By James Kirby
We often hear the old adage, "It takes a village to raise a child," yet with increasing independence, geographical movement, and isolation in Western culture, how true--or feasible--is this?
In the United States, about 23.7 percent of children under five receive child care from their grandparents. In Australia, that number is only 25 percent for children under 13. Across Europe, about 40 percent of children receive regular care from their grandparents--still less than half.
What is surprising about this is that we humans are "cooperative breeders," meaning that we have evolved as a species to work in groups when raising offspring, with a broad range of individuals helping support the mother and father.
Indeed, this is a defining aspect of the human species. Whereas other species pass on very shortly after losing their ability to reproduce, adult humans have a very long post-reproductive period--up to 40-50 years. And this is when grandma and grandpa become very important to the family; their involvement can not only be enjoyable, but also benefit grandchildren and parents in profound ways.
The wonders of grandparents
In Western cultures, the involvement of grandparents in families can vary greatly, with some having custody of their grandchildren and others having no contact at all. However, there is a trend toward more and more grandparents providing regular care to their grandchildren--and that's a good thing.
The grandmother hypothesis says grandma involvement in family life helps increase her daughter's fertility and the chance of the grandchildren surviving. Indeed, research shows that if the grandmother is present in the family, it doubles the odds of more children being born in some cases. Why? Well, all of a sudden mum has somebody at home to help care for her other children, while she looks after the newborn.
Grandparent involvement also helps mothers re-enter the workforce, increasing family income and stimulating economic growth. Grandparents tend to provide the most care and support in the earlier years, with the amount of hours decreasing as the grandchild ages.
Adolescent children also benefit from grandparent involvement. A large UK study of 1,515 secondary school students (11-16 years old) found that greater grandparent involvement with families was associated with significantly fewer emotional problems and significantly more kind and helpful behavior among children.
Getting grandparents involved
However, grandparent involvement is not without its challenges.
When grandparents provide regular child care, it is not uncommon for tension, conflict, and disagreement to occur between grandparents and parents, which can negatively impact children's social, emotional, and behavioral development. One common source of tension is unsolicited parenting advice from grandparents, which can strain the grandparent-parent relationship.
So how can we help grandparents and parents in this critical and important role of co-parenting?
A recent systematic review of 21 studies found that formal programs targeted at grandparents can help. My colleagues and I evaluated one such program, Grandparent Triple P, in 2013. Grandparent Triple P is a nine-week group program that aims to provide 1) a refresher course on parenting strategies, 2) communication strategies to enhance the parent-grandparent relationship, and 3) coping skills to help grandparents manage the stress of providing regular child care. The program was found to improve grandparent confidence and stress, parent-grandparent relationship satisfaction, and, most importantly, children's behavioral outcomes.
If you hope to involve grandparents in parenting, here are some key takeaways from the program:
Parenting strategies. Often, it has been 10 or 20 years since grandparents had children running around the house. So participants in the program spend some time re-familiarizing themselves with why children behave the way they do. They learn simple, prevention-based tips, such as how to make a safe environment at home--for example, moving delicate objects (like vases) to avoid having to tell kids "No" or "Stop it" all the time. They're encouraged to make an easy, go-to list of engaging activities to do with the kids, possibly with input from the parents, so they don't feel constantly pressured to come up with different ideas and games.
Communication strategies. A key tip we give grandparents is to engage in compassionate listening with the parents. There will be times when parents would like to vent about some difficulties they are having with the kids, and as grandparents the urge is to provide advice on how to manage them. Although grandparents are trying to be helpful, the number one thing parents dislike from grandparents is receiving unsolicited parenting advice. So grandparents practice listening to the parents and validating their distress using non-verbal gestures like maintaining eye contact and nodding, or saying things like "Yes, that does sound very frustrating." They might also ask, "Can I help at all, or would you like me to just listen?"
Coping skills. In the program, we spend time recognizing how being a grandparent can be stressful. Grandparents learn to expect and recognize draining emotions such as anger, frustration, sadness, or anxiety. We work out what those emotions feel like in the body and then practice using our breath to help slow down, cultivate calmness, and stabilize us at times of high stress.
The most important takeaway from all the research is that we shouldn't undervalue the contribution of grandparents. They have a significant influence on families, and help provide nurturing family environments for children. For clinicians, particularly when working in the family context, it can be useful to encourage grandparent involvement when possible.