Grandparents give grandchildren a sense of family continuity from the past to the present to the future by offering roots for the family. Grandparents may also be considered family watchdogs who are there to keep an eye on the family members (Troll 1983). Of the three kinds of influences, symbolic influence seems to be the most important. Although grandparents may be "backstage" most of the time, they are the backbone of the extended family, and they will be available for help if necessary.

In fact, grandparents seem to do very little in the grandparent-grandchildren relationship (Tinsley and Parke 1984). However, having grandparents seems to be important in itself. As such, the presence of grandparents has been found to be very important for the psychological and behavioral development of small children (Tinsley and Parke 1984).

Gender and Relationships

Because more women than men survive into grandparenthood, it is more common for children to have contact with grandmothers than grandfathers. When the differences in the availability of grandmothers and grandfathers are taken into account, studies report that grandchildren have relatively equal and regular contact with grandmothers and grandfathers (Eisenberg 1988). Grandchildren, however, are more influenced by grandmothers than grandfathers in their value development and report a higher degree of psychological closeness with their grandmothers (Hodgson 1992). Grandmothers are also more satisfied with their relationships with grandchildren, whereas grandfathers are more likely to indulge grandchildren (Thomas 1989).

The grandfather role and the grandmother role are differentiated from each other by gender, just as various other social roles are. Grandfathers often play a "head of the family" or "minister of state" role (Bengtson 1985; Roberto, Allen, and Blieszner 2001), and grandmothers play a "secretary of the interior" role characterized by such activities as child care, "emotion work," and "kinkeeping." Considering the way in which grandparents themselves were raised, stronger gender differentiation of grandparent roles is to be expected.

In the past, grandfathers in the United States adopted either formal, passive, or authoritative styles when dealing with grandchildren, contributing to differences between grandfathers and grandmothers in the intergenerational relationship. Over time, however, more grandfathers seem to have begun adopting fun-seeking and supportive styles. This seems to have decreased, if not completely negated, the differences between grandchild's relationships with grandfathers and grandmothers.

Alice S. Rossi and Peter H. Rossi (1990) reported that percentages of adults who stated that "[Target grandparent] was very important while I grew up" are different not only between grandmothers and grandfathers, but also between the mother's parents and the father's parents. The gender of the middle-generation person is also important for grandparent-grandchild relationships, possibly because women in the middle generation are more likely than men to assume "kinkeeping" roles and to maintain close and affectionate intergenerational relationships (Chan and Elder 2000). In fact, it was reported that grandchildren are most likely to identify maternal grandmothers as their favorite grandparents (Eisenberg 1988; Hodgson 1992).

The gender of grandchildren is also reported to affect the quality of the relationship with grandparents. Merril Silverstein and Jeffrey D. Long (1998) show that grandparents have greater affection for granddaughters than for grandsons in the United States. Robert Strom and his colleagues (1995) show that the quality of grandparent-granddaughter relationships is generally better than that of grandparent-grandson relationships in Japan. Although gender roles are becoming less rigid in developed countries, they remain quite rigid in many countries, emphasizing expressiveness (ability to deal with interpersonal relationships) upon women and instrumentality (ability to deal with the actual task) upon men. In these countries, the nature and quality of grandparent-grandchild relationship may still largely depend on the gender of grandparents, parents, and/or grandchildren.

Demographic Factors and Grandparenthood

The traditional image of grandparents is retired people in rocking chairs—or in the kitchen baking cookies—with all of their time available for family members, including grandchildren. This is no longer the case. Better health conditions have made today's grandparents physically younger and socially more active than the grandparent depicted in traditional images. The retirement age has increased and more women are now in the labor force. As a result, many grandparents are employed. In addition, better health and financial conditions for elderly people have made them less dependent on subsequent generations. Due to a prolonged life expectancy, grandparents are also likely to be caregivers of their own parents.

Maximiliane Szinovacz's (1998) research shows that 35 percent of grandparents work more than 30 hours a week, 12 percent have children age under 19 in the household, 67 percent are currently married, and 34 percent have living parents. Thus, the role of grandparents competes with other responsibilities, such as employment, social life, and family.

Some women become grandmothers very early, often in their thirties. These "off-time grandmothers" tend to be unhappy with their grand-motherhood due to the strains of various roles (grandmother, mother, daughter, granddaughter, employee, and girlfriend) and reluctance to accept grandmotherhood, which symbolizes old age (Timberlake and Chipungu 1992). "On-time grandmothers" seem to cope with this new role relatively better. This pattern also may be due to the prevalent "age norm," or a prescriptive timetable for the ordering of major life events, including becoming a grandparent (Neugarten, Moore, and Lowe 1965). Becoming a grandparent younger than forty-five or fifty years old is a violation against this age norm and may cause embarrassment.

Due to the increased divorce rate and the increase in single motherhood, many households lack a parent, and grandparents often play a surrogate parent's role. Parents' death and drug and alcohol abuse may also necessitate custodial grandparenting. Esme Fuller-Thomson, Meredith Minkler, and Diane Driver (1997) show that one in ten grandparents have taken primary responsibility for raising their grandchildren for at least six months. The most typical scenario is a single mother, either divorced or never married, living with her children and her mother, which is particularly common among African Americans and low-income families in the United States. Grandmothers usually serve as surrogate parents in place of father figures in these single-mother households. This racial difference seems to be due not only to a larger proportion of single mothers among African Americans, but also to their cultural preferences, including stronger intergenerational relationships (Fuller-Thomson, Minkler, and Driver 1997).

Comparative Aspects of Grandparenthood

The literature on comparative perspectives of grandparenthood is not extensive. Some articles, however, discuss different types of grandparent-grandchild relationships among African Americans, Asians, and Hispanics, focusing on the cultural emphasis on intergenerational relationships.

In terms of the classification developed by Andrew Cherlin and Frank Furstenberg, for example, African American grandparents are more likely to be either authoritative or influential than their white counterparts, suggesting a prevalence of parent-like behaviors among them (1985). Given the emphasis on family traditions and intergenerational relationships, it is expected that grandparents in Asia, Latin America, and Africa are more likely to be authoritative, influential, or supportive, rather than passive or detached.

Elizabeth Timberlake and Sandra Chipungu (1992) show that among African-American grandmothers, those living with their grandchildren tend to value "more highly the grandchild who enabled them to continue to feel useful" (p. 220). This stronger intergenerational relationship will continue after the African-American grandchild grows up (Ashton 1996). Due to slavery and subsequent unfavorable economic circumstances, African Americans are said to depend more upon the intergenerational cooperation involving services, properties, and relationships. This also indicates that African-American grandparents, on the average, play larger roles than their white counterparts.

Latin countries such as Italy, Spain, and those in South America are known to have the idea of familism. The family relationships are very important under this idea and the grandparent-grandchild relationship is no exception. Hispanic-American children, for example, are more likely to live with their grandparents than their white counterparts, if less than African Americans (Strom, Buki, and Strom 1997).

There is a strong correlation between the amount of time a grandparent and his/her grandchild spend together and the closeness of the relationship. In Japan, for example, Robert Strom and his colleagues (1995) found that grandparents who spend more than five hours per month with grandchildren and/or who take care of grandchildren daily tend to have a better relationship than others. Three-generational households have been more common among African Americans and Hispanic Americans and in East Asian countries, due to economic circumstances, the notion of familism, and filial responsibility, respectively. Thus, the grandparent-grandchild relationships tend to be stronger among these people than Euro-Americans.


Grandparenthood has received more scholarly attention in the United States due to important demographic changes. Race and gender differences in grandparenthood have been observed. There is not a large body of literature on grandparenthood outside the United States or in cross-cultural contexts, but this topic should gain more attention in the near future. In general, the importance of the grandparent-grandchild relationship is symbolic rather than functional. As the family structure changes, however, this relative importance seems to change in some segments of the population, particularly among the economically disadvantaged.

See also:Adolescent Parenthood; Adulthood; Childcare; Divorce: Effects on Parents; Elders; Extended Families; Familism; Family Roles; Fatherhood; Filial Responsibility; Grandparents' Rights; In-Law Relationships; Intergenerational Programming; Intergenerational Relations; Intergenerational Transmission; Later Life Families; Motherhood; Retirement


Ashton, V. (1996). "A Study of Mutual Support between Black and White Grandmothers and Their Adult Grandchildren." Journal of Gerontological Social Work 26:87–100.

Bengtson, V. L. (1985). "Diversity and Symbolism in Grandparental Roles." In Grandparenthood, ed. V. L. Bengtson and J. F. Robertson. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Chan, C. G., and Elder, G. H., Jr. (2000). "Matrilineal Advantage in Grandchild-Grandparent Relations." The Gerontologist 40:179–190.

Cherlin, A. J., and Furstenberg, F. F., Jr. (1985). "Styles and Strategies of Grandparenting." In Grandparenthood, ed. V. L. Bengtson and J. F. Robertson. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Denham, T. E., and Smith, C. W. (1989). "The Influence of Grandparents on Grandchildren: A Review of the Literature and Resources." Family Relations 38:345–350.

Eisenberg, A. R. (1988). "Grandchildren's Perspectives on Relationships with Grandparents: The Influence of Gender across Generations." Sex Roles 19:205–217.

Fuller-Thomson, E.; Minkler, M.; and Driver, D. (1997). "A Profile of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren in the United States." The Gerontologist 37:406–411.

Hodgson, L. G. (1992). "Adult Grandchildren and Their Grandparents: The Enduring Bond." International Journal of Aging and Human Development 34:209–225.

Johnson, C. L. (1988). Ex Familia: Grandparents, Parents, and Children Adjust to Divorce. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Kennedy, G. E. (1992). "Quality in Grandparent/Grandchild Relationship." International Journal of Aging and Human Development 35:83–98.

Neugarten, B. L.; Moore, J. W.; and Lowe, J. C. (1965). "Age Norms, Age Constraints, and Adult Socialization." American Journal of Sociology 70:710–717.

Neugarten, B. L., and Weinstein, K. K. (1964). "The Changing American Grandparent." Journal of Marriage and the Family 26:199–204.

Roberto, K. A.; Allen, K. R.; and Blieszner, R. (2001). "Grandfathers' Perceptions and Expectations of Relationships with Their Adult Grandchildren." Journal of Family Issues 22:407–426.

Rossi, A. S., and Rossi, P. H. (1990). On Human Bonding:Parent-Child Relations Across the Life Course. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Silverstein, M., and Long, J. D. (1998). "Trajectories of Grandparents' Perceived Solidarity with Adult Grandchildren: A Growth Curve Analysis over 23 Years." Journal of Marriage and the Family 60:912–923.

Strom, R.; Buki, L.; and Strom, S. (1997). "Intergenerational Perceptions of English Speaking and Spanish Speaking Mexican-American Grandparents." International Journal of Aging and Human Development 45:1–21.

Strom, R.; Strom, S.; Collinsworth, P.; Sato, S.; Makino, K.; Sasaki, Y.; Sasaki, H.; and Nishio, N. (1995). "Grandparents in Japan: A Three-Generational Study. " International Journal of Aging and Human Development 40:209–226.

Szinovacz, M. (1998). "Grandparents Today: A Demographic Profile." The Gerontologist 38:37–52.

Thomas, J. L. (1989). "Gender and Perceptions of Grandparenthood." International Journal of Aging and Human Development 29:269–282.

Timberlake, E. M., and Chipungu, S. S. (1992). "Grandmotherhood: Contemporary Meaning among African American Middle-Class Grandmothers." Social Work 37:216–222.

Tinsley, B. R., and Parke, R. D. (1984). "Grandparents as Support and Socialization Agents." In Beyond the Dyad, ed. M. Lewis. New York: Plenum.

Troll, L. E. (1983). "Grandparents: The Family Watchdogs." In Family Relationships in Late Life, ed. T. Brubaker. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

other resources

Administration on Aging. (2001). A Profile of Older Americans: 2001. In Administration on Aging. Available from

Anderson, R. N. (2001). "United States Life Tables, 1998." National Vital Statistics Reports: 48 (18). Available from

yoshinori kamo

chizuko wakabayashi

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Shifts to low or very low fertility in many developed countries have had, and will continue to have, the effect of making lateral kinship links–such as those with siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, and nieces and nephews–less available than in the past. However, falls in mortality have increased the "vertical" extension of kinship networks, including grandparent–grandchild. A 1999 British survey, designed by Emily Grundy and Mike Murphy, found that over 75 percent of adults were members of families including at least three living generations. Half of all adults were a grandparent by the age of 50, and 80 percent of 20-year-olds had at least one grandparent alive. This implies that most children in low mortality populations now have the grandparent relationship potentially available to them throughout childhood. In countries with higher mortality and fertility, grandparenthood is also important. Even though higher mortality implies a lower probability of an individual of a given age having a grandparent available, this may be partly offset by earlier childbearing and shorter intergenerational age gaps. The scholars Albert Hermalin, Carol Roan, and Aurora Perez, for example, found that in Thailand in 1995, over 70 percent of people aged 50 to 54 were grandparents, higher than the equivalent proportion in Britain. Moreover, the high prevalence of intergenerational coresidence in many less developed countries implies high levels of interaction between grandparents and at least some of their grandchildren.

From a biological perspective, grandparenthood can be defined as the relationship with the children of one's children. Family dissolution and reformation may also produce social or "step-" grandparent relationships. Older people may become step-grandparents through their own repartnering with a person who has grandchildren or through a child's partnership with someone who has children from a previous relationship.

Family Change and the Role of Grandparents

The increasing complexity of family relationships in many societies has prompted greater policy interest in the role of grandparents as potential "stressbuffers" in times of crisis and as a back-up for grandchildren faced with family disruption. Policy attention has also focused on the rights of grandparents in cases where their relationship with grandchildren is threatened by divorce. In the United States, a recent increase in custodial grandparenthood has led to the development of policies designed to support such families. The role of grandparents is also recognized to have become more important in populations seriously affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. One survey conducted in Zaire in the early 1990s found that 34 percent of HIV/AIDS orphans were being cared for by a grandparent.

Even in less extreme circumstances, grandparents may make substantial contributions to the welfare of their children's families. Many grandparents babysit or provide childcare while parents work. Surveys in Thailand, Taiwan, and the Philippines have shown that some 40 percent of people aged 50 and over live in households including minor grandchildren, and about half of those with a coresident grandchild under ten provide child care. In the United States in the mid 1990s, over a quarter of young children with working parents were looked after by a grandparent; studies in European countries have found similarly high, or higher, levels of grandparent involvement in child care. Such support can be particularly important for single parents.

In addition to the practical help that grandparents provide, they may also perform a number of important symbolic functions and undertake the role of "family watchdogs," as well as provide emotional support and advice to their children and grandchildren.

Contact between Grandparents and Grandchildren

Studies in both Western and other populations have found high levels of contact between grandparents and grandchildren. In Britain around half of grandparents see their eldest grandchild at least weekly. Research on variations in the strength of grandparent/grandchild relationships, the extent of contact, and the provision of help by grandparents has identified several consistent themes. There is a strong gender dimension to such relationships, with grandmothers seeing grandchildren more frequently than grandfathers do and providing more help. In the 1999 British survey, for example, two-thirds of grandmothers aged 50 to 59 saw their eldest grandchild at least once a week compared with only 52 percent of grandfathers of the same age. As might be expected, physical proximity has been identified as one of the most important factors affecting intergenerational contact. Grandparents see more of grandchildren when they live close to each other, and of course most of all when they are coresident. In the 1999 British survey referred to above, over half of grandparents aged 50 to 59 lived within 30 minutes journey time of their eldest grandchild, but among grandmothers in their seventies this proportion was only 30 percent, presumably because the older grandparents' eldest grandchild is more likely to have moved away from the childhood home. Level of education (itself associated with proximity) has been found to be negatively associated with the provision of grandchild care, at least in Britain and the United States.

In the early twenty-first century, grandparent-hood is attracting growing attention in both popular culture and research. Possibly this reflects a perceived greater need for grandparent involvement because of the increase in family disruption in some societies, including disruption due to parental death in populations with a high HIV/AIDS prevalence. More positive images of older people, or at least of the so-called "young old," and increases in the disposable incomes and health status of significant segments of the older population may also be important. As has been pointed out in several commentaries, though, these changes and the associated greater opportunities for travel and leisure, and in some societies opportunities or pressures to postpone retirement, may mean that at least some grandparents will be less available to maintain intensive contacts with and to help take care of grandchildren. However, the changing ratio of grandchildren to grandparents implied by population aging suggests that younger generations will increasingly benefit from the wisdom, stability, and resources provided by their grandparents.

See also: Family Life Cycle; Parenthood.


Cherlin, Andrew J., and Frank F. Furstenberg. 1986. The New American Grandparent: A Place in the Family, A Place Apart. New York: Basic Books.

Clarke, Lynda, and Helen Cairns. 2001. "Grandparents and the Care of Grandchildren: The Research Evidence." In Kinship Care, ed. B. Broad. Dorset, Eng.: Russell House Publishing.

Grundy, Emily, Mike Murphy, and Nicola Shelton. 1999. "Looking Beyond the Household: Intergenerational Perspectives on Living Kin and Contacts with Kin in Great Britain." Population Trends 97: 33–41.

Hermalin, Albert, Carol Roan, and Aurora Perez. 1998. "The Emerging Role of Grandparents in Asia." Research Report No. 98–52. Ann Arbor: Population Studies Center, University of Michigan.

Kornhaber, Arthur. 1996. Contemporary Grandparenting. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Uhlenberg, Peter. 1996. "Mortality Decline in the Twentieth Century and Supply of Kin over the Life Course." The Gerontologist 36: 681–685.

Lynda Clarke

Emily Grundy

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grand·par·ent / ˈgran(d)ˌpe(ə)rənt; -ˌpar-/ • n. a parent of one's father or mother; a grandmother or grandfather. DERIVATIVES: grand·pa·ren·tal / ˌgran(d)pəˈrentl/ adj. grand·par·ent·hood / -ˌhoŏd/ n.