A Norwegian study looks at the role grandparents are taking in parenting, finding that European grandparents are more active in interacting with grandkids than previously and that after the age of 70, grandfathers play a greater role in relating to the children.
In the study, sociologist Dr. Knud Knudsen found that Europeans with grandchildren generally opt to spend a good deal of time with them. “And grandfathers appear to be more involved than before,” he said.
Knudsen found that grandmothers are clearly more involved with their grandchildren when a couple is younger. However, this gender disparity gradually changes with the years. Among the oldest age groups, grandfathers usually show greater solicitude.
Nevertheless, Knudsen found that involvement with grandchildren naturally declines for both genders with advancing years.
Knudsen himself has four grandchildren aged between one and 11 — one in Oslo and three in Stavanger — and he is together with them as often as possible for both play and more serious matters.
He and wife Gro collect grandchildren every Tuesday both from nursery school and day care facilities before the youngsters start homework, sports, dinner and play.
They often devote the weekend to their extended family and babysitting. “It provides new insights and instructive challenges, and gives more meaning to life,” says Knudsen.
In the study, Knudsen surveyed about 5,500 grandparents aged 60-85 in 11 European countries — Austria, Denmark, France, Greece, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, Spain and Belgium. The investigation, called the survey of health, aging and retirement in Europe (SHARE) is one of the largest datasets in the world.
“We’re likely to see more grandparents spending time with their grandchildren,” said Knudsen. “The basis for exercising this role can nevertheless differ between the genders.
“It’s an advantage for both of them to have a life partner at their side. But grandfathers are more dependent on this than grandmothers when it comes to playing their grandparent role.”
This is because a grandfather who still has his wife with him finds it easier to share in the life of his grandchildren.
“Grandmothers have traditionally had greater and more varied contact with the rest of the family, with responsibility for maintaining relationship,” Knudsen said. “As a woman, mother and grandmother, norms for caring are clearer for her and she inspires the grandfather. A partner is accordingly important for contributing to the extended family.
“That applies particularly for men as they get older. In line with other studies of gender and partnership, we see here that men in particular benefit from marriage.”
Researchers found that both social and demographic changes underlie the substantial involvement by grandparents with their grandchildren. And new patterns are emerging, Knudsen said: “We live longer and stay healthy for more of our lives. We’re better off and communicate more closely.
“At the same time, today’s parents are occupied with work and career. Unlike earlier generations, when children came before education and job, modern parents are often older and in full work when they become responsible for offspring.”
Noting that this is where grandparents come in, he describes this as a win-win position. “Healthier and fitter grandparents who want to be with their grandchildren can be a big help to careerist parents in a hectic daily life.
“At the same time, little has changed where marriage and partnership are concerned. As before, men often marry women who are a few years younger than them. And women still live longer than men. Although this can vary greatly, a man of 70 has a partner beside him more often than a woman of the same age.
“So while grandmothers are usually alone, a grandfather is in a marriage. Having a younger and healthy partner seems to be crucial for a man’s involvement with grandchildren.”
Some would undoubtedly explain this phenomenon as a reflection of the grandparents’ desire to invest time with their grandchildren in order to be helped later, Knudsen said.
“But such arguments are only consistent with certain findings,” he added. “If they were correct, widowed grandmothers would be with the grandchildren most – and that’s not the case.”
Sociological role theory appears to provide a better explanation, he says. Grandfathers and grandmothers can have very different personal and social starting points.
“So although the latter spend more time with grandchildren than the former, the difference in participation shrinks steadily after 60. Past 70, the grandfather usually takes the lead.”
It might be thought that older men still identify most with other interests, he said, and that women were accordingly better grandparents throughout their lives.
“In fact, however, men generally manage relatively well as grandparents. One important reason, as mentioned earlier, is that they usually still have their partner at their side.”
But big differences nevertheless exist. “Many grandparents have other priorities or live a long way from the grandchildren. That naturally affects the time they spend together.”
“After all, the research shows that demographic conditions have marked consequences later in life for grandparents more or less regardless of their country of residence.”
“The differences between the European countries in the study are small – which represents an important finding in itself.”
Source: University of Stavanger