Families must play generation game

Podium; From a speech by a University of Newcastle lecturer to the British Psychologica l Society Conference
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The Independent Culture
THIS PAPER explores grandparents' relative influence in family life. The findings indicate that the grandparents in the study were a valued source of assistance, particularly in their role as baby-sitters. However, while families expected grandparents to provide support, they were not to "interfere" in the lives of their children and grandchildren. All generations believed interference caused tension and impinged on the autonomy of the nuclear family. The findings indicate that the grandparent role requires careful negotiation to define expectations and parameters.

Estimates indicate that 70 per cent of people in the United Kingdom become grandparents and that many remain in this role for around 25 years, or one third of their life span. This suggests that grandparenthood is an important part of family life both as a personal experience and because of its impact on others.

Recent research indicates that grandparents are in frequent contact with their children and grandchildren and that they act as important support agents within the family. Earlier research took a more negative view, warning of the tendencies of grandparents to interfere in the upbringing of children, either by being too indulgent or too strict and old-fashioned. This highlights the fact that grandparents' involvement in family life is mediated by the intervening parent generation. Grandparents face a marginalised role within the family, as well as a role with poorly defined rights and duties.

The grandparents in the study were in frequent contact with their families, although time spent with grandchildren tended to decline as the children became teenagers. Grandparents played an active role in family life, and parents valued their help and advice, particularly for their role as baby- sitters. While such support was expected of grandparents, all three generations felt that they should not "interfere" in their children's and grandchildren's lives. This was particularly salient in relation to grandchildren's upbringing, where parents viewed rules and decisions as outside the grandparents' sphere of influences. For example, grandparents often disagreed with parents about the content of television programmes teenagers were allowed to watch or about the amount and the type of freedom teenagers were allowed outside the home. Attempts to impose these opinions on parents and grandchildren caused conflict within the family and were classed as "interference".

In order to avoid tension, both grandparents and parents attempted to negotiate relationships which were mutually supportive but which provided the nuclear family with space and privacy. They described this in terms of not "living in each other's pockets".

Many grandparents viewed their marginal position in the family as positive because they were able to enjoy spending time with their grandchildren without having primary responsibility for them. "Not interfering" was the final part of the parenting process, giving adult children the freedom to make their own decisions and to raise their families in their own way.

Other grandparents avoided interfering because they did not want to be a "nuisance" or a burden to their families. This sentiment was particularly expressed by widowed grandparents (who were usually women), who had a greater sense of reliance on their families than those whose partners were still alive.

The concept of grandparental interference has implications for intergenerational relationships both now and in the future. Grandparents and parents must learn to balance conflicting expectations regarding support versus interference and to negotiate these expectations within their families. Decreasing birth rates and smaller family size in Western societies mean that there are fewer members in each generation and so intergenerational family relationships may become more important.

Grandparents may have more time to devote to smaller numbers of grandchildren, but they will have to balance this with the expectation of non-interference. Increasing divorce rates are resulting in a greater variety and complexity of family relationships, including those of stepgrandchildren and stepgrandparents. This creates privacy issues.

The flexible but unpaid child care that many grandparents provide is likely to become increasingly valuable as more women with children choose to work outside the home. The challenge that will face families in the future will be to balance grandparents' involvement in a full-time childcare role with the maintenance of space and boundaries between generations.