Americans are pessimistic, from the economy to politics and culture. Faith in our institutions has hit a new low after the COVID pandemic and the 2020 election. But there’s one institution we all still admire, one whose resurgence could save the country:
This Grandparents Day, September 11, we should recognize the critical role grandparents can (and often do) play in the lives of their children and grandchildren. As a child, I was privileged to grow up in close relationship (and close proximity) to all of my grandparents, something I admit I took for granted.
Policymakers and commentators often focus on the challenges and pressures of modern family life. It’s true: child care is expensive, the education system is fraught with challenges, and America’s youth are facing an unprecedented mental health crisis. But leaning into the potential benefits of close grandparent-grandchild relationships could help solve all of these problems.
When it comes to child care, grandparents are a critical piece of the puzzle for many families. According to the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies, 59% of local grandparents are currently providing (40%) or have provided child care in the past (19%). Only 8% of grandparents are paid for the care they provide. Another study shows that 20% of working mothers with children under 5 depend on grandparents as a primary source of care. This is a huge support (and financial benefit) to families who are able to make such arrangements, and likely contributes to women’s labor force participation.
While the policy discussion around child care often focuses on universal daycare or subsidies for paid child care, lawmakers should know that daycare centers are actually parents’ least preferred option for childcare. Familial care — including from grandparents — is much preferred, and not just because it’s less expensive. Rather, it’s because grandparents are people parents can trust, and these intergenerational relationships come with all manner of benefits (both for children and for seniors).
Some grandparents are doing much more than occasionally babysitting. As many as 2.7 million grandparents are raising grandchildren — double the number in 1970. While being raised by a grandparent or another next-of-kin is not the ideal situation, this arrangement is usually far superior to other alternatives. And, these families save taxpayers $6 billion annually by keeping kids out of the foster care system.
In the world after Roe v. Wade, many Americans worry (or celebrate, depending on their point of view) that we may witness an increase in the number of children born in difficult situations. Grandparents can (and will) be a part of addressing this, by providing much-needed support.
But grandparents are important beyond the baby phase: America’s adolescents are facing a mental health crisis. These youth are often looking for adult role models and trusted friends outside of their parents. Grandparents are ideal candidates because they are usually still connected with mom and dad and can help build and maintain bridges between parents and children rather than destroying them. A 2016 study shows that emotional closeness between grandparents and grandchildren helps guard against depression for them both.
Similarly, parents can be a bridge between their kids and grandparents. The political animosity of recent years has brought with it a spike in politically-driven family estrangement. The sad choice by some parents to cut ties with grandparents over political issues is short-sighted. Children who have close bonds with grandparents have better odds of survival, for one thing, and benefit from extra care, love, support, and connection to generations past.
As a mother, I’m raising my kids geographically far from their grandparents, but I strive to facilitate good relationships between my kids and their grandparents, because I know how crucial these relationships can be. David Brooks was right when he wrote, just before the COVID pandemic reached America, that the “Nuclear Family was a Mistake.” Of course, strong nuclear family units are important, but as a society — and in our public policies — we should also consider ways to incentivize and support strong extended families. We should not anchor family policy on a standalone, cookie-cutter, two-income family, in which parents seem increasingly stressed out.
Bottom line: The best things in life are meant to be shared. So I’m trying to share my kids with my parents and my parents-in-law. In fact, I have plans to get everyone on an airplane to go visit again soon. The best part of this upcoming visit? I’ll get to see my living grandparents, too.