The days when grandchildren went off to Grandma and Grandpa’s farm to experience the gathering of newly laid eggs from the chicken coop, to try their luck at getting milk from a cow, to harvest and eat fresh sweet corn dripping in homemade butter, and to feast on strawberry shortcake with berries they gathered themselves have—for the most part—become a thing of the past. Few families fit this description in today’s world. In fact, according to U.S. Census data, 4.9 million children in the United States are being raised solely by their grandparents, more than twice the number of the 2000 Census—2.4 million.1
The picture of doting grandparents fulfilling their “role” of spoiling the grandkids with homemade cookies in the cookie jar is now often replaced by their being thrust into the position of authority to their grandchildren, having to make decisions that should be the responsibility of a parent or parents. Assets that have been set aside for retirement needs are used, instead, for the care and keeping of the grandchildren. More often than desirable, the grandparent has had to return to the workforce in order to keep up with financial needs. Statistics also indicate that when grandparents do take over the care of grandchildren, the role will likely be long-term. So why do they do it?
The short answer: they’re family. Love for their grandchildren is strong motivation to step in when needed and nurture them.
A variety of circumstances can push grandparents into such a position. These include divorce, a change in a parent’s health status, the result of poor lifestyle choices (drugs and alcohol, for example), or the death of a parent or parents, among others.
Casey, Sean, Janelle, and Jordan lost their parents in a plane crash. The only ones who stepped up to care for the children were the mother’s parents, who were in their 60s. Suddenly these grandparents were faced with the heavy responsibility of raising these precious children, children they loved dearly. Not only were they dealing with the grief of losing their daughter and son-in-law—they now assumed the additional task of helping their grandchildren through their grief as well. Each child responded differently to the tragedy, exhibiting emotions including anger, depression, rejection , and a mix of all these emotions.
While circumstances play a part in the way grandparents cope when given the role of parenting their grandchildren, the basic needs of children are much the same. The core needs (such as a home, food, and clothing), though challenging, are generally not the biggest hurdles they face.
The emotional connection between a seasoned adult and a youthful mind and body can be overwhelming to both as they see life from opposite ends of the age spectrum. The age span between grandparents and grandchildren is more significant than between parents and children. Gram and Gramps look forward to a light meal and a quiet evening; the kids feel starved and need rides to sports games and music lessons—as well as help with their homework. It’s challenging, to say the least. Grandparents who have tried to help their children with such things as math homework have learned that the mathematical answer may be the same, but the process of finding the answer is very different from the way they were taught when growing up.
While it’s not ideal, the fact remains that grandparents are finding themselves, out of necessity, serving as parents to many of today’s kids. So how should grandparents deal with this reality? It boils down to choice. We can choose to look at the glass as half empty or as half full. Choosing to see the glass half full helps one to see the potential benefits of parenting as a grandparent. Look at it as:
A second chance at parenting. Many wish they could do parenting over again so as not to make the same mistakes. The lessons learned from inexperience as first-time parents can now be avoided the second time around.
A chance to make a difference in the life of a child. Every child deserves the love of family. If you have this opportunity because of trauma in the life of the child, you serve the important role of helping that child heal and become healthy in mind and spirit.
A chance to retain a youthful outlook. Don’t just drop off your grandchildren for their game; stay and cheer them on. Bake a batch of brownies for the food sale, take them shopping for a pair of those ridiculous jeans with holes purposefully cut in them, or join them and their friends for pizza and ice cream.
A chance to develop a closer bond. Living together on a daily basis will help you discover the specific talents, personality traits, and emotional needs of your grandchild. Take time to chat over a veggie burger and fries. You’ll be surprised at what you’ll learn!
A chance for more fulfillment in your life. The senior years of one’s life can take on a less-than-fulfilling routine. Some sit quietly wondering if they are good for anything. Mentoring a child gives opportunity to share values, wisdom, and guidance.
Grandparenting may not be what it used to be, but with a heavy dose of God’s blessing it can be a good experience for both the grandparents and the children. “You shall teach them to your children [the precepts of God], talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut. 11:19, ESV).
Your example may be the saving of your grandchildren. What greater privilege could there be than that?
Feryl Moorhouse Harris is children’s ministries director for the Hawaii Conference.