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Interview: In Praise of Grandfathers


Time to bring grandfathers out of the shadows.

Grandparents are playing a vital part in many families today, yet few studies have focused on the role of grandfathers.

According to Dr. Robin Mann, the significance of grandfatherhood for men has been underestimated. Mann is associate research fellow at the Oxford Institute on Ageing at Oxford University in London, England.

His study of grandfathers was published in the Journal of Aging Studies (Vol. 21, 2007).

AHB reached Dr. Mann in London

Ruth Dempsey: Grands today can be in their 40s and 50s. This is a long time to grandparent.

Robin Mann: It’s true, on average, people spend more years as grandparents today. Clearly, longer life expectancy is one of the main reasons. The good news is grandparents have more opportunities to develop relationships with grandchildren as they reach their teens and early adulthood. The flipside for western societies is that delaying childbirth into the mid-30s means the transition takes place much later in life.

There is also considerable difference in how people experience grandparenting. In Britain, for example, working class women are four times more likely to become a grandparent before their 50th birthday than middle class women. So younger grandparents tend to be poorer. They are likely to have the added pressure of balancing
grandparenting with paid employment and caring for an elderly parent. In fact, the image of the grandparent leisurely spending time with grandchildren in retirement is a privileged one.

Today, there is no one story. The experience of grandparenthood has become polarized.

RD: Why so little research on grandfathers?

RM: I suppose the obvious reason is that the family is seen as a female domain with grandmothers, or “mum”, occupying the central position. So, to some extent it’s been assumed that what grandfathers do is defined by grandmothers.

But it’s not simply a case of ignoring grandfathers. Men are usually older than their spouses and older men are more likely to spend time away from the family. Men also have lower life expectancies. So for many grandchildren, grandfathers were simply not in their lives to the same extent.

But this is changing. We have stories of grandfathers today who are highly involved with their grandchildren, but who can’t remember ever having a conversation with their own grandfathers. These men remember their grandfathers as authoritarian figures.

It’s interesting. When I started investigating grandfathers many people asked me why I was looking solely at grandfathers and not looking at grandmothers. There is a big danger in implying that men are excluded!

RD: Paternal grandparents are less involved in grandparenting than maternal grandparents. Is that right?

RM: Many studies have found that children have stronger bonds to grandparents on their mother’s side. This can be particularly acute in families where there has been a divorce. The father’s parents can lose contact altogether.

One interesting explanation offered by evolutionary psychologists is that women are always related by maternity, whereas men can never be certain they are the biological fathers to their children. This could mean maternal grandparents are more likely to go that extra mile for their children.

But there are also cultural and economic factors. For example, bonds to paternal grandparents are stronger in rural farm families. This is also true for south Asian families.

RD: Young children perceive grandmothers to be more involved in their lives . . .

RM: I think it’s possible to identify different phases in the grandparent-grandchild relationship. With very young grandchildren, contact is more likely to be mediated by parents and their child care and support needs. At this point, grandfathers often have a playful and fun-loving role.

As children reach their teens, grandparents see their grandchildren less often. But relationships can still remain as close emotionally. Older grandchildren also give back. If they live nearby, they visit their grandparents, drive them around and take them out to dinner perhaps. At this stage, we found that grandfathers can play a very important role in guiding and mentoring their grandsons.

RD: Today grandfathers want to build strong bonds with grandchildren. Can you give me an example?

RM: They like to involve grandchildren in family history and stories of the past. For example, grandfathers like to share family photos and sing songs. They like telling stories they may have told to their own children and those they may have even heard themselves, as children.

I think it’s about the human need to understand our roots. Perhaps we find some reassurance about our own mortality – the continuity of time and the continuity of our world – in the lives of our grandchildren.

RD: What types of activities do they enjoy with grandchildren? Is there a difference between older and younger grandfathers?

RM: Grandfathers create bonds with grandchildren by sharing activities and special interests. In our study, this included a variety of things like:

playing games;
going to the museum;
spending time in the garden; and
reading books.

Younger grandfathers will benefit from having been more “hands-on” as fathers. But they are also more likely to be working. So they may spend less time with their grandchildren than older grandfathers, who are retired.

RD: What about your own grandfathers? Can you share some memories?

RM: I have very fond memories of my grandfathers. I have less memory of my maternal grandfather as he died when I was quite young. But I have very fond memories of “grampy”, my father’s father. My memories of him are gardening, cricket, the Second World War, smoking a pipe, going to the pub to shoot some pool. He wasn’t so much of a storyteller, but he was fun and loved playing games (competitively!).