Grandparents and Grandchildren: What Keeps Them Close?

Some Factors Are Out of Our Control, But Others Are Not

grandson and grandmother demonstrate grandparent-grandchild closeness
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Have you ever wondered how some grandparents manage to have close relationships with their grandchildren and others do not? It's not a mystery. Research has uncovered the secrets, but they are still unknown to many grandparents.

Merril Silverstein and Vern L. Bengtson, among others, have studied the concept that they call "intergenerational solidarity" and have identified six factors that influence this "solidarity." While some of these factors are beyond our control, others are not.

This information is unlikely to help grandparents who have lost contact with their grandchildren, or those who have deep-seated family conflicts that may require therapy to resolve. But for the rest of us, this information could be vital.

1. Physical Proximity

Not surprisingly, geographic closeness is one of the strongest predictors of a close relationship between grandparents and grandchildren. This factor may be out of the control of some grandparents, although some have demonstrated a willingness to move to be close to their grandchildren. Other factors, such as the health and financial status of the grandparents can be factors if they limit travel. Geographical distance isn't terribly important for grandparents who are fit, healthy and financially able to afford the cost of frequent trips to see grandchildren. 

Although grandparents agree that there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction, technology has made it easier to build a relationship with grandchildren across the miles.

Many grandparents visit with their grandchildren daily via FaceTime, Skype or other video chat platform. Older grandchildren will appreciate loving text messages, as long as they are not too frequent. Facebook and other social networking sites are also good for staying in touch with tween, teen and young adult grandchildren.

The bottom line is that loving grandparents will find a way to bridge distance.

2. Frequency of Contact

Grandparents who stay in frequent contact with their grandchildren have closer relationships, but physical distance isn't the only obstacle to contact. Parental divorce commonly has a drastic effect on contact between grandchildren and grandparents. Often contact increases between the custodial parent and his or her parents, and contact with grandchildren increases, too. But the parents of the non-custodial parent frequently find their contact with grandchildren greatly reduced. Since women still receive custody more frequently than men, most of the time maternal grandparents have an enhanced relationship with their grandchildren after divorce, while paternal grandparents have a reduced role. Of course, more fathers are winning custody, and joint custody is on the rise. Perhaps in the future divorce will not affect the grandparent-grandchild relationship as radically as it often does today.

3. Grandparents' Function Within the Family

When grandparents provide child care for grandchildren or become actual or surrogate parents to their grandchildren, they have a greater than average opportunity to bond. Many grandparents who fulfill these roles, however, wish that they could be "regular" grandparents rather than having to fill parental shoes. Also, research shows that it is the regular presence of grandparents that results in closeness rather than the functions that they perform. Whether you are a grandparent who has taken charge of grandchildren, or a "cool" grandparent who mainly plays with them, you can be close to your grandchildren.

4. The Concept of Normalcy

Families that expect strong relationships between the generations are more likely to have them. That's because family members are taught from an early age that family members share obligations. Those obligations may include care-giving for children and for the elderly, financial assistance and general sharing of tasks. And the assistance flows in both directions — from young to old, from old to young. Families that have this type of culture are more likely to demonstrate strong grandparent-grandchild bonds than families in which individuality and independence top the list of values. Such families also adopt practices that keep extended families close.

5. Emotional Bonding

Although grandparents and grandchildren often report mutual closeness, grandparents may report a greater degree of closeness than the younger generation. That's just natural. When families work as they should, children are closest to their parents and siblings. Grandparents usually occupy their second circle or second tier of emotional proximity. As children grow, their circles enlarge, and their peers become vitally important to them. Grandparents may be further displaced.

Grandparents, on the other hand, often live in a world of shrinking circles, as their peers and older relatives die, move away or suffer from serious health issues. Their children and grandchildren may come to occupy a larger space in their lives rather than smaller. What is important, however, is that grandparents who develop establish early emotional bonds with grandchildren will find that those bonds last. Such bonds usually survive the passage of years and the many changes that both generations go through.

Research also shows that the middle generation is of vital importance in determining closeness. When grandparents and their adult children are close, closeness with grandchildren comes naturally and easily.

6. Reaching a Consensus on Values

Grandchildren often get their early values from parents and grandparents. As they mature, however, they are more likely to grow their own set of values. Families are closest when they share values, but few families will ever be in total agreement. Researchers say a generation gap sometimes develops when younger generations find older generations lacking in social tolerance and even prone to hypocrisy. Grandparents should not abandon their values and standards, but a willingness to listen to the younger generation can go a long way. And grandparents should be sure that they practice what they preach.

Summing Up

Although these six factors have an influence on grandparent-grandchild closeness, the attitude of grandparents is the most important factor. Research shows that love for grandparents isn't built into the grandparent-grandchild relationship. In other words, grandchildren don't automatically value their grandparents. Instead they learn to value their individual grandparents and the way they occupy that role. Detached or uninvolved grandparents are unlikely to find a place of honor in the family circle. On the other hand, grandparents who thrive on creating family drama and stirring up conflict are unlikely to be valued family members either. All in all, it is the grandparent who is determined to build a strong and lasting relationship with grandchildren who is most likely to succeed.