In recent years, family networks have shifted. Grandparents now hold an increasingly important role in shaping the minds of younger family members. Researchers studying the psychology behind this phenomenon call it ‘the grandparent effect’. Amanda Cassidy reports
They spent an extraordinary amount of time on the card. In fairness, we’d been slightly overly ambitious, cutting out 70 pink hearts and writing on each one a reason why we loved grandad – a homemade card for his Big Birthday. ‘Number 26; he teaches us things!’ my 3-year-old daughter squeals in delight, sticking another heart-shaped reason why she adores her grandfather.
It is a mutual adoration. She gravitates towards this quiet and serious man who never says no to playing catch in the garden. They walk hand in hand to get the newspaper every morning, her tiny hand clasped in his. He shows her the birds and she tries to catch them, both delighting in each other’s company.
I know we are lucky. Not everyone has grandparents close by, or at all, for that matter. Ours span the spectrum of inter-generational mentors and occasional babysitters to monopoly referees and biscuit-pushers. It is a relationship that brings a lot of joy and psychologists agree.
A study at Johns Hopkins found that children with grandparents in their life have better grades and fewer behavioural problems. This unique psychological benefit was found to mutually benefit both grandparents and grandchildren.
A two-decade-long study found that the quality of relationships between the generations has measurable consequences on the mental well-being of both. Sara Moorman is a professor of sociology at Boston College. She says it is one of the most important human relationships. "Extended family members, such as grandparents and grandchildren, serve important functions in one another's daily lives throughout adulthood.
“As life expectancy is increasing, generations co-exist for unprecedentedly long periods of time, and they can be sources of support, or strain, across people's lives.” Sara says that this type of supportive relationship can “ward off the detrimental effects of ageing on older adults and help build self-esteem in those of the younger generation.”
In fact, grandmothers can even help us all to live longer. It is known as the ‘Grandma hypothesis’. “Grandmothering was the initial step towards making us who we are,” says senior anthropologist, Kristen Hawkes from the University of Utah. According to the hypothesis, grandmothers were crucial to human evolution. “They originally stuck around to help collect food and feed children before they were able to feed themselves. Biologically, this enabled mothers to have more children.
“Without grandmothers present, if a mother gives birth and already has a two-year-old child, the odds of that child surviving are much lower, because unlike other primates, humans aren’t able to feed and take care of themselves immediately after weaning. The mother must devote her time and attention to the new infant at the expense of the older child. But grandmothers can solve this problem by acting as supplementary caregivers.”
(And they spoil them with sweets!)
Things work the other way too. At the Apples and Honey Nightingale Nursery in London, 89-year-old Faye is gushing over baby Sacha. Faye never had her own children but at this unique care home cum nursery, the old and young come together with heart-warming results.
Such intergenerational care isn’t something new. It began in 1976 when a nursery school and a care home were combined in Tokyo. Other successful schemes are now opening up across Europe, Australia and the US. One of the main benefits of this unique collaboration is increased social interaction — linked to a reduced risk of disease in the elderly. This was recently highlighted in the Channel 4 show – Old People’s Homes for 4-Year-Olds (if you haven’t seen it, you should). After spending six weeks living alongside the pre-schoolers, the residents of St Monica’s care home were found to have increased mobility, improved moods and better short-term memory.
Maybe what it really comes down to is respect for what different generations can bring to each other. We couldn't manage without the support of our parents — for advice, for childcare and for unconditional love. We give back what we can. It is about understanding that grandparents and grandchildren have a relationship all to themselves – one of a shared vulnerability, a mutual curiosity, and the time to spend exploring the world together.
New and wonderous perspectives collide beautifully with wise, experienced eyes.
As for us, there are no bigger champions of grandparents than in this household. “Number 70; you never say no!’ The birthday card is finally finished.
Grandad's face, the next day, says it all – emotional, overwhelmed, and extremely proud. The children clamour over him to point out their individual glittery contributions.
I stuck that one, look that's mine, they chatter - giddy, excited and extremely proud.
Image via Unsplash.com
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