Children are more likely to grow up knowing their grandparents, and in many cases great-grandparents, as people the world over live longer and many countries like Singapore experience increasingly ageing populations.
Summing up the importance of grandparents, which Singapore will honour on 23 November, American author Jay Kesler says, “Young people need something stable to hang on to — a culture connection, a sense of their own past, a hope for their own future. Most of all, they need what grandparents can give them.”
Grandparents provide stability, cultural connections, a sense of the past and hope for the future. While relatives, friends, educational organisations, personal experiences and parents also provide these, most of us lucky enough to have known at least one grandparent during childhood will cherish them for one reason or another. He or she was the person we snuggled up to for a comforting cuddle, who told funny stories, offered a kind word, or the ally who allowed us to get up to mischief when our parents were not looking…
That said, not all grandchildren have deep connections with their grandparents as children brought up in nuclear families may live too far away from their grandparents to be able to form strong bonds. In 1965, the University of Chicago’s Bernice Neugarten, viewed as one of the leading gerontologists at the time, identified five patterns of grandparenting that are still considered relevant today:
• The formal grandparent
Occasionally helps with the grandchildren and though interested in their overall wellbeing, tends not to become too involved in their lives.
• The fun-seeker grandparent
Primarily provides entertainment for the grandchildren.
• The source of family wisdom
Usually a grandfather who assumes a patriarchal role within the family — he provides advice and resources.
• The distant figure
Appears only on holidays and special occasions but otherwise, has little contact with the grandchildren.
• The surrogate parent
Acts as the grandchildren’s primary caregiver.
Banking on familial support
Multi generations living together under one roof makes both economic and practical sense for many families. When both parents work full time, one or more grandparents, usually a grandmother, adopts the primary caregiver role (even in households with domestic helpers).
The benefits of healthy intergenerational bonding are potentially wide-ranging for everyone involved for grandparents who are both willing and able to form strong attachments with their grandchildren:
• Gift of time
Retired grandparents can usually give quality time to their grandchildren. The older we get, the more precious time becomes, so simple pleasures 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.
• Experienced care
Grandparents are also parents — having “been there, done that”, they have, no doubt, learnt from numerous mistakes. Though differences of opinion do occur with parents and in-laws, over discipline for example, a grandparent often takes on the role of moderator during arguments. Functioning by instinct rather than peer pressure, they tend to worry less, taking a more leisurely approach to child-rearing.
• Constancy encourages positive development
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. In Singapore especially, where parents frequently work long hours, the care, affection and dependability of a close relative who loves the child unconditionally is extremely important.
• Teacher on tap
Grandparents can be a wonderful source of information — their fascinating anecdotes help to create a tangible link to the past. Grandparents who were born overseas, in China, India or Malaysia, for example, but who now live in Singapore, help bring history, culture and language alive by sharing old photographs, local customs, songs, folk tales and traditional recipes.
• Two-way process
Research has shown that a strong grandparent-grandchild bond brings many mental benefits to both parties, particularly when grandchildren are older and more able to assist their grandparents. A positive effect documented among elderly people who spend a substantial amount of time with their much-younger relatives, is that it lowers depression. The saying “young at heart” is indicative of how many grandparents feel when surrounded by children and young adults.
Learning from gran
One of the most profound lessons a grandparent can teach their grandchild is the reality of human mortality. The passing of a grandparent is often a child’s first experience of death — and with it, he’ll understand that nothing is permanent, not even our loved ones’ presence. When appropriate — if a grandparent is sick, for instance — use stories and talk honestly and openly about what is going to happen, so that he will grasp the concept of loss.