For centuries, the Indian joint family system integrated the elderly into family and childcare duties. But during the past two-three decades with the rise of the 21st century nuclear family, the role of grandparents has steadily diminished. Nevertheless, its important to bear in mind that they can play an important role in instilling positive values, traditions and time-tested cultural mores in young children – Nandini Reddy, Cynthia John & Mini P.
The modern 21st century Indian family is an evolved amalgam of nuclear and joint families with working parents supported in childcare by hands-on grandparents. The grandparents home has transformed from being a summer escape to an omnipresent refuge and preferred alternative to paid child caregivers and professional day-care minders. As the number of double income parents in India is rising continuously, grandparents are playing important and involved roles in their grandchildrens lives, and in some cases becoming de facto parents.
According to David W. Shwalb and Ziarat Hossain, authors of Grandparents in Cultural Context (2017), the countrys elderly population (60+) is expected to rise 11 percent by 2025, and 20 percent by 2050, making India the most aged society in South Asia with an elderly population of 323 million. This huge demographic shift offers the potential of reviving the traditional Indian practice of multigenerational living arrangements that integrate the elderly into family and childcare duties. For several generations, within the traditional Indian joint family, grandparents have played an important role in nurturing grandchildren physically and emotionally by providing them love, security and benefit of their life experiences.
The enabling and life-changing role of grandparents is reinforced by contemporary studies. For instance, recent research conducted by the University of Oxford highlights the important role of grandparents in ensuring childrens well-being. The report authored by Prof. Ann Buchanan of the department of social policy and intervention, says that a high level of grandparental involvement increases the well-being of children. And a study of more than 1,500 children (in the UK) showed that those with a high level of grandparental involvement had fewer emotional and behavioural problems
Vice-versa, grandchildren have a positive influence on grandparents. South Asian grandparents find meaning in life as they invest in childcare, participate in decision-making, and socialisation, and inculcate cultural values in their grandchildren. Feelings and experiences of responsibility and authority… keep South Asian grandparents active and healthy,” write David W. Shwalb and Ziarat Hossain in Grandparents in Cultural Context.
Chennai-based V.P. Dhananjayan (70) and his wife Shanta, nationally renowned Bharatanatyam exponents, concur. The duo, who recently featured in a popular advertising campaign of telecom major Vodafone where they are shown to be trying out adventure sports such as river rafting and paragliding, define the new breed of inspirational grandparents who are not only active and fun-loving but also take a keen interest in nurturing their grandchildren. Todays parents have little time for their children and rely on grandparents as a support system. Grandparents play a very important role in giving children companionship and moulding their character. They pass on cultural and moral values, teach them patience, humour, kindness and compassion. They also share important life lessons that help children in their careers. For instance, my grandson sees our devotion and dedication to our work, and I am certain this will motivate him to give 100 percent to whatever career he chooses,” says Dhananjayan, a doting grandfather to 12-year-old Samarth.
With 21st century grandparents such as the Dhananjayans refusing to abandon their careers and/or reskilling themselves and actively pursuing sports interests and hobbies, the stereotype of the house-bound retired Indian grandparent is fast disappearing. Dr. Gita Mathai, a Vellore-based paediatrician, blogger, marathoner and swimmer, is one such new-age grandparent. While she still practices as a paediatrician, she has also taken to swimming and marathons. I owe my success in marathons to my grandfather. When I was in class V, I was very depressed over losing a sprint competition. My grandfather advised me, to practise hard for the next race by running five times around the house every day. I followed his advice and never lost another race in school. Later, I took up running and swimming. My grandson took to running after watching me, and we have won many competitions as a family. I want to give my grandson the time, love and valuable mentoring my grandparents gave me,” says Mathai.
Pros and Cons
Yet while double income parents want the aid and assistance of grandparents in raising children, its not all smooth sailing. Every generation has its own ideas of child development and disagreements over how to raise the children are inevitable between parents and grandparents. The biggest areas of contention are food, discipline, gifts and religious beliefs. Comments Dr. Shiva Prakash Srinivasan, a Chennai-based child and adolescent psychiatrist: Grandparents pass on knowledge, traditional skills and good manners but on the flip side, they excuse naughty behaviour and are often permissive with gadgets and screen time. The crux is to ensure that differing parenting styles do not adversely impact children. Thats why its important for grandparents to consult their grown children and be in sync with their parenting styles. Ditto, its important for parents to value, respect and appreciate the time, attent78ion, love and nurturance grandparents are giving to their children,” he says.
According to Dr. Srinivasan, children with special needs in particular, benefit greatly from involved grandparents. Special needs children who have involved grandparents show pronounced improvement in developing cognitive and social capabilities. The undivided attention grandparents provide is essential for the development of special children. A parents attention is divided between family and work whereas a grandparent offers more quality time and care that sets daily routines beneficial to a special child,” he says.
Shahnaz Azeez, Chennai-based counsellor and life coach, believes that the informal and stress-free relationship grandparents share with their grandkids helps them to openly discuss emotional and behavioural problems. Grandparents bring essential balance into a childs life. Parents often dont have the patience to deal with their children and/or tend to discipline them, but grandparents seem to communicate the same thoughts through storytelling and frank conversations rather than lectures and constant nagging,” says Azeez.
Recognising the special importance of grandparents in shaping childrens lives, several schools and organisations are organising events to celebrate this unique bond. Recently, HLC International School, Chennai, organised a grandparents day. We organised this unique celebration to bring back the joy of grandparenting. We have noticed that children who share a close bond with their grandparents, are more cheerful and participative in extra-curricular activities,” says Raaji Naveen, vice principal of HLC International.
Manveen Chadha, principal, Velammal World Preschool, Chennai, also organised a similar event on September 28, celebrated as Indian Grandparents Day across the country. Grandparents are the only link that the child has with his parents childhood. Children who grow up under the warm, secure and loving care of their grandparents develop higher self-esteem, better communication and analytical thinking skills and grow into well-rounded individuals,” says Chadha.
Famous people and their grandparents
Several famous people have been raised by grandparents including former US President Barack Obama, who fondly remembered his grandmother in his presidential victory speech in 2008. While she’s no longer with us, I know my grandmother’s watching, along with the family that made me who I am. I miss them tonight. I know that my debt to them is beyond measure
PepsiCo CEO, Indira Nooyi also disclosed in a recent interview that a big force in her life was her paternal grandfather, a charismatic judge in India. She also spoke of her struggles about balancing family and career. Let’s solve it by bringing the aging (grandparents), the middle-aged kids who are having kids and the little kids all together to be a supportive system. That’s the next revolution,” she said in a conversation onstage at Tina Browns Women in the World Summit 2016.
Kirthi Jayakumar, founder of the Red Elephant Foundation, a Chennai-based youth-led peacebuilding initiative, credits her grandmother with giving her a nuanced understanding of feminism. I initially understood feminism to be anti-men. But my grandmother explained that when men show love and care and dont discriminate on the basis of gender or identity, they need to be appreciated. That day, my grandmother redefined my myopic view of feminism. Feminism for me became about making my own choices, right to equality and the right to be empowered to make choices,” she says.
In this age of the nuclear family, the role of supportive and involved grandparents who instil positive values, behaviour and attitudes in children, has assumed new and critical significance to ensuring their physical and emotional well-being.
The US-based Foundation for Grandparenting has listed the following attributes of effective grandparenting:
Being there. A grandparents presence is positively correlated with increased emotional security in a grandchild. A 2013 study by Boston College researchers found that a close, emotional relationship between grandparents and grandchildren can have a measurable effect on the psychological well-being of both grandparents and grandchildren
Giving. This is the most defining characteristic of effective grandparenting. Altruism as a personality trait can explain the biological foundation of grandparents nurturing, protective and supportive roles.
Vitality. Its important for grandparents to not only be physically active, but also display emotional, spiritual, mental and intellectual vitality. And vitality is a two-way street. Grandchildren benefit from their grandparents vitality, but are also capable of vitalising grandparents. Grandparents who share a deep bond with grandchildren report that they have more energy and vitality since they began caring for the grandchildren.
Persistence. Effective grandparents are creative in overcoming obstacles that prevent them from being with their grandchildren. Long-distance grandparents can maintain a strong attachment to grandchildren by using the phone, mail, or computer to bridge physical distances.
Positive relationships. Grandparents are proactive about getting involved in their families lives and strive to be supportive figures for all. According to the World Health Organisation, todays grandparents are more likely to be healthy, involved in the family daily regimen, and more economically independent than the previous generation. US-based psychologist M. Silversteins research indicates that in Asian societies when grandparents choose not to participate in childcare of young grandchildren, their relationships with their children deteriorate gradually.
Its official: Grandparents matter
In July 2017, the US Supreme Court overturned President Donald Trumps proposal to ban grandparents from some Muslim countries from visiting their grandchildren in the US. The lead lawyer opposing the ban argued: Compelling a grandparent to be away from his grandchild — especially one seeking refuge from violence or persecution — inflicts hardship of unbearable severity
The crucial role of grandparents in childrens lives is acknowledged in several studies and surveys. They embody a critical cultural and financial link that unifies families with a shared heritage and a common view of the future,” says a 2010 survey titled Generation to Generation: Grandparents Imparting Lessons, Legacy and Love, by the MetLife Mature Market Institute (MMI). The survey which covers grandparenting in Asia and India noted that grandparents provide emotional succour, unconditional love and most importantly, financial assistance.
The major findings of the MMI survey are:
Over one-quarter (28 percent) of Asian/Indian grandparents are providing direct caregiving services to their grandchildren, usually daily. Just under one-quarter (21 percent) provide care several times a week. Most (67 percent) are providing caring services to one or more grandchildren.
The most frequently identified values grandparents instil in their children and grandchildren are cultural, significance of religious traditions, and heritage/ancestry information.
Honesty, good behaviour, and good health practices are important life skills that Asian/Indian grandparents teach grandchildren.
Almost a third (31 percent) of grandparents provide financial assistance or monetary gifts to their grandchildren, primarily in the form of education subsidies and/or general support.
The article was published in the print version of ParentsWorldNovember (Cover Story) 2017 issue.