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The Grandparent Drive

Biology, psychology and external family and social systems all affect grandparenting identity and activity.  One biological event, the birth of a grandchild, initiates the basis of grandparenthood, the “grandparent drive.”  The function of this drive is to activate the latent grandparent identity and transform it into a functional grandparent identity.  Many grandparents agree that the drive to have a grandchild is similar to the drive to have a child, with the only difference being one generation removed.


 Gorlitz(1982) studied some of the intrapsychic experiences accompanying the transition into grandparenthood of 28 grandparents just prior to and from 15-18 months after the birth of a grandchild.  Two central themes were identified:  conflicts precipitated by grandparenthood, and the repair of injuries and the reworking of earlier issues through the use of generativity.

 Five areas of conflict were aging anxiety, tension over lack of control in grandparenthood, competition with the various members of the multi-generational drama, pressure to relinquish the comfort of retirement and parental responsibility, and tension from intrapersonal factors.  The “reparative” aspects of grandparent were pleasure in generativity, a chance to make up for past parenting mistakes both with children and grandchildren, and positive self-esteem and identification.

Studying the Grandparent Drive

 During our Grandparent Study, grandparents and grandchildren reported more than culturally learned factors as responsible for the quality of their relationship.  In an attempt to explore these ephemeral factors, we initiated a study to examine the nature-nurture aspects that affect the grandparent-grandchild relationship.

 For this qualitative study we interviewed 240 grandparent subjects, 160 women and 120 men, from 1990 to 1993.  Subjects were interviewed at senior centers, schools and the Grandparent-Grandchild Summer Camp.

 The results of this study showed that 83% of the subjects mentioned one or more of the following factors related to emotion, continuity, meaning and role fulfillment: “love for the grandchild,” “love of family,” “personal meaning,” “spiritual meaning,” “a need to be a grandparent,” “joyfulness,” “the meaning of life,” “a need to be a part of a grandchild’s life,” and the “need to protect.”

 Other subjects mentioned modeling their grandparents (“taking after a grandparent”), and an interest in social standing (“prestige, people look up to me”) as the most important determinant in their grandparenting behavior.  All subjects reported influencing forces (family systems, distance, work, age, health, etc.) as affecting the quality and effectiveness of grandparenting.  In open discussion, all agree that good relationships with their own children were necessary to have access to grandchildren. 

 A majority of grandparents (92%) ascribed the primary motivation of their grandparenting behavior to the presence of a grandparenting need or instinct awoken by their love and need for attachment to their grandchild.  Many grandparents in fact described this feeling as a “drive.”

 This idea of a primary, biologically-rooted “drive” to grandparent is useful when denoting the biological force behind grandparenting.  When asked about the origins of their drive, one grandmother said her drive came “from something inside me.  There’s no words for it.”  Yet another grandmother described her drive as “life itself.”

 With few exceptions, subjects agreed that influencing factors were important determinants of how they grandparent.  The drive, however, was identified as the most important factor in being an involved grandparent.  “If you don’t have the grandparent urge,” a grandfather said, “nothing can make you get close to your grandchild.  Wanting to have a grandchild is just like wanting to have a kid when you’re young.”

 None of the grandparents we interviewed directly refuted the existence of a grandparent drive.  A minority (8%), however, qualified their own attraction to grandparenthood as initially “weak,” but reported that a drive to become more involved in the role strengthened when they became emotionally closer to their grandchildren.

 A grandmother in this group said, “I really didn’t care if I had children or grandchildren.  But once my children and grandchildren came along I loved them.  Now I couldn’t bear the thought of not having them.”

 To sum up, grandparents in this study report a natural need or “drive” that motivates their grandparenting.  They place secondary emphasis on the forces of socially learned behaviors and attitudes.  They also recognize that good relationships with their own children enhanced access to their grandchildren.

Drive= Connection

 The concept of a basic drive to grandparent explains why certain grandparents struggle so hard to have contact with their grandchildren despite personal, social or geographic barriers.  It further explains why grandparents who don’t see their grandchildren frequently love them at a distance and still feel emotionally close to them.  It also explains the mirror-image reflection of this need for attachment in grandchildren.

 Although there is little hard scientific, clinical evidence to support the concept of a grandparenting drive, personal experience, human behavior, case studies and qualitative interview data supports the idea.  Experience has shown that people exhibit different drives and needs for other people.  Attachment theory, which is based on human and animal studies (Rosenblatt, 1967, Redican & Mitchell, 1972), have explained many aspects of the parent-child bond.  Why can’t we extend this model to grandparents and grandchildren?  If a baby’s smile, for example, induces approach and caretaking behavior in the mother, why shouldn’t this apply to grandparents as well?

Fulfilled attachment brings happiness.  Separation brings pain.  When a grandparent is separated from a grandchild, it can be experienced as an emotional loss and a lack of fulfillment of a grandparenting drive.  Certain subjects in the Grandparent Study have overcome substantial obstacles to be close to their grandchildren.  Perhaps these grandparents have a stronger drive than those who move away from their families to retire, for example.

 During an interview, one long-distance grandfather said, “I think about my grandchildren all the time.  But they live 1,000 miles away.  I have to force myself to stop calling.”

Variable from Person to Person

 Although a grandparenting drive may be present, it is not necessarily consciously perceived by all grandparents before their grandchildren are born.  Those with a strong latent grandparent identity report a mental rehearsal for grandparenting which is usually manifested in joyful fantasies about being with their future grandchild.  Grandparents who reported no thoughts of being a grandparent before the arrival of their grandchild, often experience the feeling of a drive to grandparent after the birth.

 Expression of the grandparent drive is qualified and shaped by a host of personal influencing factors as well as family and social systems.  The interaction of both drive and influencing factors determines the individual’s conscious perception of the drive.




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  1. Stephanie Callaway June 10th, 2015

    My son passed away when my grandson was only 5 yrs old. My grandson is now 9. My son and the mother lived around the corner from us until 2 mos ago. They recently moved an hour away. That being said, I was a regular part of my grandson (Jacob) life. I picked him up from school twice a week and I helped regularly with watching him while the mother worked. The mother started dating someone that I wasn’t sure was a positive in their life and had actually asked her questions about him. As soon as that came up she immediately cut me off and now I can’t see him. She and jacob have since moved in with her mother who has also added to the difficulty in seeing my grandson. She tells me to stay out of the mothers life..that’s gine, I just want to make sure my grandson is in a safe situation and that I am able to have a relationship with him and visit him. I will make the drive and go around her schedule, but at this point I can’t get her or my grandson to return my phone calls. I have been ALLOWED to see him 4 hours in the last 4 months. It’s been horrible. My son, God rest his soul, would be so upset to know what was going on. He has had isdues at school that arr concerning, she also took him out of school 6 weeks before it ended and enrolled him in a new school that late in the game. My daughter, Jacob’s aunt, has offered financial help, acedemic assistance, and has offered to pay for a private education, in order to help with his learning challenges and all of the offers have been ignored or denied by the mother, and without warrant. The mother did have a child services case about three years ago for being in an auto accident while under the influence, my grandson suffered injury. Her mother had to live with her (and was considered to have custody of him) until child services decided she had been to the required classes and was deemed fit. So her record is less than desirable. All I want is to see my grandson. I am not asking for custody or trying to make things harder on Jacob I simply love him and want to be a part of his life regularly..

  2. mad mom maw November 25th, 2015

    I had my only grandsons illegally kidnapped and taken out of families lives 🙁 🙁 This pain is undesirable! !!! I cry everyday for them to b returned back into our lives!! There is so much corruption and false allegations, it’s so sad to see not only our families lives ripped apart; thousands are kidnapped and go into FORCED ADOPTIONS!! There needs reform to The Family Law Act for 2016!! We have to continue the FIGHT for CHANGE!! For our families to be left alone in PEACE, LOVE, and HAPPINESS 🙂 🙂 🙂 Please BRING justice to those taking our innocent children/grandchildren from stable, loving, and Happy Homes!!! TheSe babies are MINE!!!


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