I was a little sad when I began researching this topic. I have a young adult grandchild, and I do not get to see her as often as my other grandchildren. I just assumed that I'm not as important in her life as I used to be. As I researched the relationship between young adults and grandparents, however, I found that grandparents still play significant roles in the lives of their young adult grandchildren. Some of these roles, however, are symbolic or mythical in contrast with the more practical roles they may have played in the lives of their grandchildren when both were younger. In addition, the particular life path taken by the grandchild will have profound effects upon the grandparent-grandchild relationship. Adult grandchildren may be spouses, parents, students, workers, or world travelers, among other possibilities, and each of these will impact the grandparent-grandchild relationship differently. Another hallmark of the relationship between grandparents and adult grandchildren is that they can have a relationship that is independent of that between grandparent and parent. That may seem like a minor point, but it can loom large in families with less-than-healthy dynamics.
Roles Grandparents PlayEach researcher phrases these roles a little differently, but here are some functions that grandparents may serve for their adult grandchildren:
- Provide affection and unconditional love. This is probably the role that grandparents are most comfortable in filling.
- Mediate between child and parent. This is a role that many grandparents fill, but it is a tricky one.
- Instruct the grandchild in issues associated with aging. Sometimes circumstances will cause these lessons to be painful ones. More often, however, because young people are predisposed to believe the worst about aging, grandparents can show that peace and even joy can be a part of the aging process.
- Link the grandchild to his or her past. Grandparents are usually a gold mine of information about family history. And who else can tell grandchildren what their parents were really like as children?
- Provide spiritual guidance. Grandparents can teach morals, ethics and values by example, if not by direct teaching.
- Serve as a substitute parent. When their parents are out of town or out of touch, who do grandchildren call upon? You guessed it.
- Give practical support. This role sometimes includes giving financial support, but it does not have to. Grandparents can supply transportation or temporary housing or meet a host of other practical needs.
The Factor of Distance
Many researchers began their studies with the idea that distance would be an important factor in how grandparents related to their adult grandchildren, but that has not been proven to be so. First, since grandparents have come to occupy an almost mythic place in the grandchild's value system, proximity is not necessary for prominence. It's the idea of you as grandparent that is so powerful, not your physical presence. Second, technology can effectively overcome distance. They may not be quite as satisfying as a warm hug delivered in person, but Skype, email, Facebook, text messages and many other technological innovations have made it possible to stay close to someone even when he or she is far away.
Tips for Maintaining Contact
First, if you want to have a prayer of keeping up with your grandchildren, you will have to be tech savvy. Sometimes Skype or FaceTime will work. Sometimes texting is the only way. Whatever works and is currently in favor with your grandchild is what you should use, and that means that you must be nimble in adjusting to technological change.
Second, don't keep score. It doesn't matter who was the last to email or call, and if your message went unanswered, don't make a big deal out of it. I'm certain that most young adults sometimes ignore messages from their friends, when they are extra busy or just not in the mood. Grandparents should expect to be ignored, or overlooked, occasionally. Call or write even if it's not your turn. This relationship is not about turn-taking. In fact, it may be a bit like a marriage, where each side has to give a little extra.
During this time in your grandchild's life, he or she may do some things that you don't approve of, which puts you in a bit of a spot. Here's my advice. Never say you approve of something if you don't, but don't give your opinion unless asked. The exception for me would be a case of substance abuse or other life-threatening behavior. I do not believe that I could keep my mouth shut in this eventuality. I suppose all grandparents must decide exactly where to draw the line, but being judgmental will almost always result in a deterioration of the relationship. That old bite-your-tongue and mind-your-own-business strategy that worked so well with your adult children? It will work with adult grandchildren as well.