In addition to maintaining relationships with their children and aging parents, many people in middle adulthood take on yet another role, becoming a grandparent. The role of grandparent varies around the world. In multigenerational households, grandparents may play a greater role in the day-to-day activities of their grandchildren. While this family dynamic is more common in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, it has been on the increase in the U.S. (Pew Research Center, 2010).
The degree of grandparent involvement also depends on the proximity of the grandparents’ home to the grandchildren. In developed nations, the greater mobility of the society can mean that grandparents may live long distances from their grandchildren. Technology has brought grandparents and their more distant grandchildren together. Sorenson and Cooper (2010) found that many of the grandfathers they interviewed would text, email, or Skype with their grandchildren in order to stay in touch.
Cherlin and Furstenberg (1986) describe three styles of grandparents: Remote: Thirty percent of grandparents rarely see their grandchildren. Usually they live far away from the grandchildren, but may also have a distant relationship. Contact is typically made on special occasions, such as holidays or birthdays. Companionate: Fifty-five percent of grandparents were described as “companionate”. These grandparents do things with the grandchild but have little authority or control over them. They prefer to spend time with them without interfering in parenting. They are more like friends to their grandchildren. Involved: Fifteen percent of grandparents were described as “involved”. These grandparents take a very active role in their grandchild’s life. They children might even live with the grandparent. The involved grandparent is one who has frequent contact with and authority over the grandchild. Grandmothers, more so than grandfathers, play this role. In contrast, more grandfathers than grandmothers saw their role as family historian and family advisor (Neugarten and Weinstein, 1964).
Bengtson (2001) suggests that grandparents adopt different styles with different grandchildren, and over time may change styles as circumstances in the family change. Today more grandparents are the sole care providers for grandchildren, or may step in at times of crisis. With these changes grandparents are redefining how they see their role in the family with fewer adopting a more formal role (Hayslip, Henderson & Shore, 2003).
Early research on grandparents has routinely focused on grandmothers, with grandfathers often becoming invisible members of the family (Sorensen & Cooper, 2010). Yet, grandfathers stress the importance of their relationships with their grandchildren as strongly as do grandmothers (Waldrop et al., 1999). For some men, this may provide them with the opportunity to engage in activities that their occupations, as well as their generation’s views of fatherhood and masculinity, kept them from engaging in with their own children (Sorenson & Cooper, 2010). Many of the grandfathers in Sorenson and Cooper’s study felt that being a grandfather was easier and a lot more enjoyable. Even among grandfathers that took on a more involved role, there was still a greater sense that they could be more light-hearted and flexible in their interactions with their grandchildren. Many grandfathers reported that they were more openly affectionate with their grandchildren than they had been with their own children.