The historical experience of grandparenthood reflects the influence of a wide range of social and cultural factors. Grandparent-grandchild relationships develop within multiple intersecting contexts. These include demographic variables, social structures and norms, cultural images of the family, gender, class; race, ethnicity, and location. Prior to the middle of the twentieth century, social scientists and historians rarely focused on grandparenthood as a distinct topic, but since the late twentieth century a growing body of empirical research has examined various aspects of the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren. This work has documented both direct and indirect ways in which grandparents can influence grandchildren positively (e.g., as advocates, advisors, motivators, mentors, and transmitters of ethnic and religious traditions) and negatively (e.g., as purveyors of unsolicited child-rearing advice that may foster intergenerational family conflict). Reciprocal influences from grandchildren to grandparents have also been identified. While most of the research has focused on grandmothers, some work has also concentrated on grandfathers.
No comprehensive historical analysis of the role of grandparents in individual children's lives has been attempted, but research on the history of aging has addressed aspects of grandparenthood in the past. Several studies suggest that grandparenthood in North America changed significantly from the colonial period to the end of the twentieth century. Although they differ with regard to the chronology of the transition, these studies argue that changes in the dominant cultural images and in the material circumstances of aging adults reduced the elderly from a traditional position of authority and esteem to one of obsolescence and dependence, and eventually brought them independence and autonomy. Furthermore, this transformation also altered the emotional condition of the aged, moving the balance between respect and affection in intergenerational relationships toward a new emphasis on LOVE and companionship between parents and children, and thus between grandparents and grandchildren. However, other work has challenged both the idea of a drastic change in attitudes toward old age and the notion that longevity automatically conferred honor and power on the elderly in early America. These conflicting views highlight the complexity of the historical study of old age and of the effort to locate grandparent-grandchild relationships in historical perspective.
Although religious and cultural prescriptions stressed respect for the elderly and emphasized intergenerational familial obligations during the colonial and post-Revolutionary periods, grandparents, particularly grandfathers, exercised economic and social control primarily through their ownership of land in an agricultural society. Even when offspring married and established their own households, as long as they remained dependent on their parents' assets the latter maintained authority in the family. This situation changed if children migrated to another area or became financially independent. Only a small minority of the elderly lived with children and grandchildren; co-residence usually reflected necessity–illness, helplessness, and in the case of women, widowhood–rather than personal preference.
The characteristic Western demographic pattern of high mortality, high fertility, and late age of marriage determined that, unlike their twentieth-century counterparts, few adults in earlier American society experienced grandparenthood as a stage of life separate from active parenthood. Short life expectancies meant that grandparenthood was a rare experience altogether in seventeenth-century Chesapeake society, although grandparents played an increasingly important role in eighteenth-century Southern families. In contrast, in early New England settlers survived to old age in larger numbers than elsewhere in the colonies. Longer life expectancies and the tendency for women to marry at a younger age than men meant that few survived to experience the maturity and marriage of all their offspring, and it was not unusual for the birth of late children and early grandchildren to occur simultaneously. Demographic records from New England indicate that first- or second-born children were likely to know all of their grandparents in early childhood, and perhaps to have two or three surviving grandparents in adolescence, while their younger siblings experienced fewer opportunities to interact with grandparents. Evidence from wills, probate court records, and other contemporary documents suggests that despite the high mortality and fertility rates of the period, frequent contact and affectionate ties between grandparents and grandchildren in early American families were not unusual. Grandparents regularly left property and money to their grandchildren and often cared for them in childhood. In turn, older grandchildren provided care and assistance to frail grandmothers and grandfathers. Occasional references to grandparental overindulgence in child-rearing literature also suggest relationships characterized by love as well as respect and obligation.
As a larger proportion of people lived into old age and people married younger and bore children earlier, the possibility that three generations of family members would be alive simultaneously increased, and co-residence became progressively more likely. Thus by 1900 the percentage of trigenerational households had reached its peak in American history. Aging widows comprised the majority of those who resided with children and grandchildren. While the possibility of co-residence grew, concerns about its negative effects also multiplied. Middle-class commentators at the turn of the century and beyond lamented the disruptive consequences of living with aging parents, especially the frequency of intergenerational conflict over grandparental interference in child rearing. At the same time, dislocated parents complained about ungracious treatment and the constraints of living with children and grandchildren. While co-residence undoubtedly created difficulties for some families, such domestic arrangements remained the exception. Even in 1900, 70 percent of Americans who were sixty or older lived either as head of the household or spouse of the head, suggesting that most grandparent-grandchild interactions were not shaped by intergenerational domestic friction. Nevertheless, emerging images of the elderly as nonproductive and superfluous in an increasingly industrially and technically sophisticated society, along with medical interpretations of aging as a disease, fostered the perception of aging parents and grandparents as a burden to society and to the family.
Despite the proliferation of negative cultural representations of aging individuals during this period, nineteenth-century letters, diaries, and autobiographic recollections document frequent contacts and close, affectionate relationships between grandparents and grandchildren, often, but not exclusively, defined by gender. For example, grandmothers frequently cared for young children in times of stress or illness, and in turn, adult granddaughters provided companionship and help for frail grandmothers. Many nineteenth-century women who recorded their life histories stressed the influence of grandmothers as models. Grandparents of both genders expressed joy at the birth of grandchildren and followed their progress eagerly. Grandfathers as well as grandmothers corresponded frequently with grandchildren of all ages. Letters from young women express love and concern for grandparents, but letters from young men, for example during the Civil War, illustrate closeness between young men and their grandparents as well. As in earlier America, nineteenth-century references to indulgent grandparents are not unusual. Artistic representations of grandmothers, emphasizing their benign qualities, suggest more positive public images as well.
In response to negative representations of the aging and warnings from family experts regarding the threats posed by co-residency, growing numbers of Americans espoused the ideal of autonomous households. While the catastrophic economic impact of the Depression temporarily disrupted the process of achieving this goal, the decline of co-residence represents a major development in the decades after 1920. By the middle of the century, Social Security benefits, private pensions, and growing prosperity among older people made it possible for most grandparents to live independently, a major change in the structure of many households that met widespread implicit approval. This trend was reflected in revised cultural images. No longer portrayed as burdens, the elderly were now depicted as active, busy, autonomous individuals who could and should control their own lives. Prescriptive literature addressed to grandparents explicitly defined their roles as providers of love and companionship. In the context of this new image, indulging and spoiling grandchildren no longer represented inappropriate behavior.
A range of evidence reflects congruence between the revised image of grandparenthood and grandparent-grandchild interactions in the second half of the twentieth century. Empirical studies as well as correspondence by and about grandmothers, grandfathers, and grandchildren illustrate strong intergenerational bonds. Grandparents reported that a sense of emotional distance had characterized their relationships with their own grandparents, while they enjoyed warm bonds, shared interests, and a sense of relative equality with their grandchildren. They sent loving letters and whimsical drawings to younger children and generous gifts to adolescents and young adults, and they expressed their pleasure in grandparenthood to friends and relatives. Grandchildren wrote grateful thank-you notes, worried about grandparental health, described their own activities, and sometimes testified explicitly to the importance of grandmothers and grandfathers in their lives. Although many contemporary studies emphasize the positive nature of companionate grandparenthood in the second half of the twentieth century, some scholars suggest that the grandparent-grandchild relationships may have lost a valuable component when the balance between sentiment and more instrumental ties changed.
Despite evidence of common experiences in the history of grandparent-grandchild relationships, it is important to acknowledge the danger of overgeneralizing. Diversity and heterogeneity have characterized grandparenthood in all historical periods. Although factors like gender, class, race, ethnicity, and location have not been fully analyzed as variables in this context, some examples of their impact can be cited. For instance, shared gender roles fostered special closeness between nineteenth-century grandmothers and granddaughters, while twentieth-century grandmothers developed warmer, more communicative relationships with grandchildren than their male counterparts did. At the turn of the century, co-residence with grandparents was experienced primarily by middle-class children whose families had the resources to support elderly relatives. African-American grandparents, especially grandmothers, have played prominent roles in the lives of their grandchildren from slavery to the present. In contrast to their white counterparts, they have remained deeply involved in the rearing of grandchildren, though not necessarily by choice. While providing a loving companionship, they have consistently assumed more functional responsibilities and more authority in response to the range of problems African-American families have faced over the centuries. Hence, substantial participation in grandchildren's lives became an integral part of African-American intergenerational family culture, and contemporary African-American grandmothers continue to reflect a distinctive, hands-on style in their interactions with grandchildren. Many immigrant families, Italian-Americans in particular, venerated the older generation, especially grandmothers who helped in the home. At the same time, language and cultural barriers could impede the development of close relationships between grandparents and grandchildren. Finally, strong bonds linked the generations in rural families, but this often changed when young people migrated to the city.
The links between changes in the social and cultural context of grandparenthood and in the actual experience of intergenerational relationships within families are complex. As with any aspect of family history, direct one-to-one correlations cannot be assumed. The research to date suggests that grandparenthood has changed structurally and emotionally from the preindustrial period to the present. In earlier periods, grandparents were in short supply. Grandparenthood occurred simultaneously with parenthood. Co-residency created family conflict. By the end of the twentieth century, older people enjoyed more leisure time, financial security, and independence than previously. Increased life expectancy meant that many older people lived long enough to experience grandparenthood as a separate stage of life over a lengthy period. Moreover they looked forward to grandparenthood as a goal. Now grandchildren, rather than grandparents, were in short supply as FERTILITY RATES declined. Although geographic distance often separated family members, ease of travel and communication allowed them to keep in touch. It is important to consider how these changes altered the nature of relationships between grandparents and grandchildren. Nevertheless, evidence of explicitly loving and affectionate relationships in earlier periods as well as in the twentieth century cautions against overstating the extent to which grandparent-grandchild interactions have changed over time. Further historical study of individual relationships as recorded in personal documents and other primary sources will be necessary to develop a fuller understanding of the balance between change and continuity in grandparenthood.
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LINDA W. ROSENZWEIG