Grandparenthood and great-grandparenthood may be viewed as mature stages in a lifelong developmental process. Grandparents are formed by the interaction of many biological, psychological, interpersonal and social forces. These forces act by influencing aspects of a grandparent’s thoughts, feelings and behavior as well as grandparenthood meaning, identity and action. Grandparents are both born and made.
The process of grandparent development is ongoing, simultaneously involving biological, psychological and emotional factors, active learning and mastery of challenging life events. This sequential developmental flow propels the individual toward a stage of life described by psychologist Erik Erikson in Identity and the Life Cycle, 1959, as “generative, ” a stage where personal “integrity” and continuity may be achieved, and an individual reaches their full developmental potential.
This phenomenon has been recognized by many cultures. The Hindu religion accords individuals who achieve this life stage the status of “Sage,” or wise one.
Evolution of Grandparent Development
Fulfillment of the grandparent role is a culminating point in an evolutionary process stretching from birth to death. The qualities of grandparenthood grow and mature psychologically and behaviorally within the individual in a sequence of stages: from receiving as a child to giving as an elder; from being nurtured as a child, to nurturing the young as an adult; from learning to teaching; from listening to stories to telling stories; from being directed to directing; from reacting to authority to becoming able to influence the world.
Gandparenthood Involves Passages
Grandparent development – like other facets of development – may proceed smoothly or may be subject to developmental problems. Grandparenthood involves passage through developmental periods proceeding from childhood to adulthood to parenthood, grandparenthood and, for some, great-grandparenthood. The fashion in which the individual evolves through this process determines grandparenthood identity and affects grandparent activity.
The bio-psycho-social-spiritual substance of grandparenthood is contained in the individual’s grandparent identity and grandparenting activity. These two factors are intimately related, dynamically interacting in a feedback loop as soon as a grandchild is born. Grandparent identity, however, begins its formative stages well before biological grandparenthood is attained. This stage is involved in forming a potential or “latent” grandparent identity within the psyche.
The Latent Grandparent Identity
The groundwork for grandparent identity is laid down early in childhood. Both consciously and unconsciously, the child’s personal experience and grandparent-related interactions result in learned impressions of what grandparenting is about. These impressions are stored in the psyche to constitute a latent grandparent identity which continues to evolve until the child becomes an adult and a grandchild comes along. The latent grandparent identity results primarily from learned experience, although specific aspects of personality (altruism, for example) may increase an individual’s affinity for certain roles.
As growth proceeds, complex developmental events affect the individual’s latent grandparent identity which assimilates, adapts and accommodates dynamically to familial, ethnic and social systems. When a grandchild is born, the grandparent’s self-esteem is enhanced, their life priorities shift and the latent grandparent identity is expressed in grandparenting activity.
Early Grandparent Development
The latent grandparent identity is built upon a foundation of early organic and derivative-experiential components, the sum of which supplies a blueprint for future grandparenting behavior. The following is a list of some organic, psychological and experiential building blocks for a positive latent grandparent identity compiled from subjects of the Grandparent Study conducted by the Foundation for Grandparenting.
As a child:
- Experiences a strong, organically-based attraction toward a grandparent
- Experiences love, joy, security, novelty, fun with an elder.
- Has their grandparent point out similarities between them related to genetics: “I have my grandmother’s eyes,” “I have my grandfather’s baseball throwing arm.”
- Experiences a sense of being able to count on a grandparent’s availability to them.
- Experiences a spiritual connection with a grandparent that is hard to articulate.
- Experiences a sense of family connectedness, continuity and rootedness.
- Observes grandparents playing a variety of roles.
- Identifies with a grandparent, i.e., “I want to be able to paint like grandma.”
- Observes grandparents supporting parents.
- Observes parents respecting and relating positively to grandparents.
- Experiences intergenerational harmony.
- Observes positive actions of grandparents besides their own in other families and in society.
As a parent:
- Observed positive experiences between one’s parents and grandparents as a child.
- Negotiates the bond between their parents and their children.
- Acts as the linchpin between grandparents and grandchildren.
- Observes the positive experiences of one’s child as a grandchild.
All of these experiential elements are part of a rehearsal for future grandparenthood. A parent integrates these components of their latent grandparent identity along with their personal organic makeup, temperament, cognitive ability, etc. The ongoing dynamic interaction of these elements combined with the parent’s changing family roles and life situations (work, education, marriage, childbirth, etc.) all contribute to the formation of a future operational grandparent identity.
Overcoming Negative Experience
It is important to note that one’s grandparent identity can also contain negative components gleaned from negative experiences. A 52-year-old grandmother who was an altruistic and family-oriented person, stated, “I hated my own grandmother. She couldn’t stand to be around me because I was such a noisy child. I always wondered if I would be like her when I became a grandmother. When I was younger, I was always wary of my mother and even my husband’s mother not appreciating my children.”
This grandmother remains an effective and loving grandmother in spite of her negative experience with her own grandmother. Fortunately for her grandchildren, her positive grandparenting activity was a corrective and countervailing experience to her childhood impression of what grandmothers were like.
The latent grandparent identity becomes a functional grandparent identity when a grandchild is born. The birth of a grandchild releases a biological, psychological and social force within the new grandparent, a “grandparenting drive.”
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