Facebook Twitter

How grandparents fit into grandchildren’s lives: American Family Survey

Poll says grandparents help with money, child care, transportation and more — but they reap the benefits of the closeness, too

SHARE How grandparents fit into grandchildren’s lives: American Family Survey
Illustration of two people fishing

Eliza Anderson, Deseret News

When Ashley Flores was growing up, her parents worked a lot and her grandmother, Lois, helped fill in gaps, like picking Ashley and her brother up from school or driving them to extracurricular activities.

On school breaks, she took them to movies and shows. A teacher by trade, she helped her grandkids with their homework.

“Growing up, she was very much a second mother to me,” said Flores, a New Yorker who writes for tearfreetravel.com. When Flores, now nearly 40, as a teenager butted heads with her parents, she often spent the weekend with Grandma Lois, who even helped her fund her first trip overseas.

The story Flores tells of grandmotherly affection is not unusual, according to the eighth annual American Family Survey, which explores aspects of American life, from attitudes to relationships and finances. The nationally representative poll of 3,000 adults was fielded in late July by YouGov for the Deseret News and Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. Its margin of error is plus or minus 2 percentage points.

“This is the first year that we’ve explored in detail the role grandparents play in the life of their grandchildren,” said the center director, Christopher F. Karpowitz, study co-investigator with Jeremy C. Pope. Both are political science professors at BYU. “While the number of grandparents who are the primary caregivers for their grandchildren is relatively small — about 6% of our sample — grandparents support their grandchildren in many ways.”

Karpowitz said 8 in 10 grandparents say they’ve given money to their grandchildren “and in many cases, this support is substantial. Perhaps surprisingly, financial support is common regardless of the grandparent’s income. Even among the grandparents with relatively low incomes, the support can be meaningful. Nearly half of grandparents with low incomes said they have given their grandchildren $1,000 or more.”

That’s not all they give, he added. “Many grandparents also report that they communicate regularly with their grandchildren, provide child care or meals, attend grandchildren’s events, or just stay home and talk about life together,” he said. “Grandparents have the potential to make a meaningful difference in the lives of their grandchildren — not just with money, though that can be important, but also by providing emotional support and guidance or simply cheering grandchildren on in their various activities.”

What the survey showed

Helping the children of your children is common across factors like race, age and even wealth. In the survey, grandparents of all races support their grandchildren “at roughly equal rates.”

Ka-ching! One of the most common types of support that grandparents offer is financial. And though a third of grandparents with incomes above $80,000 a year say they’ve given more than $10,000 in a year, 80% of grandparents making less than $40,000 a year have also contributed to their grandkids.

Meanwhile, nearly a quarter of grandparents have put money into a college fund — something that’s far more common among higher-income grandparents (37%) than lower-income grandparents (12%).

The survey found that more than 4 in 10 grandparents see grandkids in person at least one time a week, while “substantial numbers connect by video, voice or text messages.” Again, the numbers are a little higher for grandma than grandpa.

Just 3% of grandparents report having no contact at all with their grandchildren.

Multigenerational time

The findings don’t surprise Crystal Bowman, a family therapist at Arizona Family Institute in Mesa, Arizona, who has six children, ages 13 to 23.

She thinks parents are smart to tap into the “incredible resource” that grandparents can be — especially when parents are “stretched, stressed or their relationships with their children are strained,” she told the Deseret News by email. She said she sometimes jokes that grandparents are able to connect with their grandchildren over what she calls a “common enemy.” Though she’s kidding about that, the value of intergenerational relationships can’t be overstated — for grandparents and grandkids.

“An extensive study published by Boston College that followed families over a 19-year period found that close emotional ties between grandparents and their grandchildren actually reduced depressive symptoms in both,” Bowman said. “In a time when we are concerned with the mental health of our youth and our grandparents, this research motivates me to encourage prioritizing the grandparent-grandchild relationship.”

Other studies have found that when the two generations are in each others’ lives, grandchildren have fewer emotional and behavioral problems and can better manage difficulties, from bullying to parents’ divorce.

Grandparents age better, said Bowman, if they have grandchildren in their lives, which boosts mental, physical and social stimulation.

In the American Family Survey, interacting with grandkids at home was the most common activity — including activities like playing games and watching TV. Nearly 30% of grandmothers report doing that type of activity, while 22% of grandfathers say they do, as well.

Nearly 3 in 10 grandmas say they talk about life with their grandkids, while 17% of granddads say the same.

About 1 in 14 grandfathers and 1 in 12 grandmothers attend a grandchild’s sporting events, recitals or similar activities.

Far fewer go out to movies, sporting events and museums with their grandkids, at 9% for grandmothers and 5% for grandfathers.

Monte Deere, an Alpine, Utah, grandfather whose company Kizik makes shoes that can be donned hands-free, believes a visit from a grandparent should be special because the relationship is. “While mom and dad are around on an everyday basis, supporting but also scolding you, grandparents are around for fun times like the holidays,” he said. “If grandma and grandpa were over, that usually meant better food to eat, a special movie to go see or presents to open.” His own grandparents always brought a special vibe, he said.

Deere tries to give “that same unconditional warmth and fun-is-here attitude” when he visits his own grandkids. “Sometimes that means letting their parents be the bad guy when they’re misbehaving,” he said. “As a grandparent, I earned the right to sit back.”

Global joy

The benefits of different-generation interactions are not unique to the U.S.

Western Australia’s Edith Cowan University said that grandparents describe their lives as more meaningful and enjoyable when they build relationships with their grandchildren. Those who help care for their grandchildren tend to live longer.

Kris McCormick, a parenting expert from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, notes similar valuable interactions. Her children are 3 and 7 and her husband’s parents, Bob and Ann McCormick, visit at least monthly. Plus she sends her kids to their house a weekend or two a month, where they are spoiled with hugs and fresh-baked treats and trips to their favorite hockey arena, while she and her husband catch a needed break.

Her own parents live farther away, but FaceTime the boys to catch up and play silly games.

Pic_with_Grandma_Ann.jpeg

Ann McCormick and her grandson, Levi, share a treat during one of their many outings. Research and surveys both find great benefits to grandparents and grandchildren when they form close bonds.

McCormick family photo

She sees great value in all of it, McCormick said, from being introduced to new ideas to learning to interact with those who are neither parent nor same-age peers. And the learning goes both ways. The children’s Grandma Ann told McCormick they teach her to slow down and enjoy the moment. The entire experience, adds McCormick, “fills everyone’s cup. The grandparents get to ‘love up’ their grandchildren, which lowers their stress levels and increases happiness.”

“On the flip side, the grandkids get another trusted adult figure to learn from and go to for help. And it’s typically much more fun to spend the weekend at Grandma’s than at home. After all,” she adds, “there are candy bowls!”

Strong bonds, better lives

A report by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids said grandparents can be “powerful allies in helping keep a kid off drugs.”

In her practice, Bowman said she’s seen benefits for both grandparents and grandkids when they have close relationships with each other.

Grandkids get the benefit of a positive influence, wisdom, love and friendship, she wrote. They gain emotional, mental, physical and spiritual support — and a link to family heritage.

For grandparents, Bowman sees greater well-being mentally, emotionally, socially and more. The older adults also find greater meaning as they share stories, what they’ve learned, their values and love.

A 2018 Pew Research Center report said that 64 million Americans — the highest number ever — live in multigenerational households. That’s 1 in 5. Of those, 28.4 million include three or more generations — most often a grandparent, adult child and one or more grandchildren. Additionally, 3.2 million Americans live in households that consist of grandparents and grandchildren, that report says.

A 2022 review of other research on relationships between grandparents and grandchildren in the Journal of Family Studies highlighted the “importance of the bond between them for their well-being, the good development of the grandchildren and the grandparents’ successful aging,” noting that “this mutually satisfying intergenerational bond is based on emotional closeness, reciprocal influence and willingness to maintain the relationship throughout life.”

Very Well Family” highlights geographic closeness as a strong predictor of a close relationship for a child and grandparents. But so, too, are family expectations, a consensus on values and the grandparents’ role within the family. In the latter case, that means whether grandparents provide childcare or financial support, for example.

Karpowitz believes the survey “makes a strong case for the need to take seriously the important role of grandparents in the life of the family. While the 2022 AFS was our first attempt to examine the contributions grandparents make, there is still much more to learn.”