Grandparents: role models or bad influences?

Sunday 14 October, 16:0017:15, Frobisher 1-3Modern family

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Grandparents have traditionally been an important source of wisdom and support as their children become parents. But with changes in the world of work and in attitudes to parenting, are grandparents getting a raw deal today?

Grandparents are important for family life. As well as giving moral support, they are relied upon to fill the gaps parents and the state are unable to fill. Growing numbers of grandparents look after children when mothers and fathers who go out to work find formal childcare too expensive. Some grandparents even step in to bring children up when parents are unable to cope (often via special guardianship orders). And as the cost of higher education has increased, the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ has expanded to the ‘Bank of Parents and Grandparents’, with the older generation called upon to help financially. Even for those living far away, ‘Skype grandparents’ keep in touch with support and advice via video calls and social media.

While grandparents’ support can be welcome, there can be tensions, too. Grandparents are told they are out of touch with modern parenting values. Grandparents think spoiling their grandchildren (at least sometimes) is part of the job description, but now the treats they give are criticised as unhealthy. Grandparents who give hugs without asking are accused of teaching unwelcome hugs and kisses are okay. With modern parenting bound up with seemingly endless new rules, parents can often find themselves at odds with their own parents or in-laws when it comes to how best to bring up the children.

Is this just the same as it ever was? Haven’t grandkids always loved their grandparents, while parents look on with horror as carefully enforced family rules are broken? Weren’t the mother-in-law jokes of the 1970s an expression of a similar attitude shift between the generations, or is today’s generation gap wider than ever? Does older mean wiser anymore or does expertise in the latest ideas on parenting practice trump lived experience? If so, should modern grandparents consider reading parenting manuals and enrolling in grandparenting classes? On the other hand, should grandparents who look after children while parents work be recognised by the government and given some grandparenting leave or financial support themselves? Have we lost the ability to just relax and enjoy the ups and downs of modern family life?