To survive the triple threats of global climate change, fossil fuel depletion, and population overshoot, humans will have to do some pretty sophisticated problem-solving very quickly. But most of us already have an ancient, tried-and-true resource built into our lives that can also help us tackle the coming challenges: our kin. In all social primate species, relatives and surrogate relatives help youngsters learn the ways of survival and group living. Why shouldn’t humans also benefit from the expertise and wisdom that older relatives can offer? I recently sat down with communication scientist Daniel Mansson to discuss his research on how grandparents specifically can contribute to the development of young people into resilient problem solvers who can create a more sustainable future.
Peter Crabb I recently read a study by researchers at Oxford University that found that close and strong relationships between grandparents and grandchildren really contribute to children’s wellbeing. Is that what your research points to?
Daniel Mansson Yes, absolutely, in a number of ways. The seminal studies conducted by gerontologists and sociologists found that grandparents influence grandchildren’s attitudes in a number of ways. Attitudes toward school, toward religion, toward romance, and their attitude toward older people in general. So, having a good relationship with a grandparent can certainly impact a wide variety of aspects of your life, ranging from intimate relationships to work and communication. In my research, I focus on when grandchildren receive affection from their grandparents. One way in which that affects grandchildren positively is that they report improved psychological health. Specifically, grandchildren who receive affectionate communication from their grandparents report lower levels of stress, lower levels of depression, lower levels of loneliness, and overall better mental health. They also tend to have higher levels of self-esteem when they receive affection from their grandparents.
PC Were these college students that you studied?
DM Yes. I’ve focused on “young adults,” 18 to 25 year-old grandchildren, because that is such an important transitional period in one’s life. Young people may move away from home to go to college, and they oftentimes need support from important family members to manage that transition, whether it’s financial or emotional or any other type of support. A follow-up study that I did found that a good grandparent-grandchild relationship benefits grandparents in a very similar manner. Grandparents benefit when they provide affectionate communication to their grandchildren, which involves love and esteem, interest and caring, and compliments like “You are a wonderful grandchild and I admire you.” It also involves memories of humorous stories about when the grandparents—or the child’s parents–were younger.
PC Or stories about the grandchildren when they were younger.
DM Yes. And, children benefit from receiving celebratory affection, which involves recognizing important events in the grandchild’s life–birthdays, holidays, graduations, etc. So grandparents who engage in these types of affectionate communication also report lower levels of stress, lower levels of depression, and lower levels of loneliness. That’s very, very important because grandparents also go through transitions—declining health, loss of life partners and friends. Depression and feelings of loneliness are very prominent in older people, so if we can combat that by being a little more caring and nurturing toward each other—in this case toward our grandchildren—it can have profound effects. Which is fascinating because, here in the U.S. and many Western countries, we’re so quick to solve psychological problems with drugs.
PC Drugs instead of hugs. And don’t we also tend to point to the individual and say, “It’s your problem,” rather than looking at this as a problem of the family system and perhaps even of the broader society, which is what you are finding to be a better way to look at this.
DM Yes. It can be the whole family that is lacking in support and affectionate communication, and that can make a child feel disconnected and lonely and depressed, and then he or she can find the transition to college very difficult. So that child, as a new college student, is more likely to go to the student health center and then be referred to an off-campus health clinic who will then prescribe some kind of anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication, when in fact we should begin by saying, “Go talk to your grandmother and tell her that she means a lot to you,” or “Give your best friend a hug.” I think we should take a step back and take advantage of the positive impacts that affectionate communication can have on our well-being, both psychologically and physiologically. In other relationships, affectionate communication has a host of positive effects on people’s physiology, such as lower heart rate, lower bad cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, lower levels of stress.
PC That is impressive.
DM Yes, it’s important in intimate relationships and relationships with friends to be shown that you are valued, appreciated, and liked. We don’t have to have all of our needs met by our romantic partners. That’s a bit of a myth. A sibling can do that, a cousin can do that, a parent can do that, and so can a grandparent. Grandparents are prominent providers of a wide variety of support these days. Since the 1950s there have been some pretty significant social changes: life expectancy has increased, divorce rates have increased, and the number of women active in the workforce has increased. People living longer means that people can maintain longer relationships with their grandparents and grandchildren. More women in the workforce means that there is no one staying home to care for the kids, so the grandparents can step in. And the higher divorce rate means that it is difficult to juggle both work and childcare, so again, the grandparents can step in. Another factor is the high incarceration rate in the U.S., which breaks apart families and leaves single parents to raise their kids and earn a living, Once again, grandparents can step in and help out. So what children can’t get from their parents they can at least partially get from their grandparents. It’s really the role of the parent or parents to mediate the role of grandparents in children’s lives.
PC Can you say more about that? What do you mean by “mediate?”
DM For example, growing up in Sweden I lived 10 miles or so from both sets of my grandparents. Unless my mother said, “Let’s go visit Grandpa’s tomorrow,” it would be unlikely that my brother and I would visit Grandpa by ourselves. I couldn’t ride my bicycle that far and I had no other way to get there. So parents need to connect the dots. They need to find time for their children and their parents to visit each other. Parents also serve as gatekeepers of information about their children’s lives, so sharing news about their kids gives grandparents something to talk about with their grandchildren and to provide appropriate support when needed. Parents do play a crucial role in connecting their children with their parents.
PC What specific benefits do children receive from grandparents? We talked about physiological and health benefits. What about benefits to children’s ability to have healthy relationships with other people throughout their lives?
DM In one of my studies, I looked at received affection in grandparents and their attitudes toward various types of relationships, and I found that when grandchildren receive affection from their grandparents, they are less likely to be socially isolated and, conversely, they are more likely to be socially involved with others. And they have more positive attitudes toward eventually developing close, intimate relationships.
PC The relationship with grandparents helps children to experience the joys of connecting with others and to get to know what relationships can be like outside of the parent-child relationship.
DM In part, yes. But children keep receiving messages like, “I am so proud of you” and “You mean so much to me.” All of this affectionate communication is very rewarding to a child. We all appreciate confirmation. So receiving that kind of praise will increase the child’s self-esteem and self-confidence. When I am confident, I am more likely to go out and seek social interactions, I’m much more likely to seek out a romantic partner, and I’m less likely to remain isolated in my dorm room or apartment. It’s an indirect effect, in essence, that grandparents provide affection and boost the child’s self-esteem, and the child is much more likely to develop a good social network of friends as well as to seek romantic partners. We know that people in pair-bonds live longer, on average. We also engage in less risky behaviors like alcohol and substance abuse, which are typically more prevalent in single people than among married people. Our eating habits and diet tend to be better when we eat with someone else, rather than popping some prefab food-like stuff into the microwave and eating alone in front of the tv. In general, we tend to be healthier when we are involved in a meaningful pair-bond because then we feel like our purpose is greater than if we are isolated and we feel no connection to something beyond ourselves.
PC You grew up in Sweden, so you have a nice opportunity to be able to see North American culture through critical eyes. What’s going on in the U.S., in terms of grandparent-grandchild relationships? Is it bad news?
DM No, it is not bad news. In fact, the cross-cultural comparisons I have done so far, among the U.S., Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Russia, and Slovakia, indicate that grandchildren in the U.S. receive more affection from their grandparents than any of the other countries we looked at. Initially, that’s a bit perplexing because the U.S. is an individualistic and masculine culture, yet Denmark is a more collectivistic and feminine culture. In theory, people in collectivist cultures should be more caring, and women are generally more affectionate than men, so feminine cultures should be more affectionate than masculine cultures. But the driving factor appears to be that in individualist cultures people are taught to be more assertive and expressive of their opinions. So, if I am more assertive in my relationships, I would also be assertive about telling people that I love them. So, contrary to what we might expect, that Danes receive more affection from their grandparents than people in the U.S., that is not the case. In that regard, people in the U.S. are off to a good start in terms of receiving affection from their grandparents.
PC I’m surprised at that because when I was growing up in the eastern U.S. both sets of my grandparents lived several days’ drive away. I hardly saw them. Every other summer my family would make the long drive (before interstate highways) to visit with all of the grandparents. I could probably count the number of times I saw my grandparents on my fingers and toes. Here in the U.S. we are very mobile which, unfortunately, translates into disconnection.
DM That is why parents play such an important role. Clearly you were at your parents’ mercy when it came to seeing your grandparents. You didn’t have the means to travel to see them by yourself. Maybe it would have been possible for your parents to take you to see your grandparents twice a year. Who knows?
PC But maybe parents’ relationships with their parents set the tone for the relationships between grandparents and children.
DM Yes, the quality of the relationship between parents and their parents is going to impact the grandchild-grandparent relationship. If I as a parent don’t like my parents, I’m not going to encourage my children to visit with my parents because I don’t think they are good people for my children to be around.
PC So parents can badmouth their parents to the child and the child loses any interest in connecting with the grandparents. A kid can get the idea that Grandma is pretty scary based on the parents’ own emotional history with their parents.
DM Yes, because we tend to believe whatever our parents tell us when we are young and then we develop these ideas about who are grandparents are.
PC So parents can completely distort and prevent any relationship with the grandparents, or they can do something more constructive.
DM I saw that in my family. Growing up we would go visit my mother’s father every weekend, but we visited my father’s mother less often. My father just didn’t have the connection with his mother that my mom did with her father. And that impacted my connection with my two surviving grandparents. It was taxing for my dad to visit his mother and listen to her complain for a couple of hours. We’d visit my mother’s father and drink coffee and maybe some whiskey and tell stories and laugh and smile.
PC Totally different.
DM Completely different. It was a very simple relationship. Grandpa was a farmer, so when we visited it was never about anything fancy. We would bring him some whiskey and he would share the apple pie he baked that morning with us. And that’s all it took to have a good time with him. So, yes, parents play such an important role in mediating the grandparent-grandchild relationship. It’s so important because usually our grandparents are our first contact with older people. If we form a negative opinion of our grandparents, it’s going to generalize to other older people and perhaps to the process of aging. But if children are taught to appreciate grandparents and to incorporate them into the broader family life, then children may not grow up to fear aging but rather understand it as a valuable part of being.
PC That brings us to the issue of knowledge transmission between generations. It seems that the grandparent-grandchild relationship is an excellent opportunity for the grandparents’ knowledge and wisdom to rub off on the grandchildren.
DM Absolutely. It actually goes both ways. A lot of research shows that grandparents teach their grandchildren all kinds of things, from how to tie their shoes all the way to religious ideas. They can help the kids with their homework. In a recent study I asked grandparents, “What is the most important and rewarding aspect of being a grandparent?” One of the themes that came out was that there was mutual teaching and learning between them and their grandkids. Grandparents take a lot of pleasure in teaching their grandchildren things like the family history, how to hold a baseball bat, or how to reel in a fish.
PC One set of my grandparents came to visit my family’s home when I was probably in junior high school. We had crabapple trees in our backyard, and my appreciation of crabapples was limited to their use as projectiles for my slingshot. My visiting grandmother went out back and picked a bucket of crabapples and then proceeded to take over my mother’s kitchen and transform them into the most delicious jelly I had ever tasted. So Grandma showed us kids some of the old ways that were at that time being lost to the mindlessness of consumer culture.
DM In my research, I also found that grandparents really appreciate what they learn from their grandchildren, who can teach them about “their world,” which includes a lot of the technology that kids use. Grandparents in one city and grandchildren in another can now talk to each other easily and inexpensively via phone and email and texting. So that has changed. Back in the day, the best option was to phone one another, but that could be pretty expensive.
PC In the old days, people didn’t call each other as casually as they do today. Phone calls to or from grandparents were special events on holidays and birthdays.
DM And grandparents appreciate the new technology because it serves their purposes well. They can stay connected to their grandchildren and can express genuine interest in their grandchildren’s lives. So there is definitely a large teaching and learning component to the grandparent-grandchild relationship.
PC Older people are a great resource for wisdom. Even if they are not plugged into the latest technologies, older people know what’s going on in the world and they have a sense of what is important in life that younger people may not have. Kids need this exposure to wise elders.
DM To become a well-rounded, productive citizen, you need to understand where you came from—your ancestors. In fact, as educators we should incorporate more projects and homework assignments that require students to talk with older people. Back in 2004, we had a huge snow storm in Sweden and the southern part of the country was without electricity for days. My grandfather, being a farmer, was one of the last people to have his electricity restored. So we drove out to his farm to check on him and we brought a complete propane-powered kitchen. Grandpa looked at it and said, “No, I don’t want that thing.” Instead he had a makeshift stove with little candles on which he made meatballs. It was maybe 40 degrees inside his farmhouse. He told us that he lived like that when he was little and there was limited electrical service. So he was fine without electricity for a few days. We would freak out today. Grandparents can also confer on their grandkids an understanding of how much their culture has changed in the last century.
PC So grandparents can provide a check on children’s reality testing. “No, it wasn’t always this way.” A grandparent could say something about the old days that could conceivably change a child’s life.
DM Yes. You know, in any relationship, it is a good idea to focus on positive behaviors more than negative behaviors. Being genuine and honest is key in any relationship, including with our grandparents or grandchildren.
PC So what can people do to maximize the benefits they and their families get from their grandparents or grandchildren?
DM It begins with the middle generation, the parents. When they talk about their parents in front of their children, they should have positive things to say so that grandchildren develop a positive initial impression of their grandparents. And parents should actively help their children and parents make those connections. Parents literally can control the grandparent-grandchild relationship. That really begins with a good connection between the parent and grandparents. Otherwise, there will be no incentive for parents to introduce their children to the possibilities of a relationship with a grandparent. The purpose of expressing affection to children is so that they will grow up to be adults who can both give and receive affection adequately. Those children will find it easier to attract a mate and have their own children who will also grow up to be affection-loving and affection-giving people.
PC The Great Chain of Well-adjusted Being. So the grandparent-grandchild relationship can actually benefit not only individual children and adults. It can also contribute to a healthier, perhaps more sustainable society?
DM This relationship has potentially profound impacts on society. Grandparents who regularly interact with their grandchildren report fewer health issues than grandparents who interact less frequently and less affectionately with grandchildren. Grandparents are healthier and happier, so there is less need for medical care and fewer elderly people are sent to dreadful nursing homes. Grandchildren will avoid risky behaviors and will be psychologically and physically healthier. They will be more likely to adapt to change and to have satisfying relationships. And the middle generation—the parents—also benefit from having help so they can have more time and space to make a living and provide a home for their children. The grandparent who feels that he or she has a meaningful role in life helps keep them active, engaged, and healthy. It’s a major win-win situation. From a sustainable society perspective, we literally will need fewer external resources to raise children if grandparents have a good relationship with their children and grandchildren. Fewer nursing homes, fewer hospitals, and fewer drugs for ailments that affect the elderly.
PC So, in a sense, a healthy family system is contradictory to the corporate agenda, which is to isolate people from one another and extract every penny out of their pockets.
DM Yes, the health-care industry would like nothing more than for the elderly to have to depend on doctors, hospitals, and medications to live out their days. They profit from that model. The last thing they want is a happy, healthy older population.
PC And grandparenting is an essential part of making that health and happiness happen. Thank you, Daniel, for sharing your insights.
For further reading:
Mansson, D. H., Floyd, K., and Soliz, J. (2017.) Affectionate communication is associated with emotional and relational resources in the grandparent-grandchild relationship. Journal of Intergenerational Relationships, 15, 85-103.
Mansson, D. H. (2016). American grandchildren’s use of relational maintenance behaviors with their grandparents. Journal of Intergenerational Relationships, 14, 338-352.
Mansson, D. H. (2016). The joy of grandparenting: A qualitative analysis. Journal of Intergenerational Relationships, 14, 135-145.