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Interview: Men See World Differently, Thanks to Grandchildren


Grandparents play a vital part in many families today. Grandmothers tend to get most attention, but what about grandfathers?

New research finds men build strong bonds with grandchildren. Furthermore, caring for grandchildren makes men see themselves and the world differently.

Jennifer StGeorge and Richard Fletcher reported their findings online in The International Journal of Aging and Human Development (Vol.78, No.4, 2014).

To learn more, AHB reached Dr. StGeorge at the family action centre, faculty of health and medicine at the University of Newcastle in Callaghan, Australia.

Ruth Dempsey: Can you give me a snapshot of the grandfathers in your study?

Jennifer StGeorge: The participants were 19 Australian men who volunteered to be interviewed. All lived on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, the state on the Australian east coast.

The majority of the men were maternal biological grandfathers in their 60s. All were married and living with their wives.

Most were retired, while five still worked in some capacity. They were in good health and financially reasonably comfortable.

RD: What types of activities did they enjoy with grandchildren?

JSG: Everything from stories on the knee, watching birds and shoe cleaning to hide and seek, going to the beach and "rough and tumble". Grandfathers’ activities with grandchildren were just part of their everyday life.

All the children were under 12 years. We only interviewed grandfathers whose grandchildren stayed with them overnight at least once a fortnight, so we knew the men would have lots of stories and experiences to draw on.

RD: The men saw their role as "back-up" to the parents . . .

JSG: Absolutely! There was no doubt in any of these men’s minds that the ultimate responsibility lay with the parents. Although many joked about being able to "give them back" at the end of the visit, they were also very serious about their place in the hierarchy of rule and decision-making. They seemed cautious around this, taking care to remain in the background.

But this caution did not mean that all men let the children do whatever they wanted. Many did talk about spoiling the children, but most also said that they supported the parents’ rules.

As one grandfather put it:

I am not the final enforcer of any rules with the grandkids, that’s up to my son-in-law and my daughter. I will support them because [the grandson] does have a highly routined regime, mainly because of his behaviour. And we support our daughter in that, even though it may go against some of our own behaviour beliefs.

RD: Grandfathers talked about the importance of "being there" for children . . .

JSG: Yes, this insistence represented a type of responsibility the men felt towards grandchildren, wanting to be available for talk, for play and for ultimate responsibility, if necessary.

The men were attached to their grandchildren and this seemed to shape their intentions. Some of these were very concrete, such as delaying retirement travel plans and not re-locating interstate. Others were more mundane, including doing things together.

For example, one man stressed the importance of being available to listen:

Often parents don’t have time to listen when they’re trying to tell you something or misunderstand it or get cranky with them and think – I mean, you’ve got to try to, I try to be at her level at times when you talk to her, but as I said, she’s such a clever little girl, you don’t have to go down too far. Yeah.

Also, it seemed some men were in a difficult position. They could see parental conflict affecting their grandchildren, and they hoped that they might provide some security for the young ones.

Well, I just feel like it’s "cause of her situation", I just feel as so I want to be there for her and she does at times get clingy and I think this is all part of the break up, even now. Going backwards and forwards and we try to be a steadying factor and something you can rely on all the time.

RD: These men delighted in their grandchildren. Their emotional life appeared to blossom . . .

JSG: This was the surprise element of the study.

For the authors, the surprise was that the men were so expressive in describing warm emotions for grandchildren.

For some men, the surprise was in the extent and reciprocity of the connection; they were loved, they were sought after: "Pop’s the one".

This led some men to become quite reflective and philosophical about the meaning of life. And for some, life took on new meaning.

RD: You highlight grandfathers’ contribution to family life. Can you give me an example?

JSG: I suppose the most important contribution anyone can make to family life is through positive relationships.

The men demonstrated their commitment to children’s well-being and to family cohesiveness. In receiving and giving love, they felt stronger and connected.

In practical terms, this meant grandfathers and their partners were available to care for the children when parents were sick, absent or at work.

It also meant children had another secure base from which to safely explore their world.

RD: The findings suggest the significance of grandfatherhood for men has been underestimated. Is that right?

JSG: Yes, what this means is that we don’t often think about men’s well-being in the context of grandparenting, or even consider how this might intersect with the psychological processes of growing older.

In fact, becoming a grandfather and interacting with young children – feeling wanted and connected – can intensify this psychic development.

RD: What’s next?

JSG: I think what we have learned from this study can be extended in several ways:

  • This sort of information can be helpful to health practitioners working with families and older people because it highlights the strengths and resources available in extended families.
  • It would be fascinating to explore the different ways grandfathers play with their grandchildren. There appeared to be a wonderful moment-by-moment quality to the play. We need to understand more about this, especially in the light of new research showing the benefits of fathers’ playfulness with children.
  • Last, but not least, is the importance of men’s emotional and mental health in older age. If, in fact, we do tend to become more understanding of self as we grow older (like some studies suggest), then connection with grandchildren can enrich this process.