Grandparents can strain relationships, divide spouses, and cause generational angst. They are also crucial to a child’s development. Studies suggest the closer the grandparents, the better the physical health of kids, the more advanced their language skills, and the stronger their moral compass. To enjoy these benefits, though, parents and grandparents need to get along. This is where it can get messy.
Take Charlie, a father raising two kids in Ashburn, Virginia, with his wife, Avery.* His parents are a crucial part of their child-rearing: “I wouldn’t say my mom ‘helps’ in terms of cooking, laundry, or helping with homework, but they stay at her house a lot and she comes to a ton of their events,” he says. But when it comes to his in-laws, it’s a different story entirely. “They’re like absentee grandparents unless we make the effort to go to see them, whereas my mom gets all mad if we forget to tell her the most minor things, like that Sasha has a track meet,” he says. “Frankly, Avery’s brother’s dogs who live closer to her folks get more attention from them.”
Given all this, how hard should parents push to live within a stone’s throw of grandparents? They’ll need to calculate the personal trials and tribulations that come from essentially moving back in with mom and dad. But these must be weighed with the science — the studied benefits that grandparents bring to the picture. Only then can such a big decision be made.
The Benefits of Grandma and Grandpa
The different ways men and women grandparent and their role and impact on families are growing areas of research interest for researchers, with good reason. For one, there are more of them than ever before: In 2017, the number of grandparents rose to 69.5 million, a 21 percent increase since 2001, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Per a 2015 Pew Research survey, 83 percent of respondents 65 and older reported they were grandparents. Among 50- to 64-year-old survey respondents, more than half said they were grandparents to at least one child. Grandparents who are the primary caregiver for one or more grandchild total 2.6 million, and 10 percent of all kids in the U.S. live with a grandparent, whether kids’ parents live there too or not.
For decades, the importance of grandparents in kids’ lives flew under the radar, which is why many researchers have argued that governments need to consider the needs of grandparent caregivers when drafting programs for children and families. University of Oxford researchers made that point in a 2008 study that also noted that a high level of grandparent involvement benefited kids’ well-being. Those benefits were particularly pronounced in families of divorced or separated families. The survey of nearly 1,600 children 11-to-16-years-old in England and Wales indicated that grandparents provided support and advice for grandchildren that helped them weather adverse events, and that grandkids often turned to their grandparents to help them solve problems.
Other studies of grandparents around the world have noted their positive influence on children. A survey of 13- and 14-year-olds in New South Wales published in November showed that close relationships with grandparents increase the likelihood that kids will be engaged in civic matters, such as helping other people and the environment.
A study published this month that looked at working mothers raising children found that a grandparent living in the home had a positive effect on children’s BMI and that those kids were less likely to be sedentary and more likely to eat breakfast regularly. Grandparent contact appears to make kids less likely to be ageist, too: A 2017 study, for instance, found that Belgian kids’ perception of older people were more positive when they were close with a grandparent, but noted that the shaping of those views depend on kids’ gender (girls tended to have more positive views of the elderly), how old they were (10- to 12-year-olds were least likely to be ageists), the health of the grandparents, and, most importantly, the quality of the grandparent-child relationships.
Grandparents can also help teach grandkids values, morals, and language skills, says Sabrina Bowen, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Rockville, Maryland. They often share family stories that help grandchildren understand where they came from. And research suggests that knowledge of family history has been used as an index for assessing kids’ well-being.
Earlier research kind of ignored grandpas in favor of grandmas, who were thought to have a more significant impact on grandchildren. This makes sense: Women traditionally are more responsible for childrearing, more socialized to put greater focus on family relationships and statistically, they live longer than grandfathers and therefore have more time to influence grand-offspring. (Researchers debate the legitimacy of the “grandmother effect,” however, which is the theory that menopause helped improve humans’ chances for survival because grandmas could help raise grandkids once grandmothers became infertile.)
More recent studies challenge stereotypes about grandparents and have found that grandfathers often play a different but equally significant role. A 2017 study of step-grandparents concluded that step-grandfathers tended to spend more time playing and engaging in activities with their grandkids and had closer emotional bonds with grandchildren compared with step-grandmothers. Maternal grandfathers play a significant role in kids’ lives, particularly in grandsons older than 12, according to the authors of a 2013 study.
Of course, grandpas can be a tremendous help to new parents as well. “Preparing meals for my daughter and her husband, who are brand-new parents, has been a huge help to them. They’re too exhausted to cook,” says Jay Fagan, Ph.D., professor of social work at Temple University and co-director of the Fatherhood Research & Practice Network.
There’s not as much research looking at how grandparent involvement benefits parents compared with how the relationship benefits children, Fagan says, but his personal experience suggests that helping overtaxed parents relieve financial and parenting stress strengthens marriages as well as kids.
“The more social support a parent has, the more bandwidth one has to parent,” Bowen notes. “Having another trusted set of hands can relieve the pressure of raising kids and having to do it all.”
Then there’s money. Living nearby grandparents also helps with the cost of raising kids. According to an AARP survey, more than 50 percent of millennial parents say they rely on their own parents for a minimum of an hour of babysitting help each week. These parents estimate that this support saves them an average of $300 a week. Most grandparents, per the survey, are happy to lend a hand: Forty percent of grandparents reported that they offered without being asked.
In general, when grandparents help out with daycare responsibilities, parents save. According to Child Care Aware’s Parents and the High Cost of Child Care 2017 report, the average American family pays $11,053 a year to keep an infant in a daycare center. That number drops to $8,909 for toddlers and $8,670 for preschoolers but still averages $9,544 a year across the board. Naturally, every family is different and, as such, it’s impossible to calculate every savings scenario. But when Fatherly crunched the numbers using the 2017 data, parents, on average, saved $3,225 on babysitting when grandparents watch the kids for a weekly date night and $4,388 when they watch kids during the day to offset the cost of daycare. That meant a potential savings of at least $7,613 over the course of a year, or $38,065 over the five years until your kids enter kindergarten.
The Downsides of Grandma and Grandpa’s Help
Now, grandparents do have their limits. While a 2016 study from The Gerontologist showed that living with grandkids was good for mental acuity, it also showed that those who took care of grandkids five or more days a week experienced negative mental health effects. Other research suggests that caring for grandchildren can take a physical and emotional toll on grandparents. Those who live with their grandchildren and the grandkids’ parents work more hours. Some grandparents even hate living with children, researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research found, saying they felt less happiness and more worry, stress, and anger in the living arrangement.
Kids assume whatever environment in which they grow up is normal, so it’s great for them to see respectful and positive interaction between their parents and grandparents, says Princeton, New Jersey–based psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., author of Kid Confidence: Help Your Child Make Friends, Build Resilience, and Develop Self-Esteem. Of course, not all grandparents are doting, responsible, and do everything right. In some cases, you don’t want those relationships to serve as models for your kids.
“I think it’s important to differentiate between a grandparent who is actively helping their adult children and other types of grandparents,” Bowen says. “[With those] other types, we may not gain some of the benefits we’re talking about.”
How complicated and individual the grandparent-grandchild relationship can be is reflected in a 2016 study where researchers found that grandparents and adult grandchildren who reported greater affinity, or emotional closeness, experienced fewer symptoms of depression, but more frequent contact increased symptoms for both grandparents and adult grandkids. The average grandparent-grandchild relationship, the authors wrote, appears to be a source of both strain and support for both generations.
“It can be a wonderful arrangement if grandparents are healthy, but when they get elderly they’re sometimes not the best caregivers,” Fagan says.
Even if grandparents are willing babysitters, new parents might, for example, worry they could drop the baby if they’ve had a fall recently or that they might forget care instructions if they’re having cognitive issues. Or grandparents might simply have wildly different notions than parents about what is acceptable care and supervision.
How to Parent Like a Grandma or Grandpa
The idea of how to parent has changed a lot in recent years, which can create some generational disconnect. Parents today are expected to actively cultivate children and maintain a hyper-focus on helping them reach their potential, whereas parents in the past generally were more laissez-faire and might have spent less time with their kids when they were growing up.
“Grandparents might place a greater value on enjoying children and spending time with them, which might not have been the case when parents were raised, Kennedy-Moore says. “Grandparents might feel like they’re getting kind of a do-over if Grandpa spent a lot of time traveling for work. That can be fun for dads to see, or it could be sad that he missed out, or both.”
Furthermore, parents who live near their own parents commonly feel criticized about how they’re raising their kids.“Parents are criticized about everything, and because we care so deeply about being a good parent, that can be challenging,” she says. “Criticism is a sore spot and can really sting.”
Another common issue that crops up when parents live close to the grandparents is the giving of unsolicited advice or disrespecting boundaries, Bowen says. When Rick* and his wife and daughter lived in the same Colorado town as Rick’s mother-in-law, Grandma would often drop by unannounced, letting herself in ostensibly to deliver People magazines she’d finished reading, despite being asked to stop.
As with any relationship, some discussion about expectations and boundaries is a good idea. Some grandparents just want to relax with their grandkids and not bear the burden of caring for them when their parents are not around, while others love spending as much time with them as possible. People might love their grandkids but are content to see them only on holidays and birthdays. It’s tough to not lean on grandparents when they’re needed, but to keep the relationship positive for everyone, it’s important to make sure they’re comfortable with what you expect from them.
It’s also important to remember that even if you don’t live near your kids’ grandparents, or you do but they’re not super-involved, your kids will be okay. What’s important is that they have connections in their lives that give them a sense of being known and valued, Kennedy-Moore says.
“The number of positive attachments in a child’s life doesn’t matter as much as the quality of those relationships,” Fagan says. “Kids with one really good mother who provides safety to a child is really sufficient to help kids become well-adapted people. It’s not a question of becoming dysfunctional if a child doesn’t have multiple caregivers.”
*Some names have been changed