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The roles of grandparents in educating today's children.

The success of children in school depends on the home environment as well as school environment. School administrators, teachers, and counselors interact with the families of children for a variety of reasons, and often the point of contact is a grandparent. The population of grandparents is diverse, ranging in age from 30-110 years and encompassing many different economic levels, ethnic groups, and family constellations.

An understanding of the needs of grandparents in the context of school involvement will help school administrators, teachers, and counselors work more effectively with them to provide the most appropriate education and chances for school success for children living in a variety of home environments. This paper will discuss the roles of grandparents in the lives of their grandchildren and the impact of their relationship on grandparents as well as the children.


Children are growing up in blended families, families with both parents working, single parent families, multigenerational families, and families headed by grandparents. In this changing atmosphere, grandparents are assuming important roles in the rearing of their grandchildren. From 1980-1993 the number of households headed by grandparents increased 40-44% (Giarrusso and Silverstein, 1996; Pinson-Millburn & Fabian, 1996). Some children are moving back home after divorce or the death of a spouse. Others are returning home because they need to save money. Grandparents may volunteer or be coerced into becoming babysitters for their grandchildren. Others are becoming surrogate parents when their children will not, or cannot, take care of the grandchildren. The purpose of this paper is to discuss grand-parenting in the twenty-first century by examining the impact of grandparents raising grandchildren on the grandparents and grandchildren. An understanding of the issues involved in their relationship can benefit school administrators, teachers and counselors as they interact with grandparents.

Who are the Twenty-First Century Grandparents?

Most of the research relates to grandparents in participatory or care-taking roles, grandparents who are elderly, or grandparent members of groups who use special assistance programs. The most common sources of information have been U.S census statistics, American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), or sample studies using convenience samples (Heywood, 1999; Jones & Kennedy, 1996; Pinson-Millburn & Fabian, 1996).

In a time past views of the elderly and views of grandparents were synonymous. Grandparents were seen as physically frail, out of touch with current life styles, and old fashioned. The profile of the average grandparent today is quite different from that former stereotype. Because individuals are becoming grandparents at an earlier age mad living longer, they are likely to be healthy, relatively well off, and have a living spouse (Aldous, 19951. The average grandparent is white, female, and healthy (Roe & Minkler, 1998/991). Most grandparents are married, and if they are single they are more likely to be females (Jones & Kennedy, 1996; Landry, 1999). About 50% are working (Heywood, 1999; Woodworth, 1996).

In 1995 at least 75% of older Americans were grandparents (Giarrusso & Silverstein, 1996) and almost 50 percent of them were great-grandparents, many of whom were raising their great-grandchildren (Woodworth, 1996). However, in 1995 one-half of all U.S. grandparents were less than 60 years of age and one-half of the under 60 group was less that 55 years old (Simon-Rusinowitz & Krach, 1996). These figures tell us that most grandparents are not members of the elderly population. In fact, the estimated grandparent age ranges from 30 to 110, with the median age between 53-57 (Giarrusso & Silverstein, 1996; Heywood, 1999; Jones & Kennedy, 1996). Factors that are often cited in the literature for the growing numbers of grandparents are; the aging of post World War II baby boomers, longer life expectancy, early age of becoming a grandparent, and changes in the family life cycle (Dressel, 1996; Giarrusso & Silverstein, 1996; Longino & Earle, 1996). We can conclude that the number of grandparents will increase as the younger grandparents age and additional young people become grandparents.

Reported statistics concerning the economic status of grandparents can be confusing. Twelve percent of the elderly population lives in poverty, but 27% of grandparent households are below the poverty line (Heywood 1999; Simon-Rusinowitz & Krach, 1996). Two factors could account for this difference. About one half of the grandparents are below 60 years old (Simon-Rusinowitz & Krach. 1996). Thus, at least half the grandparents are not counted in the elderly population. Also, of the grandparents who are considered elderly, more of the poor elderly, rather than financially secure, are caring for grandchildren.

Contributing to the financial woes of grandparents are the facts that grandparents raising grandchildren may reduce work hours, retire early, postpone a new career, and spend their savings to pay the added expenses of the grandchildren (Row & Minkler, 1998/1999; Simon-Rusinowitz & Krach, 1996). They also have increased expenses for healthcare for themselves and the children (Pinson-Millburn & Fabian, 1996; Whitley, Kelley, & Sipe, 2001). Thus, more than twice the number of households headed by grandparents are below the poverty line as compared to the total elderly population.

Increasingly, grandparents who represent all socioeconomic and ethnic groups are serving as surrogate parents (Turner, 1995). Although more Caucasian children are raised by grandparents, a larger percentage of the population of African American children are living in the care of a grandparent. Pinson-Millburn & Fabian (1996) reported that 12% of all African American children live with grandparents, compared to 6% Hispanic and 4% Caucasian children. By midlife African Americans are nearly two times as likely as Caucasians to be grandparent caregivers (Jones & Kennedy, 1996) and to have lived in the care of a grandparent when a child.

In 2000 one-third of American grandparents were baby boomers (Longino & Earle, 1996). By 2030 this cohort of grandparents will be 66-84 years old and comprise 20% of the total population (Simon-Rusinowitz & Krach, 19961). They are called the sandwich generation because they are caring for grandchildren and for their aging parents or grandparents at the same time (Dressel, 1996) thereby reducing the amount of time they have to help school age grandchildren with schoolwork. On a brighter side, sandwich generation grandparents are valuable as surrogate parents, keepers of the family ties, and as transmitters of culture (Dressel, 1996), facts that could be valuable resources for schools.

What is the Role of Grandparents?

Grandparents spend different amounts of time and resources in their relationships with their grandchildren. Care-taking roles are referred to as custodial or surrogate parenting in the literature. In this paper grandparenting activities will be grouped into voluntary care-taking, involuntary care-taking, participatory caring, and limited contact according to the amount of involvement grandparents have in the lives of grandchildren. Limited contact does not equal indifference and care-taking roles do not always reflect a desire to be responsible for grandchildren, as we will see in the discussion of voluntary and involuntary care-taking.

Limited Contact

Limited contact refers to grandparents who have little or no contact for whatever reasons. Working, travel or other retirement activities, and living too far away to see grandchildren often are some of the reasons grandparents may not be actively engaged in the lives of their grandchildren (Biblarz & Bengtson, 1996). Other grandparents may have limited contact because they are in extended care facilities, or have restricted contact as a result of divorce, death of one of the parents, or remarriage of the parents of the grandchildren (Dressel, 1996; Gourdon, 1999).

Contact varies in the cases of divorce. When the parents of the grandchildren divorce, paternal grandparents are more likely to loose contact with the grandchildren and when the grandparents divorce, the grandfather usually has the most difficult time keeping in contact with the family. Step-grandparents very rarely reach parity with biological grandparents, especially maternal grandparents (Longino & Earle, 1996).

When conditions in family relationships change, usually due to illness, death or divorce, stress increases for all family members. Grandchildren may have a close emotional attachment to their grandparents, especially if they lived in the same household or neighborhood for a while, and exhibit stress related behaviors in school. Stress and grief issues may last for several years and the children could miss the opportunity to develop foundation skills in key subjects. Tutorial programs could be especially beneficial for such children.

Participatory Roles

Participatory roles are often voluntary and may be highly involved or extremely limited. Changes in the corporate world and early retirement contribute to this situation. Young grandparents who have accepted early retirement are finding that they have more resources and time than grandparents in past generations had, and often they want to spend more time with their grandchildren. Participatory grandparents may take an active interest in school functions in which their grandchildren are involved. Although they may mean well, they may need help understanding how best to communicate with the school.

When their children need help due to financial, physical, or emotional problems some grandparents provide extensive babysitting services or financial support and may feel they have no choice. For example, children who are striving for upward mobility may move back home and rely on their parents to share household responsibilities and baby-sit while both parents work. These grandparents may oversee homework time and meals for the children as well as be the contact person for the school. About half of grandmothers who help with the baby-sitting of their grandchildren still work (Heywood, 1999). Because they may net have the time or energy to help their grandchildren with homework or they may feel intimidated with the difference in education compared to when they attended school, these grandparents can benefit from workshops, resource information, and after school programs for the children.

Voluntary Care-taking

Voluntary caretakers are those who choose to raise grandchildren or baby-sit to the extent that they are in the role of parent at least part time most days. Reasons grandparents volunteer to assume the role of parent for their grandchildren include: demographic shifts, death, divorce, longer time in the grandparent role, both parents working, and early retirement (Giarrusso & Silverstein, 1996; Gatton & Haber, 1996; Longino & Earle, 1996; Roe & Minkler, 1998/99). Grandparents may accept custody so the grandchildren can attend certain schools or stay in a stable location when parents are away. Many of these grandparents may have the time, health and resources for active participation in raising their grandchildren.

Others may volunteer but feel they have no choice. If both parents are working, help is most often eagerly accepted--if not actively sought. These grandparents may or may not be custodial caretakers. Voluntary and involuntary caretakers frequently assume the role of custodial parent because of incompetent or indifferent parents. Regardless of the circumstances or extent of their help in caring for their grandchildren, grandparents often do not realize the stress involved at the time they volunteer (Landry, 1999; Pinson-Millburn & Fabian, 1996) and may show physical and emotional symptoms as the care-taking role extends over time. More than 10 percent of grandparents are responsible for raising at least one grandchild for a period of 6 months; one in five care for a grandchild for 10 years or more (Fuller-Thomson & Stirling, 1997). The U.S. National Survey of Families and Households (2002)indicates that grandparents who are single women, African American, and persons who are in low-income levels are over-represented as primary caretakers for a grandchild for a period of 10 or more years.

Many voluntary custodial grandparents do not have legal custody. They often face problems when they deal with schools because legal custody is usually required for enrolling children in school, seeing school records, participating in some conferences, and other school relations. Also, the places where they work may have policies that allow parents time off to visit schools but not include grandparents in the policy. As a result of these and other differences in social and legal support grandparents often feel out of place in the role of parent, especially when younger parents of other children are around (Heywood, 1999; Landry, 1999). Required meetings and parent oriented activities can increase stress for grandparents who are working.

Involuntary Care-taking

Grandparents who are the primary caregivers for their grandchildren with or without the parents in the home are considered custodial grandparents. The literature indicates that most often they assume this role of custodial/surrogate parenting involuntarily and with little or no forewarning (Roe & Minkler, 1998/99). Also, grandparents without legal custody have problems related to that in addition to other concerns resulting from the unexpected nature of the parenting role.

Schools should be aware that custodial grandparents are becoming the fastest growing group of grandparents in America at this time. The reason so many assume primary care of their grandchildren include teen pregnancy, emotional problems, divorce or remarriage; death of parent(s), HIV/AIDS, drug abuse, incarceration, abuse or neglect, and incompetence (Giarrusso & Silverstein, 1996; Gratton & Haber, 1996; Haywood, 1999; Landry, 1999; Longino & Earle; 1996; Pinson-Millburn & Fabian, 1996; Roe & Minkler, 1998/99). Of these, the most frequent reason is drug use by the parent (Woodworth, 1996). In addition, recent legal changes have resulted in more grandparents raising their grandchildren (Roe & Minkler, 1998/99).

Children who come under the care of child protective services and need to be placed with a custodial parent until the parent is able to care for them again are placed with a relative, if possible. The ideal placement is with a grandparent. However, until recently, grandparents who accepted the responsibility of raising their grandchildren had little or no financial help. The 1979 Supreme Court decision in Youakim v. Miller found that kinship caregivers can not be denied federal foster care benefits. This decision has helped social services providers keep their commitment to keeping families together when a child is abused or neglected (Roe & Minkler, 1998/99) and has provided necessary and/or additional financial assistance to grandparents faced with the cost of raising their grandchildren.

Changes in welfare laws have limited the length of time and amount of assistance a person may receive. Parents who had been the primary caretakers of their children must work, yet, the jobs they can find may not provide enough money to pay for childcare, with the result that grandparents become primary caretakers. In a more positive action, grandparents who are foster caretakers for grandchildren in federal child protective services are now eligible to receive foster care benefits (Roe & Minkler, 1998/99). To confuse matters, federal laws provide guidelines for surrogate parents for special needs children in special education.

The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) mandates that a surrogate parent must be appointed for children and youth with disabilities, birth to 21, whenever the birth parent cannot be found, including parents whose rights have been terminated. A surrogate parent, as defined by the Education Law Center (1999), is someone who volunteers to be appointed to help children who either have no identifiable parent, the parent cannot be located, or are wards of the state. Surrogates are appointed by the school district for school aged children and youth with disabilities. Surrogates for pre-school children are appointed by the responsible early intervention agency. The Counts appoint the surrogate parent for children under 3.
 A surrogate parents' rights are only
 within the scope of the special education
 process, including special education
 or early intervention services and
 children who need evaluation in order
 to determine eligibility for special education
 (Education Law Center, 1999).
 Duties of the surrogate parent include
 attendance at conferences in which the
 child's educational programs are discussed,
 participation in the student's
 Individual Educational Program (IEP)
 (Federal Register, 1999).

Grandparents who are surrogates for a child with special needs are confronted with demands that impact the entire family (Rothenberg, 1996). Combined with the stress of parenting for a second time, the birth of a child with a disability compounds a grandparents' ability to manage the difficulties that arise in parenting a grandchild.

Participation in a child's educational program and the procedures of evaluation, identification, placement, and progress can be intimating and confusing to grandparents. In response to the need of support for grandparents, especially for grandparents of a child with a disability, a growing network of support has begun to emerge. Schools have developed a number of strategies that support grandparents, including school district policies such as providing the grandparent with the ability to enroll the child in school and to review school records (American Association of Retired Persons [AARP], 1993).

Other strategies include developing school policy that supports appropriate referrals to educational services, health agencies, and social services. Family centered strategies also encourage surrogate parents to become active in their grandchild's education. Federally funded support for grandparents is also available through the Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights (PACER) (2002). Grandparent services include support groups that help grandparents of children with special needs meet other grandparents. The Grandparent-to-Grandparent program helps grandparents learn useful strategies for communication between generations, provides physical and emotional support, and helps grandparents learn about special programs and services that are available to children and youth with disabilities and their families (Parent and Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights (2002).

These government actions have increased the number of poor custodial grandparents. The U.S. National Survey of Families and Households (2002) indicates that grandparents who are single women, African American, and persons who are in low-income levels are over-represented as primary caretakers for a grandchild for a period of 10 or more years. They have unique problems associated with being in the legal system as kinship caretakers and being poor (Heywood, 1999; Landry, 1999).

Grandparents at different levels of involvement with their grandchildren have different needs when interacting with schools. Participatory grandparents need little. The parents can sign the necessary permission forms. These grandparents may even be sources of volunteer help at the school. Grandparents, whether working or not, most often seek information concerning support groups, assistance with the care of the children, coping strategies for the behavior of children, and resources for information. Additionally, school personnel can help their students and grandparents who are serving as surrogate parents by being informed about the issues they are facing and creating a supportive, understanding environment.

What are Grand-parenting Styles?

Views of grandparents and grandparenting styles change over time as childrearing practices and the significance of grandparents in the family change (Aldous, 1995). The role of grandparents is influenced mainly by the amount of contact with grandchildren, but grand-parenting styles are influenced by many factors.

Based on common characteristics found in a review of empirical studies, Giarrusso & Silverstein (1996) organized the relationships of grandparents to the family into six dimensions: affective, describing emotional closeness to the child; association, describing the amount of time with the child; consensus, in which they agree to a certain role; normative quality, where they feel the importance of family obligations; structure, where they are involved because they live in close proximity to the child; and function, where they are helping the family or the child. Giarrusso and Silvestein (1996) also reported a study that grouped grand-parenting styles into detached, passive, supportive, authoritative, and influential based on the relationship of the grandparent and child. This grouping most accurately refers to differences in warmth, communication, demands for control, and demands for maturity (Berber, 1994). While many grandparents are choosing to be active in the lives of their school age grandchildren and are usually caring and involved, even these grandparents may be passive, unconcerned, detached, and rejecting.

Perhaps grand-parenting styles are most influenced by the parenting styles they employed when raising their children, However, as society has changed to include an expanded, universal community, influences outside the control of parents have necessitated a change in approaches to raising children. For example, in past generations the caretaker had authority and control and emphasis was placed on children obeying their elders. Whereas, today emphasis is placed on teaching children decision-making and self-control (Biblarz & Bengtson, 1996). In this atmosphere children receive the message that they should be passive and obey but learn to make good decisions and accept the consequences. Children coming from a home where they are taught to be passive may behave difficulty in school with peers and following school rules.

To add to the mix, childrearing practices can be complicated by step-families. As each new member brings to the family his or her family traditions and values, relationships become more confusing. Other alternative family structures and changing gender roles further complicate the situation. Grandparents adjust to the differences in childrearing practices with different degrees of stress and success (Biblarz & Bengtson, 1996).

What Do We Need to Know About Grandparents?

The ages of the grandchildren and the age of the grandparent makes a difference in the well-being of grandparents and in how they interact with the grandchildren. In addition, abused and neglected children have more behavior problems (Shlonsky & Berrick, 2001). The behavior of teenagers and older grandchildren are difficult for grandparents. They may tell the teacher that they do not know what to do with the child and also may not find the suggestions provided to them by teachers workable. They have tried all the methods of control at their disposal and are at a loss. It is not surprising to see custodial or participatory, grandparents who find it difficult to manage daily stress gravitate to harmful behaviors, such as increased smoking mad the use of alcohol. Often the grandparents in these categories neglect their own health, even to the extent of not keeping medical appointments. Whitley, Kelley, & Sipe, (2001) reported that preexisting medical conditions are exacerbated by increased anxiety resulting from coping with the responsibility for dealing with modern childrearing practices, school relationships, the lifestyles of teen and young adult grandchildren, and the many agencies often involved when grandparents become surrogate parents.

In addition to financial and childrearing strains, involuntary custodial grandparents often feel responsible for the dysfunction of their children. Those who have been put in the position of participatory or primary caregiver early in life may also feel a "time distortion." At a time when they are expected to be traveling, doing things with their age group, or relaxing they are taking care of a second generation of children (Pinson-Millburn & Fabian 1996).

Social isolation and restriction inherent in the parenting role are unexpected effects of active grand-parenting (Whitley, Lelley, & Sipe, 2001). Decreased contact with family and friends is counter to the stereotype of grandparents as loved and lovable indulgent family members, and in reality they have variable support from family and friends for their roles. Family strife and marital problems are other factors contributing to social isolation. Support groups may help grandparents increase coping skills and access resources.

Grandparents are sometime denied access to their grandchildren as a result of family turmoil, remarriage, or relinquishing the care-giving role back to parents after they have "straightened themselves out". The bond between the grandparent and grandchild is usually strong and a profound sense of loss occurs. Additionally, grandparents in many cases, especially were drugs have been an issue, cannot trust the parents to be good caregivers in the years to come and have a heightened sense of insecurity about the future. They cannot make plans for the future, such as retirement or reentry into the job market, because they may be called on to assume the parenting role again.

These concerns for the children and the future have led some grandparents to go to court to get visitation rights. Yet, while all the 50 states have statutes designed to allow grandparents to see their grandchildren, even if parents oppose it, the fact remains that statutes vary greatly among states. A recent court case can be viewed as a setback for grandparents seeking visitation rights. In June of 2000, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled against grandparents in Troxel vs. Granville from Washington State. The court ruled in favor of parents' fundamental right to raise their children. Justices David Souter and Clarence Thomas said the state law was too broad. Eight states in addition to Washington have broad visitation statutes and may need to rewrite their statutes. The impact on other states' laws is difficult to determine at this time (Willing & McMahon, 2002, June 6).

Custodial grandparents may grieve for the problems and loss of their children, and feel sadness for the effects of the family situation on their grandchildren. For example, there seems to be a large percentage of children raised by grandparent with health and other problems caused by drug use by their parents (Pinson-Millburn & Fabian, 1996). Feelings of anger, sadness, and a sense of isolation were often referenced as causes for increased stress and health problems for grandparents (Heywood, 1999; Pinson-Millburn & Fabian, 1996; Roe & Minkler, 1998/99; Simon-Rusinowitz & Krach, 1996; Whitley, Kelley, & Sipe, 2001). However, Whitley, Kelley, & Sipe (2001) found that among some grandparents perseverance and determination are strong despite these feelings and/or a heightened concern over health issues.

Although most caretaker grandparents expect to be in that role for an extended time, they stress that they benefit from their involvement with their grandchildren. The special bond between grandparent and school age grandchildren has positive consequences for both the grandparent and the children as it fulfills the needs of the grandparents to stay active (Simon-Rusinowitz & Krach, 1996) and feel useful and needed (Pinson-Millburn & Fabian, 1996) and the quality of care a child receives influences his or her mental well being (Teichman & Ziv, 1998). The sense of accomplishment in providing a stable environment where their grandchildren can succeed in school is emotionally rewarding. Some grandparents also feel pride and satisfaction in teaching their grandchildren family values and traditions. In some cases, the positive consequences of grand-parenting include emotional and practical support from family members and the community (Giarrusso & Sinverstein, 1996; Roe & Minkler, 1998/99; Teichman & Ziv, 1998). Adult grandchildren receive support and identity from their grandparents (Giarrusso & Sinverstein, 1996; Roe & Minkler, 1998/99) and in return may contribute to taking care of their grandparents' physical and/or financial needs.


As society changes schools will be involved with grandparents as primary caretakers of children and as actively involved family members. Primary caretakers who have custody may not need the same help as non-custodial caretakers. During registration and communication with the home, school personnel should be aware of some of the unique stresses these grandparents endure and their need for information about services ranging from financial resources to dealing with the courts. Stress because of their lack of education, health concerns, and differences in parenting styles are important factors in the quality of relationship grandparents have with schools. A list of referral resources, support groups, after school care and tutoring, and help with registration are some of the ways school principals, teachers, and counselors can help.

School personnel can get an idea of the kind of help grandparents need by referring to the help sought from the AARP Information Center. They most often ask for the names of support groups and where to find community resources, particularly for financial assistance and medical care. The impact of seeking legal custody is a common request. Other concerns include mental health, dealing with schools, reparenting classes, childcare and respite care (Woodworth, 1996).

Despite the negative side of childrearing when one has already raised a family, many grandparents value their roles as caretakers and transmitters of family history and culture. In some cases, grandparents may have improved quality of life. Thus, while there are many problems, the traditional stereotype of grandparents is no longer accurate. Grandparents are not only a valuable stabilizing force in some families. They will likely assume important roles in the future regarding child-rearing that range from voluntary participation and financial assistance to that of custodian as the absolute necessity for a caretaker arises when children are removed from their custodial parents. In the end, grandparents may once again hold an influential place, not only in the lives of their grandchildren but also, in the sphere of policy making, especially those laws that concern the welfare of children and the rights of grandparents.


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Glenda Phillips Reynolds, Ed. D., NCC, DAPA, Associate Professor, Department of Counseling, Leadership, and Special Education, Auburn University Montgomery. James V. Wright, Ed. D., Professor/Department Head, Department of Counseling, Leadership, and Special Education, Auburn University Montgomery. Betty Beale, Ed. D., Director SERRC, Associate Professor, Department of Counseling, Leadership, and Special Education, Auburn University Montgomery.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Betty Beale, Auburn University Montgomery, Montgomery, AL 36124; Email:
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Author:Beale, Betty
Publication:Journal of Instructional Psychology
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2003
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