Grandparent styles can differ widely

I have been doing a lot of in-residence grandparenting lately. We have seven grandchildren between the ages of 9 months and 20 years, but recently most of my time has been spent with the youngest.

I am a hands-on grandma with this little guy — it's different from all our other very grand kids. I wanted to understand why that was so true — beyond the obviousness of snuggling an infant on a regular basis.

I unearthed early studies on grandparenting styles and found them enlightening but incomplete.

Style No. 1: "Formal" grandparenting. Grandparents are interested but not intrusive; they in no way impinge on parenting preferences.

Style No. 2: "Fun-seeking" grandparents. They have a whole lot of fun with their grandchildren no matter what the age; they frolic, cavort, crawl on the floor and make snorting noises. And, yes, these grandparents may be found to be interfering just a little.

Style No. 3: "Distant" grandparents — by geographic distance or desire.

The original researchers (Neurgarten and Weinstein) looked at all this decades ago, and the process was not completely scientific. But then, who can be scientific about grandparenting?

They identified two gender-specific styles. They found that grandmothers often became surrogate parents by design or default. And they suggested grandfathers were "reservoirs of family wisdom." In these times, I am sure there are a lot of granddads who have a loads of hands-on responsibility, and today's grandmoms are amazing reservoirs of wisdom — and a lot of other things for that matter.

Like most things in life, labels are not completely helpful, and styles always blend and shift over time. Factors such as stepchildren having children — who are never called "step grandchildren" — may be a consideration. The temperament and attitude of a grandchild cannot be ignored in how a grandparent functions and relates.

A 1985 study done by Cherlin and Furstenburg identified five grand-parenting styles: detached, passive, authoritative, supportive and influential. The style-names are self-explanatory, and for many years they served as the framework for how we thought about grandparenting.

But things are changing. First of all, there are a lot more grandparents who are actively involved in a surrogate way because of the four D's (death, divorce, drugs and detention — the last two often being directly related). Current data suggest there are now more fun-seeking grandparents who have stayed active and healthy and retired early.

More study might be useful. Until then, as one expert put it, "grandparents will just muddle through," playing unexamined but important roles.

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at

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