Oma and Opa
By Raymond Shipley
Grandparents are the often overlooked members of the family. Because they aren't typically seen as within the nucleus of the primary, traditional family, the actual role grandparents play is seldom considered; however, they offer an unique window into our pasts, traditions and ancestors. It is from our own parents that we learn to raise our children, and as such they deserve a position of both love and respect in the traditional family.
There are few studies on the role of grandparents. Most center around combatting depression through proximity and contact with grandchildren, and this cannot be denied. Anecdotally, this author can attest to the joy seen when my family elders interact with the grandkids, and the research shows both the child and grandparent benefit. But most studies concern the difference in style of grandparenting and its effects.
In a 1964 study done at the University of Chicago by Bernice L. Neugarten and Karol K. Weinstein, five grandparenting styles were identified. These included the formal grandparent, fun seeker, surrogate parent, reservoir of family wisdom, and distant figure. Although this study was groundbreaking at the time, it was limited in scope and there was no real follow up for the next 20 years. Not until 1985 was the topic of grandparenting revisited.
The 1964 study was intended more to generate a hypothesis than answer any real questions. Even so, there was some insight gained. But it was not until 1985, when Andrew J. Cherlin and Frank K. Furstenberg conducted a study of around 500 grandparents, that new inroads were made into the role of grandparents in the overall dynamic of the family. Here the focus was on two primary variables. These were "exchange of services," which examined the giving and receiving of benefits, and "parental influence," which measured the degree to which grandparents acted as authority figures. The result was five new styles which were labeled detached, passive, authoritative, supportive and influential.
The detached and passive grandparenting styles rated very low on both exchange of services and parental influence; however, the major difference between the two lay in the amount of contact between grandparent and child. The detached had minimum contact whereas the passive maintained contact but held little influence and provided and received few services. It should go without saying neither of these styles offers much benefit to the family, unless an increase in contact or confrontational personality traits would cause greater distress.
The authoritative, supportive and influential types were the styles that served as active grandparenting types. Authoritative rated high on parental influence, but low on services, while the supportive proved to be the opposite. The influential type rated high on both influence and services. Since the most effective parenting style is authoritative, having a supportive grandparent would seem ideal. One cannot have an overabundance of conflicting ideals, but rather a symbiotic relationship between parent and grandparent, as well as child and adult, is best.
The dynamic of the family has changed much since the 1960s, and for the most part not for the better. With increasingly high divorce rates and most families consisting of two working parents, grandparents have tended to take on an increasing role. The surrogate parent role has exploded, and some grandparents now play a larger role in raising children than parents. Although this is far from ideal, and should be avoided when possible, having members of the family assist in raising children is clearly preferred over daycare. Likewise, those in a traditional grandparenting role have been able to take on a more fun-seeking character due to the financial security of some families. The fun-seeking in such traditional families, however, tends to be more in terms of education and personal growth for the grandchildren, which is a benefit to the family as a whole.
The essence of the family is the mother, father and children: the nuclear family. With this healthy and intact, grandparents are free to offer their unique wisdom and capitalize on the mutually beneficial role of being primarily grandparents, rather than parents by default. Our children are our future, and as such the family should be protected at all costs.