People the world over are living longer, with many countries experiencing increasingly ageing populations. This means that more children are growing up knowing their grandparents, and in some cases their great-grandparents.
In Singapore, one in three people over the age of 55 look after grandchildren on a regular basis, with one in four households with children under the age of 12 relying on grandparents as the main caregiver (Health Promotion Board, 2013). Multi generations sharing a home make both logistical and economic sense whilst being typical of many Asian cultures.
For parents who both work full time, having one or more grandparent care for their children ensures a familial anchor remains in charge, providing a reassuring level of love, care and stability. But whether grandparents take on this role specifically or not, the benefits of healthy intergenerational bonding are potentially wide-ranging for everyone.
Often, adult grandchildren say they felt so much more able to confide in their grandparents than in their parents. Some even say they were closer to their grandparents or that they felt able to express themselves more freely. There is no doubt that the bond between grandparents and their grandchildren are unique.
But what is it about grandparents that makes our relationship with them so different to the relationship we have with our parents – and so special?
Grandparents are our Special People
Grandparents of course are also parents. They are experienced careers and no matter how many mistakes they may have made along the way when their own children were growing up, by the time it comes to their grandchildren, most grandparents’ function by instinct rather than peer pressure. This leads them to worry less; taking a more leisurely approach to child rearing.
When differences of opinion inevitably occur between parents and children, a grandparent often takes on the role of moderator. The child may not get what they expect or desire, but it is likely to be their grandparent’s non-judgemental voice of reason that they listen to! Not withstanding the fact that it may also be the case, as Ogden Nash wrote, “When grandparents enter the door, discipline flies out the window!”
Children of all ages benefit from receiving the gift of quality time from grandparents, especially those who are retired and can step in when parents are busy or just need a break themselves. Simple pleasures lived in the moment enable both grandparent and grandchild to build up a bank of treasured memories: paddling in the sea, counting butterflies in the park, reading a bedtime story together or enjoying a movie.
Some grandparents are great storytellers too! When they share their experiences they create a tangible link to the past for their grandchildren, often keeping ethnic cultures, skills and languages alive through old photographs, local customs, songs, folktales and traditional recipes.
Bonding Benefits for Both Generations
Research has shown that a strong grandparent-grandchild bond has reciprocal benefits to both generations, particularly when grandchildren are older and more able to assist their grandparents.
One of the most positive effects documented among elderly people who spend a substantial amount of time with much younger relatives, is the lowering of depression.
The saying ‘young at heart’ is indicative of how many older people feel when surrounded by children and young adults. After all, learning is a lifelong process and there is much to learn from children. Not only that, children love to take on the role of teacher. The next time you find it hard to drag your child away from playing Angry Birds for instance, why not suggest they show their grandparent how to play! Turn it into a positive and enjoyable learning experience for both child and adult.
Image cc licensed (CC BY 2.0) flickr image by runner310
Lessons in Mortality
One of the most profound lessons a grandparent teaches their grandchild is the reality of human mortality. The passing of a grandparent is often a child’s first experience of death; the inevitability of change and the understanding that nothing is permanent, including our loved ones. As and when appropriate, if a grandparent is sick for instance, ease your child into understanding the concept of loss using stories and by talking honestly and openly about what is going to happen.
In conclusion, the constant presence of a grandparent in a child’s life adds a level of normalcy and stability that contributes to their well-being and positive development.
Even the occasional visit by long distance grandparents can bring insight, wisdom and excitement. In Singapore, where parents frequently work long hours, the care, affection and dependability of a close relative who loves the child unconditionally, is extremely important.
When children feel loved and cared for they learn to trust others, especially positive role models who figure prominently in their lives. Trusting those who care for them – and cuddle them in a way that only grandparents can – helps them grow up feeling happy, safe and confident.
Fiona Walker is the Principal of Schools / CEO of Julia Gabriel Education. She holds a Masters in Early Childhood Education and is a qualified Montessori teacher with more than 20 years of experience in providing quality education for young children.