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The modern society setup encourages the widespread development of nuclear families as opposed to the extended families that were widely acknowledged in the previous decades. Grandparents no longer live in close vicinity of their grandchildren due to the shifts in economic status and social patterns. Grandparents usually have numerous and vital roles to play in the lives and daily activities of their grandchildren; these roles usually range from being loving companions to their grandsons and granddaughters to caregivers and mentors, acting as sources of historical data and information and also providing support in many other forms or even sometimes becoming surrogate parents (Weston & Qu, 2009).
Modern societies greatly downplay the significance of kinship in social interactions; this is contrary to the evolutionary perspective where one expects biological relationships to act as an enduring powerful determinant of social investment (Pollet, Nettle, & Nelissen, 2006). It is evident that grandparents provided important benefits to their grandchildren in the past. However, similar relationships are still present in some societies around the world. For example, studies show similar trends of benefits given to grandchildren from grandparents in present-day populations of rural Ethiopia and Gambia (pollet, Nettle, & Nelissen, 2006). Grandparents and grandchildren usually have some sort of responsibility for each other which is not usually specifically defined (Ross, Hill, Sweeting, & Cunningham-Burley, 2002). The transition of family setups from the initial extended family orientation to reduced nuclear family orientation has been accompanied by significant changes in the relationships between grandparents and grandchildren all over the globe.
This paper investigates the relationships between grandparents and their grandchildren in the past, and at present as well as their impacts.
Grandparent-grandchildren relationships in the past
In the colonial and post-revolutionary era, economic and social control was mainly a role played by grandparents. Grandparents had authority over their children and grandchildren even after their marriage and establishment of their own households as long as they were still residing on the ancestral land. This provided numerous opportunities for interactions between the grandparents and their grandchildren since they lived in close vicinity. However, the earlier societies were characterized by high rates of mortality due to the severe conditions of life and a challenging environment. The ancient society was also characterized by high fertility rates and early ages of marriage, but due to difficult times and conditions of living, many people did not survive to become grandparents and thus they did not experience grandparenthood.
Grandparenting was usually accompanied with active parenthood as most people became grandparents while still taking care of their own young children. Grandparents offered a link to the past events for their grandchildren. They acted as the primary sources of information that regarded the historical background of the family, heritage and traditional practices. Grandparents usually availed family experiences and cultural practices to their grandchildren through storytelling. They also were responsible for keeping their grandchildren in close connection to the wider set of family relatives. It was a common stereotype that grandparents were responsible for spoiling their grandchildren often by giving them treats. Grandparents also provided financial support for their grandsons and granddaughters by paying school fees and giving them some pocket money (Ross, Hill, Sweeting, & Cunningham-Burley, 2002).
The ancient society setup encouraged the grandchildren to provide care for their grandparents, for example ancient Israeli law stipulated that grand children were responsible for supporting their grandparents. It states that; “a person is responsible for providing sustenance to his other family members, among them; his parents’ parents, his spouse’s parents’ parents” (Even-Zohar & Sharlin, 2009). Grandchildren provided material gifts, such as shopping and transportation to their aging grandparents and care during old age and illness periods, which mainly involved emotional support. There is considerable evidence from past documented records suggesting that in spite of the high mortality and fertility rates of the colonial and post-revolutionary era, there was a high frequency of contact and affectionate bonds in relationships between grandparent and grandchild in early families.
These records suggest that grandparents frequently left possessions and money to their grandchildren and regularly took care of them in their childhood years. This led to developing a strong link and affection between grandparents and grandchildren that were characterized by closeness, love, respect and frequent contact (Hoff, 2007). During the 18th century, the life expectancy of most people increased and most of them lived into old age, as a result, people married at tender ages and had early children; which increased the chances of grandparents meeting their grandchildren because co-residence became more likely as compared to that of the previous ages.
The aged, however, were viewed as non-productive, sometimes as a burden to their children and grandchildren. The parents usually acted as the intermediary between the grandparents and grandchildren even in situations where the children were already adults. The relationship between the parents and the grandparents greatly determined the nature of the relationship between the children and their grandparents (Even-Zohar & Sharlin, 2009). A close relationship between the parents and the grandparents led to development of a closer interaction between the grandchildren and their grandparents.
On the other hand, a strained relationship between the parents and the grandparents would definitely result in weak interrelationships between the grandchildren and their grandparents since the parents were the main facilitators in their reunion and constant visits to grandparents. Gender differences in the roles played by grandparents were also evident in the early grandparent-grandchild relationships (Ochiltree, 2006); research shows that the grandmothers had closer family relations with their grandchildren implying that the role of the grandmother in grant parenting was more satisfactory as compared to that of a grandfather (Reitzes & Mutran, 2004).
Current relationship between grandchildren and grandparents
Studies on the relationships between grandparents and their grandchildren at present days reveal a slight shift that has been occasioned by the hard economic times and modern society social setups. In a case study conducted for parents with at least one living parent to point out the nature of the relationship between their children and the children’s grandparents, most respondents answered that the relationship was varied (Weston & Qu, 2009). The responses varied among “very close”, “close” and “not close” with a negligible percentage recording “non-existent”. These statistics show that despite the fact that nowadays grandchildren live far away from their grandparents, even further than in the ancient times, they still manage to maintain their relationships. Present day demographic transformations indicate that families are increasingly becoming multigenerational due to the lower mortality and increasing fertility rates (Ramos, 2013).
This implies that the number of families with large age differences between generations continues decreasing (Mann, Khan, & Leeson, 2009). This suggests that most adults today have both sets of grandparents alive and consequently, most grandparents live to meet most of their grandchildren as well as less siblings compete for grandparents’ attention because nowadays the number of children in a family has decreased as compared to the past (Cherlin & Furstenberg, 2006). Presently, majority of grandchildren have extended relationships with at least two grandparents while a few have extended relationships with all the four grandparents. The increased life expectancy of people in modern time implies that grandparents have more time to spend with their grandchildren as compared to the time available to the past generations. The average grandparent is older today than the one from the past decade when parents may have been too busy raising their lastborns and forgetting their roles as grandparents.
Today’s grandparents have sufficient time to spend with their grandchildren and are able to pay attention to them as they are old and past the child bearing age. Technological advancements in the transport facilities and long distance communication have made it convenient for grandparents to meet and interact with their grandsons and granddaughter. Road and air transport have increasingly become fast and convenient for grandparents and grandchildren to travel and meet. As opposed to the previous decades when people had to travel to their ancestral land to meet their grandparents, postal communication, online web communication including email and teleconferencing are available for quick communication between grandparents and grandchildren. In addition, grandparents and grandchildren today have abilities to go for vacations and Grand Camp adventures to meet share information and have fun (Parent Giving, 2013).
The number of adult children living with their parents today has drastically declined. In the 1900s, grandparents and their grandchildren mostly lived in the same household solving their challenges together. Today, a great number of older people live in solitude or only with their spouses, thereby reducing the frequency of interactions between grandparents and their grandchildren. In contrast to the previous decades where parents were greatly responsible for mediating contacts between their adult children and their parents, their children’s grandparents, recent studies show that parents are no longer responsible for the mediation role neither in divorced nor in intact families (Coney & Smith, 1996). Grandchildren today are the initiators of contacts with their paternal grandparents, and the role is further amplified in cases of divorce.
Divorce of parents usually increases the ties between grandparents and grandchildren resulting in close relationships. In cases of divorces in families, children especially the young children are mostly left in the care of their grandparents. This has been shown to increase the relationships between the two groups resulting in a strong impact of grandparents’ on their grandchildren’s views’ formation, development and instilling positive values (Wise, 2007). On the other hand, in some cases, divorce usually ends the ties between the grandparent and the grandchild depending on the relationship of the parent taking custody of the child with the grandparents.
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Modern technological advancements have led to an increase in the frequency, with which grandparents and grandchildren can meet and communicate with each other. Mobile phones and email messaging over the internet enable grandparents and grandchildren to communicate at the push of a button. Furthermore, the increased speeds of the automobile in the transport sector have made it easier for grandparents and grandchildren to reunite and share information, thus keeping in touch with each other and playing an active role in the lives of the both sides. The increase in life expectancy and reduced mortality rates has grown the chances of grandparents to build strong relationships with their grandchildren. This has also presented grandchildren with chances of meeting most of their paternal and maternal grandparents.
Interview with grandmother
Me: Grandmother, why are grandparents so important in their grandchildren’s lives?
Grandmother: My dear grandchild, grandparents are very important in child’s life, as they are often a child’s primary source of family history, heritage and cultural practices.
Me: Are there any changes in the relationships between grandchildren and their grandparents now as compared to those at your childhood age?
Grandmother: So many things have changed; there are very many different things we used to do that you, children at present, are no longer finding interesting.
Me: Which things have changed, grandmother? Let us start with the setting. Has it changed significantly?
Grandmother: Yes, my dear. During our days, we used to live in the same household with our parents and grandparents. We frequently interacted with our grandparents as opposed to your rare visits now. Today, grandchildren live far away from their grandparents; it is difficult for grandparents to meet their grandchildren since one needs to travel a lot.
Me: Comparing the speed of communication today and in the olden days, what were the modes of communication?
Grandmother: We are lucky these days; technology has eased and fastened the communication process. In our days, grandparents and their grandchildren relied on telegrams and snail mail for communication. The telephone technology was not as advanced as it is today. There were telephones but not everybody owned them, as not everyone could allow having a telephone at home, what to say about mobile phones. Today with the advent of mobile technology, grandparents can communicate with their grandchildren with ease. You can also use the emails and video conferencing. You are lucky your grandmother today knows how to use a computer, while there were no computers in our days.
Me: What about travelling?
Grandmother: Oh, I forgot to tell you that there were only trains and buses, and there were not as numerous and convenient as they are today, so it took one a long time to travel from the city to the rural areas to meet their grandparents. Today, you have fast electric trains, personal automobiles as well as the aircrafts that can traverse miles in a very short period of time.
Me: Grandmother, did people at your childhood receive the ultimate attention from your grandparents?
Grandmother: Again, I should say that you are lucky. You see, I am already an old woman; I can neither go to work nor bear children anymore. I can only sit the whole day talking to my grandchildren and taking care of them. In our days, a person became a grandparent while still young enough to have his/her own children, so grandparents were usually busy with their daily issues and had no time to spend on their grandchildren. My grandmother, for instance, had a small girl to care of while I was young; she rarely found time to sit with her grandchildren and talk to them. She had to provide care for her lastborn, and furthermore, she was still employed and had to go to work.
Grandparents and grandchildren have had a history regarding their relationships. These relationships have been determined by cultural and demographic factors as well as their parenting roles. Studies have shown that close interactions between the grandparents and grandchildren have encouraged development of strong relationships between the grandparent and the grandchild; similarly limited interactions have also strained these relationships. The bounds between grandparents and grandchildren have gradually evolved with time due to economic shifts, changing society setups and improved technological advancements. Today, children can easier and faster travel to their grandparents as compared to the previous decades, the frequency of interactions has also increased so has the speed of communication. These advancements in grandparent and grandchild relationships have also had various impacts on the lives of both the grandparent and the grandchild.
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