The special role of grandparents
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