For many people, one of the most rewarding aspects of becoming a parent is giving their own parents the experience of becoming grandparents. The bond between grandparents and grandchildren is often a special one — not only beneficial for the elder person and child but for the parent in between the generations as well.
“There’s a lot of research, including my own, that shows what advantages there are to a grandchild having a good relationship with a grandparent,” says Vern L. Bengtson, Ph.D., research professor at the Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging and School of Social Work at the University of Southern California. “We find the grandchild has a lower risk of depression and a higher propensity for self-esteem if there’s a warm and affirming relationship with a grandparent.”
Bengtson, author of 18 books and 250 research articles on families and aging, sees grandparents as holding a special place in the familial hierarchy. “They are excellent role models in that they interpret family values, cultural values and a sense of history to the grandchild,” he says.
With Bengtson’s help, we compiled this list of five ways that grandparents can forge more meaningful relationships with their grandchildren.
1. Grandparents can teach practical and usable skills.
Examples include a grandfather teaching his grandson how to do carpentry or a grandmother imparting cooking skills to her granddaughter. “There are tangible rewards that can be had from grandparents transferring these skills to their grandchildren,” Bengtson says. “With both parents working and having busy lives, that sort of interaction with an older person is increasingly important.”
2. Grandparents can take on a supportive role in the family.
In some cases, that support comes in the form of providing childcare for a grandchild. “One out of seven children in America are being raised by grandparents, at least part-time, and that’s a tremendous resource for families,” says Bengtson. “It can also be rewarding for the grandparent. It gives them a sense of purpose. And then there’s the effect on the middle generation. The hard-working parents don’t have the anxiety of worrying whether the kids are running loose after school or no one is taking care of them if their own parents, the grandparents, are looking after them.”
Grandparents also can offer support in the financial sense, specifically in their grandchildren’s college years. “In fact, a recent study showed that 65% of grandparents who have grandchildren in college are contributing to college expenses in one way or another,” Bengtson says. “Some of their contributions are small, but a lot of grandparents who have the means are paying for their grandchildren’s college education tuition, and that’s a remarkable asset for grandchildren.”
3. Grandparents can pass on social and family culture through storytelling.
This is a bridge to the past that carries forward from generation to generation. “For instance, my grandkids love when I tell them about their great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents and what kinds of experiences they had in immigrating to America, and of course that’s a legacy that my grandparents passed down to me,” Bengtson says. “They enjoy when I tell them how I lived with my grandparents during Word War II and how we had an outhouse instead of indoor plumbing and took a bath in a washtub on a Saturday night. The stories are a connection to the past and the transmission of a culture that’s personal to their family and something they cannot get from textbooks.”
4. Grandparents can share adventures with their grandchildren.
This could entail going on a trip together or having one-on-one time during a special outing. “In our broader family, for instance, there’s a tradition of taking the grandkids on a trip when they’re 11 because that seems to be the best age for soaking up information and being old enough to appreciate the experience,” Bengtson says. “It’s a means for learning about history, learning about culture, but also learning about your grandchildren—the things they enjoy doing and the personality they display. It doesn’t have to be a long trip. It can be a one- or two-day visit to a major city or a national park. It’s amazing the bond that can be formed in just that short period of time.”
5. Grandparents should be an affirming presence in their grandchildren’s lives.
“You don’t have to do anything special,” Bengtson says. “Just be there. Be available, and be affirming. Go to their games. Go to their activities. Bring out the best in kids by saying, ‘Gee, that’s great. You’re doing so well.’ Be warm and supportive.”
Some parents may worry that a grandparent is spoiling their children. But spoiling a grandchild is almost part of a grandparent’s job description. “Go ahead and spoil them, but spoiling doesn’t have to mean giving them things,” Bengtson says, explaining that providing the child with attention and affirmation reaps just as much happiness, if not more, than showering than with gifts. “If the grandparent is not trying to discipline or mold the child in an obtrusive way, that’s going to be less irritating to the parent.”
Bengtson, whose latest book is Families and Faith: How Religion Is Passed Down Across Generations, cautions that grandparents need to be careful that they don’t cross a line. “A problem arises, especially with highly religious grandparents, when they feel they have a duty to instill their religious values into their grandchildren, or possibly political views,” Bengtson says. “There’s a danger there. Grandparents should back off and realize that the best way they can influence their grandchildren is if they don’t preach but live a life of silent example.”