Contemporary Grandparenting


Arthur Kornhaber

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    You probably already know a great deal more about grandparenting than you realize. As someone's grandchild, chances are you have firsthand familiarity with the emotional aspects of the relationship. That's because grandparenting is more a matter of the heart than of the mind. Considering the subjective nature of this topic, I therefore want to alert you to how aspects of your life experience may color the way you read and react to this book.

    First, as someone's grandchild, you have had the experience, for better or worse, of being grandparented. The thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of your grandchildhood will influence your affinity for the subject of grandparenting. Personal experience will especially affect your ability to relate to the nonscientific, intangible, emotional, and spiritual aspects of grandparenthood.

    For example, if you were lucky enough to have a dedicated and loving grandparent or a close relationship with a beloved elder, you will probably react to the subject positively, maybe even with enthusiasm. You can assess intellectual facts in the light of your positive experience and accept the emotional and spiritual aspects of the relationship at face value, with little skepticism. In fact, you might even find some of the material commonplace. You may find yourself asking, “Why is he pressing this point, which is so evident?” It's important to remember, especially where emotional issues are involved, that what is clear to one person may be obscure to someone else.

    If you never had a loving relationship with an older person, you might find yourself dismissing the material as mushy or sentimental. “Not enough hard data,” you might say. Without the emotional and spiritual experience of having been grandparented, you will understandably want more intellectual “proof” of case study and observational survey data on what takes place between the old and the young. Consider one grandfather's statement:

    I learned what the word spiritual meant when I saw my first grandson being born. The only other time I ever felt like that was when I was in the military. Once, in basic training, I slept under the stars in the Texas desert and stared at the heavens most of the night. What a wonder!

    As any researcher knows, emotions, like wonder, do not lend themselves to measurement or demonstration. The national divorce rate is easy to compute, but there is no technique available to quantify the pain and suffering of the families involved. Nor can we measure positive emotions. The birth of a baby adds one more number to the census record, but how do you record the joy of the parents?

    Take love, for another example. Unconditional love is a unique bond that supplies the emotional bedrock of the grandchild-grandparent relationship. Although the existence of love can be demonstrated in people's attitudes and behavior, it is hard to prove because it is a subjective experience and eludes objective measure. A child's statement “I love my grandparents a lot” is not quantifiable. Researchers can measure grandparent “closeness” in terms of physical distance. But a method for quantifying emotional and spiritual “closeness” has yet to be devised. Measuring emotions takes time. To gain even an inkling of the qualitative aspects of grandparent-grandchild relationships, researchers must spend a considerable amount of time interviewing and observing grandparents, parents, and grandchildren.

    That's one reason why research in this area is so difficult and so challenging. Hagestad (1985) has said,

    As a researcher, I have become skeptical about using standardized opinion and attitude measures to assess intergenerational continuity. In some families, observed differences among family members on such measures may not make a difference because the issues at hand hold no salience for family interaction. (p. 39)

    Census figures, telephone interviews, and written questionnaires are helpful sources if their purpose is clearly stated and the results are not inappropriately generalized. As many researchers have learned, however, these methodologies are not appropriate for researching concepts like love, joy, wonder, a sense of ancestry, and family continuity. Such research calls for a variety of inquiry; long-term, personal, longitudinal studies, the only kind that have at least some chance of illuminating the complexities of grandparenting issues in more than a unidimensional way, combined with shorter highly focused studies examining specific issues. Thus the theoretical basis of the Grandparent Study that was started in 1970 (and supplies the information on which this book is based), rests upon both long-term, highly personal interviews of grandparents, parents, and children followed over a long period of time (see Introduction) coupled with shorter-term studies probing specific issues like clinical grandparenting, long-distance grandparenting, grandparents raising grandchildren, and so forth.

    You will note that most of the important studies cited in this work—including the Grandparent Study—have substantial subjective and dynamic components. For example, as the Grandparent Study has evolved over the years, we have been led to explore increasingly subjective areas, searching beyond the biological, psychological, and social facets of the grandparent/grandchild relationship into its emotional and spiritual underpinnings.

    Because hard scientific data is not easy to come by in matters of the heart, involvement in the Grandparent Study has taught us to study a broad spectrum of factors: personal experience, anecdotal, emotional, and natural history as well as empirical facts and quantitative survey data. Indeed, you will find much emotional and natural history and many case studies contained in this book. As far as the grandparent/parent/grandchild relationship is concerned, hard data isn't necessarily the most informative, and the language of science often lacks the right words to convey the meaning of this subject.

    Therefore, to get the most out of this book, I recommend that readers do two exercises. The first is an exercise of imagination. Find a restful, quiet place. Sit upright for a moment. Take several deep, slow breaths to clear your mind. Then bring some images of your childhood into your mind's eye. Allow yourself to feel the feelings that accompany the images. Reflect upon the elders you knew. How did you feel about them? What did you learn from them? Try having a conversation with them in your mind.

    The second exercise is active. If your grandparents are available, talk with them. If you are a parent, observe how your own parents act as grandparents. Ask your children about their grandparents. Look outside your family, too. How do you see your friends and neighbors acting out this role? If you have not had a close relationship with a grandparent or elder (note that in this book the term “elder” connotes respect) during your lifetime, visit an intergenerational program in your community.

    Something more to consider as you read is the possibility that you will be a grandparent one day. Some readers may already be grandparents. Others may never be biological grandparents but will certainly have the opportunity to perform aspects of this role for children within and outside their biological families.

    Certainly you will grow old. This means that you will have to deal with the same issues and experience the joys and sorrows that challenge today's grandparents. As you mature you will find that the quality, the meaning, and the power of your old age will depend on two factors:

    • How the present generation of elders, as the first ever to face these issues, will deal with the reality of living longer, healthier lives than any generation before them
    • How you plan to forge your future as an elder

    At some point in the future, the flame of the grandparenting movement in America will be passed on to you. What will you face when your time comes? Will society have a rite of passage to celebrate your passage into grandparenthood? Will your place in society as an elder be waiting for you when you arrive, or will you have to create one for yourself? Will you have important, meaningful roles to play for your family? Will family members be eager to receive what you have to give? Will society confirm the wisdom and experience that you have accumulated during your lifetime? Will you have the opportunity in your community to apply what you know?

    Whatever your stage of life, pondering these questions while you read this book will help to raise your consciousness about these issues. This process will be invaluable in preparing you, as a member of a new generation, to face challenges and share the gifts that come with age so as to enhance yourself, your family, and society.

    Old wine, after all, is the best.

    ArthurKornhaber, M.D.


    This book is the result of an investigation into the nature of the grandparent-grandchild bond started in 1970. Since that time, I have learned about this issue via direct contact with people of all ages and in a variety of settings, both formal and informal; I have been taught by thousands of grandparents, parents, children, and professionals from a surprising number of diverse fields of work and study. They are all contributors to this work. Thanks.

    I want to make special mention of the work and selfless dedication of Carol M. Kornhaber, my wife, who has been my partner in the research and the director of the Foundation for Grandparenting for many years. Her unique and intuitive insight and understanding about human relationships is reflected in these pages. Thanks.

    This book necessitated a great deal of literary research. I couldn't have done this without the assistance of my oldest daughter Sabra Goodman, her husband Jay, and her children (my grandsons Justin and Tyler). Together we embarked on a library adventure in Boston to find writings about grandparenting. Everyone pitched in. The children helped us carry books, copy articles …and eat fast food for lunch. Thanks.

    The creation of this book was a team effort. I want to especially thank the coach of our team, my friend and publisher Judy Rothman, for her vision in seeing the necessity for the book, her support during its creation, her personal warmth and kindness, and her very competent orchestration of the whole production process. Writing in a textbook format is not one of my gifts. Judy understood that I didn't want to write a boring textbook, especially on a subject so close to my heart as grandparenting, and that I needed help. Like a good coach, Judy saw to it that I had the received assistance in the person of editor Mitch Allen. Through a process of advice and challenge Mitch helped me both conceptually and editorially to understand what writing a textbook was all about. By the way, he received his Ph.D. during the process. Congratulations!

    Jim Nageotte, Sage editor, also contributed his many editorial talents to the final stages of the project, bringing order and consistency to the manuscript. Thanks, Jim. I wish you a bright future in publishing and as a new father. I also want to thank all of the other members of Sage who were so encouraging, caring, and competent during the production process.

    I especially want to thank the fifth member of our editorial team, Jo Ann Baldinger, a Santa Fe neighbor, for her contribution to this work. Jo Ann, using her excellent editing skills, helped remove the rough edges from the manuscript and challenged me to clarify ambiguous statements and vague formulations.

    A special thanks to my daughter, Mila LeChanu, Ph.D., who was immeasurably helpful in defining and conceptualizing the concepts and sequential flow in the chapters on grandparent development. I'm happy to have reached a stage of life when I can enjoy one of my children's analytical eye in my own field of interest.

    Together I believe our team has achieved the purpose of creating a work that is new in many ways, interesting, informative, and hopefully exciting to read.

  • Afterword: Great-Grandparenthood

    Great-grandparenthood is an emerging stage of late grandparenthood that has only lately, because of the growing numbers of great-grandparents, begun to lend itself to study. Today, little is known about this stage of grandparent development. Great-grandparenthood and great-grandchildhood traditionally were used to assure privilege and political power. For example, upon the death of Louis XIV, his great-grandson Louis XV became King of France. In Japan, in 858, Fujiwara Yoshifusa (804–872) had his grandson, the infant Emperor Seiwa, placed on the throne with himself as regent, followed by his great-grandsons until the end of the 11th century. In this way, Fujiwara used the position of regent to control the country.

    Today, one important reality that the new generation of grandparents must accept is the possibility that they will become great-grandparents. Is this stage of development a continuation of grand-parenting, or is it a new life stage? Time, and increased study, will tell.

    What is known today is that 40% of those over 65 years of age have great-grandchildren (Atchley, 1980). Yet little is known about this stage of life as it affects the individual, the family, and society. Today's laws that allow grandparents to go to court for visitation rights do not automatically apply to great-grandparents.

    Token mention is made of the great-grandparent role in the literature (Kahana & Kahana, 1971; Kivnick, 1982; Neugarten & Weinstein, 1964; Wood & Robertson, 1976). Investigators typically describe the role as similar to that of the grandparent, with increased age, decreased health, and thus less vitality. Such factors as proximity, family dynamics, age, vitality, gender, personal characteristics, order of grandchildren, and grandchild age affect grandparenthood and great-grandparenthood in similar ways.

    Doka and Mertz (1988) interviewed 40 great-grandparents about the meaning and significance of great-grandparenthood. Most (93%) found the role to be significant and emotionally fulfilling, providing a sense of personal and family renewal. Others reported that it provided a diversion to their lives (38%) and a mark of longevity (10%). Two styles of great-grandparenthood were defined: remote and close. Remote great-grandparents (78%) performed a symbolic rather than instrumental function. All but 2 individuals in this group reported feeling emotionally close to their great-grandchildren. This finding confirms the discussion in Chapter 4 concerning grandparents' need to feel connected to their grandchildren even when they are not physically close, emphasizing their symbolic role. Close great-grandparents did what grandparents usually do. They were supportive to grandparents and parents. Summing up, Doka and Hertz stated, “Great-grandparents …remained active members of larger family units and sought to help and provide for their families to the degree to which they were able” (p. 194).

    Wentowski (1985) studied 19 great-grandmothers' perceptions of their roles. All appreciated their great-grandchildren and matched their level of activity to their level of vitality. Great-grandparents also appreciated the love and affection they received from their families in a study by Boyd (1969). A study by Bekker and Taylor (1966) found that students with great-grandparents had more positive attitudes toward the aged.

    The Grandparent Study interviewed 30 great-grandmothers and 30 great-grandfathers. All reported that their relationships with grandchildren grew closer after children learned to walk and talk. Great-grandfathers reported closeness with adolescents. Proximity, as Doka and Mertz (1988) found, is an important factor in great-grandparents' involvement. Health and vitality determined the extent of involvement.

    All great-grandparents claimed symbolic roles—living ancestor, family historian, role model—and were aware of their importance to the family in this role. “I am the living embodiment of our family,” a 98-year-old great-grandmother said. “Give me a glass of sherry and I can tell you about horse-and-buggy times and who in the family did what to who and when …and the children love to hear it.”

    Instrumental roles were carried out according to levels of vitality. An 83-year-old great-grandfather from New York City said, “I can't ride the subway any more, so I can't take the ‘grands’ to Yankee Stadium, but I can watch the game on TV with them and tell them about the time I tried out for the Yankees.”


    The study of grandparenthood as a life stage is in its infancy. This book sets forth the first steps taken in exploring the vast dimensions and implications of this culminating role in life.

    It is impossible to predict what effects the new generation of young, educated, healthy, and vital grandparents will have on society. They will be 90 million strong in America after the turn of the century. What will be the nature of their grandparent identity? Will becoming a grandparent be viewed as a cause for celebration, or a dreaded sign of old age? Will grandparents have a respected status in society, or will they be ignored? How will they integrate grandparenting activity into their busy lives? What priorities will they give to their grandparent roles? How will they deal with the possibility that they may have to nurture people throughout their lives, children and grandchildren as well as parents?

    What impact will these future grandparents have on our society? After all, they have the wisdom, experience, and financial clout to change things for the better if they make that a life priority. And what will the emerging generation of great-grandparents be like? What influences will they bring to bear on their families and society?

    What kind of society will the new generations of grandparents be living in? Will they be able to influence positive social values that ensure security and happiness for grandchildren? Will they support the efforts of their children?

    It is my hope that grandparents will recognize the importance of their roles and understand the significance of the new phase of life they have entered: the developmental stage I call Continuity. In its ideal state, grandparenthood is an end point of human development, the culmination of a lifelong quest for a state of intellectual, emotional, psychological, cognitive, and spiritual maturity. Philosophically, this stage is characterized by an increasingly selfless orientation and a lessening of investment in earthly things. Spiritually, there is a growing awareness of mortality and the numinous, a concern for the young, and a desire to leave a positive legacy.

    Cognitively, grandparenthood involves positive, constructive attitudes and self-confidence that may be expressed in assertive behavior. The confidence arises from an enhanced ability to view oneself objectively—to “know” the self. These attitudes may be expressed through either individual action at the personal or family level or joint action at the community or national level. Psychologically, grandparenthood involves forming a strong grandparental identity and manifesting it through a way of being in the world, serving as a positive force and example for those who come after.

    From the moment of birth, each of us is striving, consciously or unconsciously, to attain these developmental goals. This is the challenge and the agenda for growth that await all grandparents—present and future, biological and nonbiological. The history of grandparenting is being made at this moment.


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    About the Author

    Arthur Kornhaber, M.D., is a clinician, researcher, and medical writer. A child and family psychiatrist, he is vice president and national medical director of the St. Francis Academy (a national nonprofit mental health organization), and president and founder of the Foundation for Grandparenting.

    Dr. Kornhaber is a foremost international authority on grandparenting and the grandparent-grandchild relationship, and the author of many books, scientific papers, and lay articles dealing with child and family issues. He writes and speaks widely to lay and professional audiences to raise “grandparent consciousness.” A recipient of various awards, he is a national and international consultant on social and psychiatric issues to the media, the United States Congress, and the White House.

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