The spe­cial role of grand­par­ents

Irish Independent - Health & Living - - KIDS’ HEALTH SPECIAL -

GRAND­PAR­ENTS play a dis­tinct role in their grand­chil­dren’s lives, for those lucky enough to live near them. The early loss of a grand­par­ent or the phys­i­cal dis­tance or emo­tional dis­tance be­tween par­ents and their adult chil­dren can also im­pact upon their relationship with the next gen­er­a­tion. Grand­par­ents are some­times among the ca­su­al­ties in di­vorce; the ac­ri­mony that can en­sue can forcibly sep­a­rate chil­dren from them. (If this hap­pens, grand­par­ents can ap­ply for ac­cess to their grand­chil­dren through the dis­trict court.)

For the most part, though, grand­par­ents have strong and lov­ing re­la­tion­ships with their grand­chil­dren, and pro­vide them with their un­con­di­tional love, and wis­dom. The care they pro­vide dur­ing hol­i­days and when­ever called upon by their adult chil­dren to help might cre­ate the im­pres­sion that grand­par­ents are just cheap babysit­ters. How­ever, their role ex­tends far beyond the prac­ti­cal­i­ties of keep­ing an eye on their charges, into ar­eas that are less vis­i­ble but hugely im­por­tant.

In fact so im­por­tant is the role of grand­par­ents in car­ing for their grand­chil­dren that it was re­cently pro­posed by mem­bers of the Gov­ern­ment to award them an an­nual lump sum of €1,000 in recog­ni­tion of this work; some­thing that has never been tried in any coun­try be­fore.

In­deed, as longevity in­creases — and with it health and well­be­ing — the im­age of a grey­haired, den­tured granny hob­bling be­side her grand­chil­dren is wide of the mark. Grand­par­ents are part of the com­mu­nity, along with par­ents, that rears and nur­tures chil­dren; a tra­di­tion that is gain­ing trac­tion again for eco­nomic as well as so­cial rea­sons.

Par­ents are the pri­mary car­ers of their chil­dren, but reg­u­lar con­tact with grand­par­ents pro­vides chil­dren with a love and sup­port that but­tresses that shown by their par­ents. In­deed, if chil­dren and their par­ents have a dif­fi­cult relationship, the grand­par­ents can some­times fill the emo­tional void. This is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant if the child’s par­ents have a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem — for ex­am­ple with drugs or al­co­hol — that dis­tances them emo­tion­ally from their child.

If a cou­ple have a baby at a young age when they may not have the ma­tu­rity to as­sist and guide the child, grand­par­ents can pro­vide a con­stancy in the child’s life — es­pe­cially when the child is navi- gat­ing the de­mands that life throws up in their early years. The wis­dom of time is some­thing that grand­par­ents have in abun­dance and which they can im­part to a young fam­ily. This is es­pe­cially so in the time- or emo­tion-scarce en­vi­ron­ment in which some chil­dren live.

The sto­ries that grand­par­ents re­count about their own lives can cre­ate a sense of his­tory and of who the child is in the con­text of place and time. Grand­chil­dren will also learn more about their par­ents’ child­hoods, their friends and their past, and come to ap­pre­ci­ate the dif­fer­ences be­tween “then and now”.

Who will tell them that com­put­ers are a rel­a­tively new in­ven­tion or that mo­bile phones didn’t ex­ist when they were at school? Such in­for­ma­tion will help stim­u­late chil­dren’s de­vel­op­ing imag­i­na­tion and cre­ativ­ity.

Al­lied to learn­ing about the past, grand­par­ents can pass on tra­di­tions — they may be re­li­gious or com­mu­nity-fo­cused (such as at­tend­ing church or be­ing part of a vol­un­teer group) or so­cial (such as sit­ting down for a fam­ily meal to­gether or bak­ing a cake ev­ery week). Th­ese sim­ple ac­tiv­i­ties are in­creas­ingly ne­glected, yet for those of us brought up in lov­ing homes with th­ese tra­di­tions, they are a rich and val­ued joy­ful mem­ory from the ta­pes­try of our child­hood.

The sta­tus of grand­par­ents as role mod­els is all the more im­por­tant now as re­la­tion­ships frag­ment and fam­ily mem­bers they could have tra­di­tion­ally em­u­lated be­come less present. A re­cent study in Bri­tain has shown that girls who are close to their fa­thers and boys to their moth­ers have the best men­tal health out­comes and are most con­tent with their lives. It is ob­vi­ous that if one par­ent is not ac­tive in the child’s life then they will pos­si­bly be com­pro­mised. The role of the grand­par­ent in step­ping into this breach is ob­vi­ous.

Aside from their men­tor­ing in deal­ing with re­la­tion­ships, ro­man­tic and per­sonal, the ex­am­ple that grand­par­ents show, by tak­ing time to re­lax and re­flect, do­ing char­i­ta­ble or vol­un­teer­ing work or tak­ing up some new in­ter­est will re­mind the young per­son that th­ese are qual­i­ties wor­thy of be­ing de­vel­oped.

Fi­nally, as they see their grand­par­ents suf­fer ill­ness and ex­pe­ri­ence the loss of loved ones in the nat­u­ral cy­cle of life, grand­chil­dren will re­alise noth­ing is per­ma­nent but de­spite suf­fer­ing and loss the hu­man spirit can adapt and ad­just to dif­fi­cult times.

The sto­ries grand­par­ents re­count about their own lives can cre­ate a sense of who the child is in the con­text of place and time

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