- Written by David W. Shwalb and Ziarat Hossain David W. Shwalb and Ziarat Hossain
To Grandmother’s house we go!
What happens at Grandma’s house stays at Grandma’s house.
Welcome to Grandma’s kitchen.
When we published a book about grandparents, Grandparents in Cultural Context, last summer, we made it a point to include grandfathers in our coverage.
In our opinion, grandfathers are far more underestimated than fathers (especially in the United States as a Western society), and today’s American grandfathers still face two important obstacles as a legacy of recent generations.
Here are some of the trends we found in our cross-cultural research.
First is the idea of “non-interference”: In Western society today, parents, as “gatekeepers,” can encourage or discourage grandparent involvement with their grandchildren.
Second is the stereotype that grandmothers are, by nature, more central to the family than are “bystander” grandfathers (as in “Grandma’s kitchen” or “… to Grandmother’s house we go!”).
Our book showed that grandfathers played key family roles throughout most of human history, as leaders, authorities, teachers, and as sources of wisdom and information about the past. But across the generations, grandfathers’ authority has become more symbolic and less real.
And when men’s “place” shifted in the industrial West from the home, village, and farm to the outside “workplace,” many men (from their prime) became inescapably defined by their work rather than their family roles.
Our second takeaway from our international team of experts on grandparents was that in almost every culture studied, what scholars called “grandparent research” was limited to research on grandmothers.
Why did this happen?
We think it was because most research has been done in the affluent United States, a Western and highly individualistic culture where men’s roles inside the family have been downplayed by social scientists since the 1950s. Indeed, the only three chapters in our book that talked about “non-interference” were from the U.S., United Kingdom, and Germany.
The experts also reported that “new grandfathers” in the current generation are becoming more active with their grandchildren in these same three countries, and that grandparents in the U.S. are among the most diverse in any country.
Yet only 5 percent of the world’s population lives in the U.S., and 83 percent of the world’s population lives in non-Western, “developing” countries. What about non-Western grandfathers?
Here are three examples of grandfathers from non-Western societies, representing grandfathers worldwide more broadly than our American images (although every grandfather everywhere is unique).
The first photo shows a bedridden Domingo, an 84-year-old grandfather in Guatemala, being visited by three generations of loved ones. Domingo passed away a month after this scene took place, and had six children, 24 grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren.
According to his wife, he instilled in his grandchildren respeto (respect) for others and the value of hard work. Almost all of his extended family lived within walking distance of their one-room house, and this closeness seems related to the idea of familismo (the importance of immediate and extended family ties) throughout Central America and Mexico.
As a result, grandfathers share respect, love, and attention with the family to the end.
This second photo is of a 50-year-old, middle-class grandfather in India. This physical play looks exactly like what we would expect from fathers and grandfathers.
Because of the ancient legacy of the extended family and respect for elders in India and other South Asian societies, many grandfathers as family patriarchs become even closer to their grandchildren than they were with their children.
Some scholars say that Indian fathers may feel pressured to treat all children (even children outside their immediate family) equally, but that they become freer to express their affection later as grandfathers. These men pass on the values of resilience, social harmony, education, positive personal growth, and importance of the family.
The East Asian value of Confucian filial piety (reported for China, Japan, and Korea) similarly encourages grandchildren to revere grandfathers and to protect their welfare.
The third photo is of a three-generation family in rural Zimbabwe — this grandfather is now 90 and the grandmother is 86. Many African grandfathers (and grandmothers) believe it is one’s duty and honor to raise their grandchildren, to whom they provide unconditional availability and an intense emotional connection.
Nowadays, many sub-Saharan grandfathers have become replacement parents due to a high prevalence of poverty, migration, civil strife, and loss of their children to HIV/AIDS. Here, cultural values and economics have both led to a continuation of grandfathers’ traditional involvement with their grandchildren.
These examples from three continents (where 83 percent of the world’s population lives) show that despite our Western notions of “non-interference” and “Grandma’s house,” grandfathers can still be crucial figures in family life.
One could never downplay the importance of grandmothers, but we hope to uplift grandfathers as valuable contributors to child development.
David W. Shwalb, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., is professor of psychology at Southern Utah University. He and Barbara J. Shwalb are the proud parents of five, grandparents of 17, and great-grandparents of two. Ziarat Hossain, a native of Dhaka (Bangladesh), is professor of family and child studies at the University of New Mexico. He and Rozy Akhter are the proud parents of three. Their book, Grandparents in Cultural Context (www.routledge.com), includes case studies, proverbs, research findings, and social policies relevant to grandparents across the world.