Grandparents play vital roles in lives of children, grandchildren

Author Olivia Gentile looks at the new reality of American grandparents.
Author Olivia Gentile looks at the new reality of American grandparents.
Published April 20, 2015

Grandparents buy children dolls, bake them cookies and take them to the zoo. But, increasingly, grandparents also babysit kids until they're old enough for day care, feed them dinner when their parents have to work late and spend a fortune on their college educations.

Since May is Older Americans Month, why don't we update our conception of the American grandparent to reconcile it with the new reality?

A growing body of scholarship suggests that over the past few decades, the role of the American grandparent has undergone a significant transformation. While the grandparents of yesteryear mainly doted on children, grandparents today make indispensable contributions to their upbringing.

Grandparents are healthier and wealthier than they used to be, scholars note, allowing them to lavish more resources on their children's children. And now more than ever, both their time and their money are urgently needed.

As recently as the 1960s, most women with young children stayed home, and nearly all were married. Today, seven in 10 mothers of young children are in the labor force, four in 10 births are to unmarried mothers, and three in 10 kids are growing up in a single-parent home, according to government data.

These trends combine to create "a high demand for childcare," writes Madonna Harrington Meyer, a sociologist at Syracuse University, but since neither lawmakers nor employers have responded to this demand, "many families are turning to grandmas for help."

Nearly 25 percent of American preschoolers and 14 percent of grade-schoolers are watched by a grandparent at least once a week, according to the Census Bureau. Many grandparents are providing more child care than they expected to and more than their own parents provided a generation ago, according to Harrington Meyer.

Similarly, many grandparents are spending more money on grandchildren than their forerunners did, Harrington Meyer and other scholars say. That's because older Americans are far wealthier than their predecessors were, while younger Americans — the parents of little kids — are far poorer.

According to a report published by the Pew Research Center in 2011, the median net worth of households headed by Americans ages 65 and older increased by 42 percent between 1984 and 2009, to $170,000. During the same period, the median net worth of households headed by Americans younger than 35 fell by a staggering 68 percent, to a mere $3,700.

Grandparents are taking it upon themselves to redistribute their wealth, studies show. A study published by the MetLife Mature Market Institute in 2012 found that 62 percent of American grandparents are helping to support their grandchildren financially, either directly or through gifts to the middle generation. According to the study, 43 percent of grandparents help pay for their grandchildren's clothing, 33 percent help with other basic expenses and 29 percent assist with education costs.

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According to Peter Uhlenberg, a demographer at the University of North Carolina, "The notion of adult children providing economic support for their aging parents is obsolete." Instead, across the developed world, "Older people are frequently using part of their pension income to assist children and grandchildren who have needs."

And more and more grandparents are taking their children and grandchildren into their homes. Ten percent of American children live with a grandparent, compared to 7 percent in 1992, according to a Census Bureau study released last year. In most of these homes, at least one parent is present, too, but the household is headed by a grandparent.

So why do so many people still regard grandparents as sweet but peripheral — the bakers of cookies rather than the writers of tuition and rent checks?

First, the contributions of grandparents tend to be overlooked by the media. There are countless news stories about the help that older Americans are receiving from their grown children, but precious few about the help that they're providing. Meanwhile, television shows, movies and advertisements keep ignoring grandparents or playing them for laughs.

Second, many of us cling to the myth, disproved by scholars, that the extended American family was decimated by modernity.

Americans "tend to associate grandparents with old-fashioned families," especially rural ones, write sociologists Andrew Cherlin and Frank Furstenberg, and "many think that grandparents have become less important as the nation has become more modern."

In reality, note Cherlin and Furstenberg, modern advances in medicine, transportation and communication have all made it possible for grandparents and grandchildren to enjoy longer and more rewarding relationships than they did in the past.

A third reason why people don't realize how much grandparents are helping parents these days is that many parents don't like to talk about it, especially when the help they're getting takes the form of cash.

In my peer group of well-educated, hardworking, upper middle-class parents, for example, it's standard to rely on grandparents for help with big-ticket items like home purchases, child care costs and private school tuition. But I only know this because I undertook, gauchely, to canvas my friends.

In general, the subject of grandparental subsidies is taboo, perhaps because, having read our Emerson in high school, we worry that we've failed if we're not completely self-reliant.

Finally, research shows that ageism is still pervasive in the United States, which likely prevents some of us from conceptualizing grandparents as productive and useful.

Older Americans are often stereotyped as "doddering but dear," writes Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at Harvard: kind as can be, but feeble, inept and out of the game. Says another social psychologist, Todd Nelson of California State University, "Older persons today are treated as second-class citizens with nothing to offer society."

Isn't it time we discarded the myths and misconceptions about grandparents and started giving them their due?

Olivia Gentile is an author, journalist and mother who recently launched the website "The Grandparent Effect: Stories from a quiet revolution" at . Contact her at