This article was contributed by First Things First. FTF is a voter-initiated, statewide organization that funds early development programs to prepare young children to succeed in kindergarten and beyond.
Grandparents can play many important roles in the lives of their beloved young children. Depending on how far away they live and other circumstances, they can be caregivers, teachers and playmates. They are trusted advisors for their adult children who are now parents themselves. For many families, grandparents provide regular child care. In some cases, they are primary caregivers to their grandkids. And whether they live nearby or stay in touch from afar, the love and emotional closeness that grandparents provide makes a big, positive impact on their grandchild’s healthy development.
All of these roles are important, and there are many more special things grandparents do for their little ones, but here are five to be celebrated:
1. Grandparents give advice.
Being the parent of a baby or toddler is a joy, but it’s not always easy. Especially for new parents. And little ones grow and develop so fast that parenting routines that work one day may not the next. When in doubt, parents often go online for answers. But the sources of parenting information they trust the most are their own parents (usually their mothers or mothers-in-law), more than friends, pediatricians or websites.
The lived experience and wisdom of grandparents can be especially helpful and calming in moments of parental frustration or panic.
Of course, some advice from grandma or grandpa may not align with what we now know about child development — like whether or not you can spoil a baby — but their intuition and long-term perspective can be comforting to a parent who isn’t sure what to do sometimes and doesn’t want to make mistakes. Grandparents know that there’s no such thing as a perfect parent.
2. Grandparents teach young children.
Grandparents can bring a special enthusiasm to the time they spend with their little ones, and that helps a child learn and grow. They help children learn by playing, talking and reading together while giving them focused attention. And they teach more directly by telling stories and sharing family and cultural traditions. Grandparents are also in a unique position to reinforce limits and lessons from parents while also listening, wiping away tears and showing their grandchild that they understand.
It’s hard to quantify the impact of the special connection between young kids and their grandparents, but studies have shown that having actively-involved grandparents can help children grow confidence, cope with stress and have fewer behavioral issues as they get older.
“Gabby always looked for my mom when she was trying something new. Whether she was learning to play soccer or trying a new dance move, Grandma’s love and encouragement was a building block for her self-esteem.
Having loving grandparents is like having your own little cheering squad. It really helps when things in life get rough.” — Nicole
3. Grandparents provide child care.
More than just occasional help, many families rely on grandparents for regular, trusted child care for their little ones. According to ZERO TO THREE, 1 out of 4 children under age 5 are cared for by grandparents while their parents work or attend school. That’s the same number of children enrolled in formal child care programs.
While many grandparents rise the challenge, it’s not always easy. About half of grandparents surveyed feel some level of disagreement or tension about approaches to child care, and 2 out of 5 say the job of caregiving is tiring.
“We worked a lot throughout the early years of our children’s lives. Looking back, we probably would have liked to have spent more time with them. I think it’s why, even though we knew we would be challenged, we took on this responsibility.” — Mike
ZERO TO THREE has excellent resources (in English and Spanish) to support families and grandparents as child care providers:
Sharing the Caring: Partnering With Your Adult Child to Care for Your Grandchild
Talking It Out: A Tool for Establishing Good Communication Between Parents and Grandparents
4. Some grandparents are primary caregivers.
Many grandparents are also helping raise their grandchildren, which increases both the challenges and the rewards. In Arizona, First Things First provides funding for various programs that support grandparents in these efforts. Check out our Find Programs search tool to see what classes and workshops are available in your Arizona community.
“So many grandparents have been away from kids or are older and don’t have as much patience. This class helped tremendously on how to deal with the little ones, so that you can bond with them. To get down on their level, like talking to them about what’s wrong. I figured it wouldn’t hurt me to learn some of that.” — Cindy
FTF also supports the Birth to 5 Helpline (1-877-705-KIDS), a free service available to all Arizona families with young children birth to age 5. Early childhood experts are available to answer any questions, from basic health and nutrition to how to handle challenging behaviors.
The most important thing that grandparents bring their little ones is love. Babies, toddlers and preschoolers learn and grow through close, caring relationships with the adults in their lives. The attention, interaction and unconditional love from grandparents (and parents, of course) helps a young child feel safe and secure. And that’s what they need for healthy brain development.
So, the love of a grandparent makes a real, lasting impact on a young child’s future. Research also shows that a close, involved relationship is good for grandparents, too, contributing to healthier, happier and possibly even longer lives.