Everyone has a grandparent. Some people have the standard four, others have zero or one, and others have eight or more living grandparents. But whether you knew your grandparents or not, you wouldn't be here unless you had one. Conversely, although many of the 50-plus population achieves this status (exact numbers are not known), it's not a universal phenomenon.
There's a great deal of folklore about grandparents, much romanticizing, and also considerable attention to the predicament of "skip generation" families in which grandparents raise grandchildren without the parents present in the household at all (Ellis & Simmons, 2014). This amounts to an estimated 2.7 million grandparents in the U.S. alone.
Although stressful to be sure, raising the children of your children carries with it some rather clear role obligations. You are effectively the children's parent, responsible for feeding, clothing, sheltering, and nurturing them. All the duties you had as a parent face you once again and, if you're lucky, you have the physical, emotional, and financial resources to carry them out.
A very different set of issues face grandparents who are part of the more typical three- or four-generation extended family. Apart from whatever complications may arise when your children are single parents, are remarried, or you are remarried, you face a far more ambiguous set of role obligations. You feel as though you shouldn't interfere, but you want to if you see a situation that you think you can or should fix in your own child's parenting. Like the stereotypical grandparent, in addition, you may want to lavish gifts on your grandchildren, but worry about spoiling them or buying them things their parents don't want them to have.
If you're still working, you may also face a set of issues that were less likely to confront your own parents or grandparents. With Baby Boomers living longer and retiring later, we now have an entirely new generation of working grandparents. The new conflicts that can arise as a result include not being able to be there for our grandchildren at their school plays, when the parents need help with childcare, or even baking those delicious cookies that made our grandmothers (and grandfathers) so famous.
These social-psychological conflicts are part of the story, but there remain deeper considerations as well. Over the past 20 years, certainly since our own children were little, an entire theory known as attachment parenting proposes that moms and dads attend to the bonding needs of their babies which, in turn, leads the children to develop a secure sense of self. One example is that parents are advised to rush to and comfort the child before a full-blown temper tantrum sets in, depending on the child's age. Eventually, this soothing will help the child develop the ability to self-regulate emotions.
Grandparents who believed in the old view that letting the child "cry it out" would take the opposite approach. They would reduce the frequency of tantrums in the future by ignoring the child's screams, so that the child learns that such behavior won't be reinforced. What to do, then, when your children swoop up the bawling baby almost immediately after the hollering begins? Your attachment-parenting informed son or daughter's philosophy goes against the grain of everything you've ever believed.
This is just one example of how grandparents can feel torn between following their own inclinations vs. letting their children parent the way they feel is best. In the field of grandparenting research, which is surprisingly ignored in the literature, there are basically no published studies on the topic. I did encounter a 1998 journal article by Goldsmiths College, London sociologist Linda Drew and colleagues called "Grandparenting and its Relation to Parenting." In reviewing the available literature at the time on attachment theory, Drew and her co-authors examined how the attachment style of the parent generation was influenced by the grandparents, which they in turn pass along to their own offspring. Drew et al. compare "pathological" grandparenting, in which grandparents take on an interfering role, and "beneficial" grandparenting, in which they serve in supportive roles. This would suggest that the best way to grandparent is to find the balance between these two opposing styles.
The most important characteristic of good grandparenting, according to Drew and her team, is altruism (based on Kornhaber, 1983). Poor grandparenting is characterized not only by interference, but by being "narcissistic," "distant," or "insensitive." If you want to be a good grandparent, you must incorporate your grandparent role into your identity, respect your children's desires to raise the children the way they want to (as long as there is no abuse or neglect), and communicate effectively with both younger generations.
Surprisingly, there's been basically no follow-through on these ideas in the family literature. Our take-home message, following from these earlier views, still seems to hold. The best way to grandparent is to give your adult children the space they need to parent as they see fit while you show your support, communicate openly, and integrate the role of grandparent into your own identity. Altruism means it's not about you, it's about them, and as long as you keep their well-being uppermost in your mind, your grandparenting role will bring you continued fulfillment for many years to come.
Drew, L. M., Richard, M. H., & Smith, P. K. (1998). Grandparenting and its relationship to parenting. Clinical Child Psychology And Psychiatry, 3(3), 465-480. doi:10.1177/1359104598033009
Kornhaber, A. (1983). Grandparents are coming of age in America, Children Today, 30, 36-40.