A new study out Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, suggests that grandmothers relate to their grandchildren differently than they do to their own offspring. (Sorry, parents: That suspicion you’ve long held that your mom feels closer to your kids? It might be true after all!)
Interested in studying the evolutionary value of grandmothering, James Rilling, a professor of anthropology, psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory, measured the brain function of about 50 women with at least one biological grandchild age 3-12.
The study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan the grandmothers’ brains as they stared at photos of a grandchild, the child’s parents and images of an unrelated child and adult.
“When grandmothers viewed pictures of their grandchildren, they particularly activated brain regions that have been implicated in emotional empathy, such as the insular and secondary somatosensory cortices,” said Rilling of his findings, which were published last month in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Simply put, “emotional empathy” is the ability to feel the emotions that another person is feeling, Rilling said.
Something else happened when the group of grandmas looked at photos of their offspring (the grandkids’ parents).
“When viewing pictures of the grandchild’s same-sex parent, who was often but not always the grandmother’s own adult biological child, they particularly activated areas of the brain involved with cognitive empathy such as the precuneus,” he said.
Cognitive empathy (also called theory of mind) is understanding at a cognitive level what someone is thinking or feeling and why ― maybe you even attempt to put yourself in their shoes ― but there’s less of a shared emotional experience than with emotional empathy.
Previously, Rilling and his team performed a similar study where they had fathers look at pictures of their children. Compared to data from that group of dads, grandmothers showed stronger activation than dads within areas of the brain implicated in emotional empathy and areas involved in reward and motivation.
Rilling said that it’s important to note here that there was some variation from person to person within the groups. For instance, some fathers scored higher on empathy than grandmothers.
As an anthropologist, Rilling finds this topic utterly fascinating.
“I am interested in the ways in which humans are similar to and different from other primates,” he said. “One interesting difference is the way we raise our offspring. Great ape mothers raise their offspring all by themselves. Human mothers, on the other hand, typically receive help in raising their offspring.”
The source of that help can vary quite a bit across and within human societies, but grandmothers are an important source of help in many families, and Rilling said “there is considerable evidence that grandmothers can contribute to grandchild well-being.”
Building on the work of earlier biologists, in the 1980s and 1990s, anthropologist Kristen Hawkes proposed a theory that she and her team dubbed the “grandmother hypothesis.” It’s the idea that human females, unlike those of the other great apes, survive well past their reproductive years so they can help raise successive generations of children. (Sure, your mom loves to babysit your kids, but doing so also ensures the survival of her genes.)
As for the unique hold grandkids seem to have on their grandmas’ hearts, the reasoning behind that is still up for debate. A tired parent might hypothesize that it has something to do with the fact that grandma can spoil little Ezra or Eva all she wants and then send them back home to mom and dad at the end of the night. (Distance makes the heart grow fonder, especially when there are everyday tantrums involved.)
Rilling thinks that’s an interesting idea but pointed to something else.
“I think it may have more to do with the ‘cute’ phenotype of children, which is likely designed by evolution to make adults find them endearing and want to care for them,” he said.
We asked the experts: grandmas themselves.
Grandmas we spoke to had their own theories.
Marion Conway, a grandma of three and a blogger at The Grandma Chronicles, generally thinks there is more “growth, excitement and pleasure” to be experienced with her grandkids.
“Since you are not really an authority figure to your grandchildren ― rather you’re a promoter or supporter ― both of you are more open to a stress-free relationship,” she told HuffPost.
Donne Davis, the California-based founder of the grandma online community GaGa Sisterhood, said that she connects with her three grandchildren differently because she looks at them as a clean slate, as far relationships go.
“The different kind of closeness I feel with my kids versus my grandkids is based on our shared history,” she said. “Parenting can be a more adversarial relationship with power struggles, boundary-setting, some ego and definite responsibility for how your child will turn out.”
You don’t have that as much with your grandchildren, Davis explained.
“You just love them unconditionally and think everything they do and say is wonderful and exceptional,” she said.
“The biggest difference [is that] my grandchildren tend to elicit strong feelings of joy and delight in me compared to my adult children.”
Lisa Carpenter, a grandma of six in Colorado and the author of “A Love Journal: 100 Things I Love About Grandma,” agrees that grandmas get to do “the fun stuff” and evade the “thorny issues of child-rearing.” (They’ve been there, done that with their own kids.)
Carpenter said the study rings true to her experiences to some degree, though she wouldn’t say she necessarily feels more connected to her grandkids compared to her adult children.
“I simply have different feelings overall about the two, besides loving and caring intensely about both,” she said.
“The biggest difference being that my grandchildren tend to elicit strong feelings of joy and delight in me compared to my adult children,” she explained. “Even an intense curiosity about who they are, what’s going on in their little minds, what interests them, who and what they will become.”
Exciting as that all is, Carpenter admits that at the end of a long, fun day with her grandkids, she’s glad to have her nights to herself.
“Usually, by the time the kids are tired and grandma’s tired, it’s time for the kids to leave, and the parents get to deal with crankiness and crying, while grandma gets a break,” she said. “That is when this grandma has stronger feelings for her adult children — feelings of gratitude.”