Editorial: Grandparents

In 2005 Penelope Leach and her team of researchers showed that children who went to nurseries were more aggressive than children who experienced other forms of early years care. Now a report in the Journal of Social Policy states that research into the millennium cohort has shown that grandparents help children to develop a better vocabulary, but that children who attend nurseries are better prepared for school.

One of the problems with these soundbite headlines is that they ignore the complexities of the research findings and the individuality of the children who are the subjects of the surveys. (It is as sensible as asking which are better in healing people? – operations or pills?) The personalities and developmental needs of children vary enormously, and what is good for one may not be good for another. What is more, the best solution for a child (as for a patient) may be a combination of types of provision – some nursery care to allow opportunities to socialise and some time with grandparents for individual attention, for example.

It may be the fault of the media in wanting simple headlines, and they can blame their lazy readerships, who can’t be bothered to read digests of the research, let alone the full reports. Whatever the reason, let us be clear that grandparents can have key roles in children’s lives. Parents come first as the carers with whom children bond, with siblings playing important roles as the other family members, but after that, grandparents often help to shape children’s understanding of their world.

To know that parents have parents, to appreciate that people age, to realise that grandparents’ parents have died, to learn that family bonds are strong from generation to generation – all these things give children a sense of perspective, placing them in a time-frame. The sense of belonging at a specific period within the world is important to many people throughout their lives. Adopted children often feel the urge to seek out their birth parents. People go back to places where they lived before, or seek out relatives they have not seen for years. Even in old age, people like to find out about their ancestors and where they came from.

Later children learn that their family is one among many, in their street, their town, their country, the world. And they have to learn how to get on with other people – other children (who may not be nice to them), strangers, people who do not like children, people who speak other languages. Like parents, grandparents can act as bridges to these threatening and exciting new relationships, modelling good social behaviour, making friendly introductions, defending against real threats.

The relationship between children and their grandparents can also be special, perhaps in part because it is not usually continuous. Time with grandparents can be a bit special and different. Grandparents may sometimes spoil grandchildren and get away with it in a way that parents cannot. They can create memories for the grandchildren, and they can pass on memories of their grandparents. Grandparents may sigh with relief when the grandchildren have gone, but they will probably have made them the centre of attention while they were there, knowing that the parents will take over again.

And in due course – although grandparents seem younger these days – grandparents may give their grandchildren the opportunity to reciprocate, to give help and to care, as they become less able and fit.

Of course, all of the above are generalisations, and the situation will be different for each grandchild and grandparent, but whatever the situation, nurseries can’t match grandparents in these roles, even if they do prepare children better for school.

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