Groundbreaking Studies About Grandparents

Formal, Fun-seeking or Distant?

Grandparents Cuddling Granddaughter In Bed
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What is your most typical grandparenting activity? Is it preparing food, providing discipline, or playing games? The answer may depend upon your exact circumstances, but it is also likely to be influenced by your grandparenting style.

The idea of grandparenting styles is a relatively new one. For years few researchers seemed interested in the role of grandparents in our society. Grandparents led unexamined lives.

In 1964 two University of Chicago researchers, Bernice L. Neugarten and Karol K. Weinstein, undertook an analysis of grandparenting styles.

First Formal Study of Grandparenting Styles

Neugarten and Weinstein concluded that grandparenting styles could be loosely characterized as formal, fun-seeking, or distant.

  • Formal grandparents did not impinge upon parental ground. They were interested but not intrusive. They were faithful to the grandparenting role as it was commonly perceived.
  • Fun-seeking grandparents were informal and playful. Rather than the grandparent giving the grandchild a good time, the two had fun together.
  • Distant grandparents were benevolent but not often present. They had infrequent contact with their grandchildren, most often on holidays and family occasions.

This seminal study in grandparenting styles was unscientific by today's standards. In their paper Neugarten and Weinstein state their intent as generating hypotheses rather than arriving at answers.

The sample of grandparents they studied was small -- 70 sets -- and it was skewed toward maternal grandparents. All the grandparents interviewed were middle class, and 40% of them were Jewish. Perhaps most tellingly, all of the grandparents were part of a set. There were no single, divorced, widowed or otherwise atypical grandparents included in the study.

Nonetheless, the conclusions of Neugarten and Weinstein evidently hit upon some fundamental truths, as their study continues to be cited today, over four decades after its 1964 publication date.

Neugarten and Weinstein noted two other grandparenting styles but described them as highly gender-specific.

  • Grandmothers sometimes fell into a style called the surrogate parent. These grandmothers assumed a great deal of responsibility for the care of the child.
  • Grandfathers sometimes assumed a role which the researchers called the reservoir of family wisdom. In this authoritarian model, the grandfather was the guardian of special skills and resources.

In the twenty-first century, these gender distinctions are probably fairly meaningless. Many grandfathers have become actively involved in raising their grandchildren, and many grandmothers are seen as repositories of family knowledge and authority.

Cherlin and Furstenberg's 1985 Study

For about 20 years after Neugarten and Weinstein, there were no major explorations of grandparenting styles. Then, in 1985, Andrew J. Cherlin and Frank K. Furstenberg conducted a study with a greater number of grandparents, around 500. They examined the grandparenting relationship in terms of two variables.

  • The first variable was called "exchange of services." It involved the giving and receiving of benefits among the members of the different generations.
  • The second was labeled "parental influence." It measured the degree to which the grandparents served as authority figures.
  • The method of analysis used by Cherlin and Furstenberg resulted in five grandparenting styles, which they labeled detached, passive, authoritative, supportive and influential.

    The authoritative, supportive and influential types were grouped together as active grandparenting styles. The authoritative style rated high on parental influence but low on exchange of services. The supportive style rated low on parental influence but high on exchange of services. The third type, the influential type, rated high in both areas.

    The detached and passive types rated low on both measures, with a difference. The detached style had minimum contact with grandchildren, whereas the passive style had more contact but still exerted minimal influence and provided little in the way of exchange of services.

    Have Grandparenting Styles Changed?

    How have grandparenting styles changed since these important studies? My research, which is primarily anecdotal rather than scientific, indicates that two of the categories proposed by Neugarten and Weinstein have seen significant growth.

  • More grandparents have adopted the surrogate parent role.The growth in this grandparenting style is probably due to divorce rates and the growing number of two-career families. Among those in this category are those who are actually parenting grandchildren, known as GRGs (Grandparents Raising Grandchildren), GAPs (Grandparents as Parents) or skip generation families. Many other grandparents, though not actually raising grandchildren, care for their grandchildren on a regular basis.
  • Many grandparents have adopted the fun-seeking model. This is especially true of those whose grandchildren live in intact families and in families with adequate financial resources. To label these grandparents as fun-seeking is somewhat misleading, however, as the fun they provide often has value in terms of education and personal growth for the grandchildren.

If you'd like to understand your grandparenting style better, check out this light-hearted look at grandparenting styles.


Cherlin, Andrew J. and Frank F. Furstenberg. The New American Grandparent: A Place in the Family, a Life Apart. Harvard University Press, 1992.

Neugarten, Bernice L. and Karol K. Weinstein. "The Changing American Grandparent." Journal of Marriage and the Family. May 1964. 199-204.