Grandparent Development Theory



By Robert D. Strom

[Excerpt from The International Journal of Aging and Human Development,by Robert D. Strom, 45(4), 1997, 255-286.]

Assumptions about Grandparent Development

1. Grandparent responsibilities need to be more clearly defined.
Mothers and fathers can attend parenting courses that help them maintain competence in their ever-changing role but there are no corresponding opportunities for grandparents. Instead, they are left alone to wonder: What are my rights and responsibilities? How can I be a favorable influence on my grandchildren as they get older? How well am I doing as a grandparent? These questions can be expected to persist until some common guidelines are established for setting goals and guiding self-evaluation. Many grandparents have difficulty trying to define their role and understand how they can be a valued resource. Consequently, for an increasing number of families, the responsibility for bringing up children has become disproportionate with the grandparents assuming fewer obligations than is in everyone’s best interest.

2. Grandparents need to learn how to improve their influence.
Parents who can count on grandparents to help share the load of child care and instruction less often seek support from outside the family. Grandparent success requires awareness about the parenting goals of daughters and sons, and acting as a partner in trying to reinforce these goals. However, even though research has shown that people remain capable of adopting new attitudes and skills during middle and later life, grandparent development is not considered a priority for adult education. This missing element of support lessens the possibility of a meaningful life for grandparents.

3. A practical grandparent program needs to be widely available.
Older adults have been led to believe their learning should focus on whatever topics or activities they find interesting without any regard for societal expectations as we insist upon for younger learners. However, as people age, they should also continue to grow, and not just in terms of leisure-oriented skills. Some of education in later life should focus on responsibilities and roles, just as the curriculum does for students who are younger. Senior citizens are the only age group whose needs for learning have not been well defined so a suitable curriculum for them is lacking. Because demographic forecasts indicate that this segment of the population will grow more rapidly than any other, programs should be available to help them contribute to their family.
Society should be oriented to recognize that learning remains important after people complete the employment phase of their lives. This contradicts the belief that, whatever grandparents need to know, will be revealed by wisdom which comes naturally with aging. Such an assumption permits communities to ignore the education needs of older adults and causes many elders to underestimate their need for further schooling. Educational psychologists should support the concept of lifelong learning by discovering methods of instruction and procedures to evaluate learning that promotes grandparent development.

4. Society needs to set higher expectations for grandparents.
By themselves grandparents may be unable to generate the motivation that is needed to stimulate educational commitment in their peer group. This task is difficult because so many people think of retirement as a time when they should withdraw from community responsibility. Peers reinforce the view that being carefree and without obligation is an acceptable goal for the final stage of life. The problem is compounded by age-segregation. When older adults are limited to their peers for conversation, they may adopt certain behaviors that are not in accord with what the society as a whole believes is best.
In order to favorably revise existing norms for grandparents to include greater learning and more substantial contributions, younger people should raise their expectations of older relatives and make them known. The talent and potential of grandparents could enrich the lives of everyone. Society should expect them to demonstrate a commitment to personal growth, spend time with loved ones, show community concern through volunteerism, and support the schools to ensure a better future for children. When educational expectations are established for older adults, they are bound to have greater influence and feel more self-worth.

5. The benefits of grandparent education need to be assessed.
Public support can be anticipated for education programs that help grandparents enlarge the scope of their influence, improve their ability to communicate with relatives, become more self-confident, and experience greater respect in the family. It is promising when men and women attending grandparent classes report they have achieved some of these goals. But self-reports of success are more credible when others can corroborate them. Sons, daughters, and grandchildren could confirm whether the attitudes and behaviors of grandparents improve as a result of attending educational programs. The benefits of instruction and elements of curriculum that supports these goals and guides educators in developing programs by taking group and individual differences into account.

Goals for Grandparent Education

Six dimensions of experience are emphasized in our theory of grandparent development. Each of these dimensions contributes to personal improvement. The following are goals of grandparent development.

1. Increase the satisfactions of being a grandparent.
At the time when people first become grandparents, they can typically expect to live for another twenty or more years. This unprecedented longevity makes it possible to have a greater impact on grandchildren, to offer continuity of affection, care, and guidance from infancy until early adulthood. However, harmonious family relationships are not guaranteed; they depend on the sustained effort of both parties to grow and adjust to changes in one another. When a grandparent or grandchild becomes too distant or dissatisfied with one another, the opportunity for benefit is lost and the relationship stands in jeopardy. Therefore, the potential satisfactions of relating to grandchildren at each age should be emphasized to provide grandparents a consistently positive view of their role. Grandparents who enjoy their interaction as grandchildren grow older are more able to cope with difficulties and remain a source of personal counseling.

2. Improve how well grandparents perform their role.
The extent to which grandparents are involved in family affairs can depend on knowing when help is needed and being aware of what one can do well. Unless grandparents feel capable of providing a nurturing and stimulating environment, they may withdraw from their obligations and expect the grandchildren’s parents to assume full responsibility for care and guidance. Because children mostly admire those adults who help them grow, adapt, and feel capable, grandparents should arrange to spend time with them. The criteria by which grandparents judge themselves should change as grandchildren grow older. Being the successful grandparent of a student in high school requires a different set of competencies than when the child was a second grader. Helping the grandparents establish reasonable criteria for self-evaluation at each stage of their grandchild’s development can result in more accurate and beneficial assessment.

3. Enlarge the scope of guidance expected of grandparents.
When the expectations of grandparents are defined cooperatively with daughters, sons, and grandchildren, the usual outcome is a mutually understood and responsible role. The parenting goals of daughters and sons are the most important factors to rely on in guiding grandparent behavior. Grandparents should be familiar with these goals so they can understand the lessons that parents want reinforced. This vital information is not revealed by intuition; it does not come naturally. What tends to come naturally is enthusiasm for a relationship with grandchildren that focuses on entertainment, without much attention to helping the parents as a teaching partner. By learning what they should teach, grandparents can avoid being a dysfunctional influence. It should be understood by everyone that the grandparent role is first and foremost a supportive one.

4. Enable grandparents to understand their common difficulties.
No one should expect to participate in raising children without experiencing some difficulties. But, every grandparent should have access to knowledge that can help him or her cope with current problems in supporting the growth of grandchildren. One way to begin is by identifying the difficulties that grandparents are most likely to experience at successive ages of a grandchild. When grandparents become aware that obstacles they experience are typical, they are less defensive. In turn, this attitude disposes them to more readily consider solutions that require changes in their own behavior.

5. Provide support for grandparents in coping with frustrations.
Grandparents can expect to endure occasional frustration. But frequency of disappointment in themselves and grandchildren can lessen by understanding why particular behavior patterns occur at various child ages and reasons for allowing some of them to continue. Grandparents are able to eliminate certain of their frustrations by modifying expectations of grandchildren. Certainly, it is appropriate to recognize and correct grandchild misbehavior whenever it occurs. However, when grandparents’ expectations are consistent with the developmental needs of children, the tendency is to encourage normative conduct and self-esteem.

6. Help grandparents to have their information needs met.
Grandparents should be aware of the abilities, feelings, values, choices, and problems of their grandchildren. Understanding is minimized when biased and partial reporting by mothers and fathers prevent grandparents from knowing what is going on in the family. Misinformation denies older relatives the chance to provide support when it is needed. Parent reports that leave out the problems grandchildren encounter can cause grandparents to underestimate the struggles of growing up today. Much of the knowledge grandparents should acquire has to come directly from conversations with their grandchildren. Boys and girls are the best source of information on their individual experiences.

Copyright © by Robert Strom, 1997

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