Tuesday, 27 November 2018

What is a Grandparent?

Sarah Davies-Walters, Early Years Lecturer

I have just completed arguably the most exciting year of my life.

It all started with a small envelope placed under the Christmas tree in December 2016. I had hoped my daughter had bought me tickets to see Andre Rieu – she hadn’t. It was much, much better – a little card read: “You had better start knitting!” and so my journey to grandparenthood began and in September 2017, I became a Granny for the first time.

I have held a variety of different jobs over the past few years – all of which came with a job description and, an understanding of what the role would entail. As a Children’s Nurse, part of my role was to “assess the needs of the child” and as a Health Visitor I was responsible for “identifying need and targeting priorities”. Here at Norland College as an Early Years Lecturer, I plan, prepare and teach on both the Degree and Diploma course. However, when I became a Granny, there was no job description available. It transpires that I am not alone; Noriega et al. (2017) observed that grandparents reported how the absence of role models inhibited their ability to develop their grandparent role. I do not think my role has been inhibited but I do wish to explore the role more fully.

Bóné (2018) notes that the role of grandparents within our written history is not well documented but that the role is perceived mainly as a positive one, albeit meaning different things for different people. The notion of competing views of the role is supported by Robertson’s (1977) suggestion that a grandmothers’ role is determined by the importance in terms of personal identity and social expectations. Four types of grandparents are suggested:

  • Apportioned: both individual and societal factors are important;
  • Remote: where neither factor is important;
  • Individualised: where the personal identity is dominant; 
  • Symbolic: where societal views are most important.

Noriega et al. (2017, p.6) highlight how it is widely accepted that the grandparents’ role is “being there when needed” but that it also extends beyond this to include financial support. For many families, the role of the grandparent is not “recreational”, as mine is but it is essential when providing childcare, with 27% families in the UK relying on grandparents for childcare (Rutter and Stocker, 2014). It is reported that a woman’s ability to engage in paid work increased by 26% when grandparents assisted with childcare (Kanji, 2017). Burgess (2015) suggests that the significant role of grandparents is acknowledged within the family and celebrated. When working as a Health Visitor I worked closely with a number of families where grandparents brought the child to clinic or for a medical appointment. I do hope these families are aware of research that suggests that caring for grandchildren arguably has positive health benefits for the grandparents themselves (Xu, 2018 ) and that involvement in a grandchild’s care is likely to lead to a higher life expectancy than if a grandparent is not involved with such care (Hillbrand et al. 2017).

However, there is a view that grandparents are “bad for children’s health” (BBC, 2017) and “Over-indulgent grandparents make children fat and unhealthy” (The Times, 2017). A child’s diet is a key contributor to both ongoing and future health (Biro and Wien, 2010) and I am aware from my reading and involvement with families, how important grandparents can be in influencing the food a child eats from birth onwards (Reid et al. 2010; Eli et al. 2016). In the research behind these headlines, Chambers et al. (2017) observed that whilst grandparents provided informal care for their grandchildren, there was an adverse effect on children’s weight and diet. I am aware, anecdotally, of grandparents secretly giving their grandchildren sweets at school pickup and sneaking chocolate into lunchboxes. Arguably, at one level, treats are not an issue and go hand-in-hand with being a grandparent. As Maureen Lipman said “The grandparents’ job is always definitely to indulge.” (BBC, 2017). Where I think it may be an issue, is when the food that grandparents feed their grandchildren stops being a treat and starts being “normal”. One aspect of Chambers et al.’s (2017) paper, that was not widely reported, was the acknowledgement that grandparent involvement was just one of the many factors that could affect a child’s health and wellbeing and their recommendation that healthy parenting advice on weight, food, exercise include grandparents, not just parents. As I saw in practice, grandparents may play a significant and important role in a child’s upbringing.

I believe that it is more important we ensure that grandparents and in fact all carers follow the latest evidence-based guidance when looking after babies and children. It only seems like yesterday that I was putting my children to sleep on their tummies and weaning at four months and now a baby is always put to sleep on their back (NHS, 2016) and weaning is not advised until six months (NHS, 2018). Research conducted by Adesman et al. (2017) reported that fewer than 45% of grandmothers followed safe-sleeping practice (NHS, 2018). I find this very concerning given the evidence collated by the Lullaby Trust (2016) that indicates babies who are put to sleep in a position other than their back are at an increased risk of sudden infant death (SIDs). I believe this highlights the need, as referred to by Chambers et al. (2016) to ensure all information regarding children’s health and wellbeing is targeted directly at all carers, including grandparents, in addition to parents.

I am always seeking material to support my lecturing at Norland. In addition to my experience from my teaching, nursing and health visiting, I am now able to add insight from my role as grandparent and look forward to including it into my lectures.

With or without a job description I have found the role of grandparent amazing, fun, wonderful, incredible as well as challenging, exhausting and as I said at the start of this blog, exciting. I knew that “Becoming a grandparent for the first time is a major transition” (Taubmen-Ben-An et al. 2013, p.26) but what I hadn’t expected was the love I would feel for such a small person. I have spent hours and hours cooing, sharing photographs and video clips with colleagues and friends. A year has passed and the novelty has not waned at all – in fact it has intensified. I am still besotted and smitten.

Adesman, A. (2017) Grandparents who practice outdated health myths may pose safety threat on grandchildren.
Available at: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/05/170504083052.htm
(Accessed: 28 September 2018)

Biro, F. M. and Wien M (2010) ‘Childhood obesity and adult morbidities1–4’ American Journal of Clinical Nutrition ;91(suppl), pp. 1499S–1505S.

Bóné, V.  (2018) ‘Grandparenting created by evolution revised by history: Still in use today’
European Journal of Mental Health (13), pp. 82–105 
Available from: https://doi.org/10.5708/EJMH.13.2018.1.7
(Accessed: 28 September 2018)

The British Broadcasting Corporation (2017)  Indulgent grandparents 'bad for children's health'
Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-41981549
(Accessed: 28 September 2018)

Burgess, A. (2015) ‘Interconnectedness: The Grandparents Role in Childbearing and Parenting’, International Journal of Childbirth Education, 30(1), pp. 68–73
Chambers, S. A., Rowa-Dewar, N., Radley, A., and  Dobbie, F. (2017) ‘A systematic review of grandparents’ influence on grandchildren’s cancer risk factors.’ PLoS ONE, 12(11), 1–28

Eli, K., Howell, K., Fisher, P. A., and  Nowicka, P. (2016). A question of balance: Explaining differences between parental and grandparental perspectives on preschoolers’ feeding and physical activity. Social Science & Medicine, 154, 28–35

Noriega C., López J., Domínguez R.,  and  Velasco C.  (2017) ‘Perceptions of grandparents who provide auxiliary care: value transmission and child-rearing practices’ Child and Family Social Work, (22), pp. 1227–1236

Hillbrand, S., Coall, D. A., Gerstorf, D., and  Hertwig, R. (2017) ‘Caregiving within and beyond the family is associated with lower mortality for the caregiver: A prospective study.’  Evolution and Human Behavior, 38, 397–403

Kanji, S. (2017) ‘Grandparent care: A key factor in mothers’ labour force participation in the UK.’  Journal of Social Policy, 47 (3), pp.523-542
Available from:https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-social-policy/article/grandparent-care-a-key-factor-in-mothers-labour-force-participation-in-the-uk/F2275031F62AE37883E88FAEBD7F2EEC/core-reader  
(Accessed: 25 September 2018)

The Lullaby Trust (2018) How to reduce the risk of SIDS. Available at: https://www.lullabytrust.org.uk/safer-sleep-advice/
(Accessed: 28 September 2018)

National Health Service (2018) Your pregnancy and baby guide. Your baby’s first solid foods. Available at:https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/solid-foods-weaning/ 
(Accessed: 28 September 2018)

National Health Service (2016) Your pregnancy and baby guide. Reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome SIDS. Available at
(Accessed: 28 September 2018)

Reid, J., Schmied, V., & Beale, B. (2010).’ 'I only give advice if I am asked': examining the grandmother's potential to influence infant feeding decisions and parenting practices of new mothers.’ Women & Birth: Journal of the Australian College of Midwives, 23, 74-80.

Robertson, F. J. (1977) ‘Grandmotherhood: ‘A study of role conceptions’ Journal of Marriage and Family, 39 (1), pp. 165-174. 
Available from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/351072
(Accessed: 28 September 2018)

Rutter, J. and Stocker, K. (2014) ‘Child care survey 2014’ Family and Childcare Trust. Available from: https://www.activematters.org/uploads/pdfs/Childcare_Costs_Survey_2014_FINAL_for_website_amended_12.3.14%20copy.pdf
(Accessed: 28 September 2018)

Taubman - Ben-An, O., Finale, L., and  Shlomo, S. B. (2013). ‘When couples become grandparents: Factors associated with the growth of each spouse.’ Social Work Research, 37(1), pp. 26–36.

The Times (2017) ‘Over-indulgent grandparents make children fat and unhealthy’,  15 November.

Xu, H. (2018) ‘Physical and mental health of Chinese grandparents caring for grandchildren and great-grandparents’ Social Science and Medicine

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