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BYU study: Grandparents help kids be kinder, more involved

Published: Sunday, Nov. 20 2011 11:45 p.m. MST

Don and Margaret Peterson of Draper regularly interact with all of their grandchildren, including Chelsea and Lindsey.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

PROVO — When Melinda Rasmussen needs to work, her mom takes her son, Brayden, to school. His grandpa is a great role model and companion to the almost-10-year-old, and they build bird houses and play with remote-control cars and generally enjoy each other.

And when money's tight and that book order is due at school or Brayden needs new clothes, it's often grandma and grandpa who foot the bill, Rasmussen says.

If you asked Rodney and Robyn Higginson to name the gifts their involvement as grandparents bring to Brayden's life, they might not list enhancing how kind he is or building social skills or improving his engagement level in school. But that's exactly what BYU researchers found close relationships with grandparents can offer children.

"We wanted to see how grandparents matter to children, so we asked a number of questions related to emotional closeness to grandparents," said study lead author Jeremy Yorgason, assistant professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University.

For the study, published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence, Yorgason and co-author Laura Padilla Walker and BYU students asked one child each from 408 families questions about their relationship with the one grandparent to whom each felt the closest. The children, ages 10-14, were asked about communication and whether they get advice on important decisions and feel like they can discuss problems with that individual, among other things. The study took place in 2007 with follow-up in 2008. It was a subset of the Flourishing Families Project, which has amassed data on nearly 700 families in two locations over time, using diverse methods, including questionnaires and video data gathered by dozens of BYU students each year. They found that children in both two-parent and single-parent homes who felt close to at least one grandparent had what they called "higher pro-social behavior" both at the time of the study and a year later.

The why is more speculative, Yorgason said. "Maybe grandparents teach certain social skills, like how to treat other people. Maybe they model certain behavior." But even controlling for the child's attachment to the parent, the grandparent effect was seen, he said.

Teaching is just one of the things that Margaret and Don Peterson of Draper do with their grandchildren. They have three local granddaughters, 5 to 12, who come over regularly to do crafts and play games and be loved, said Don Peterson. They have an older granddaughter who used to live states away, but now attends BYU and they see her as often as they can. And every week, they visit over the Internet using Skype with grandkids in New Jersey. And they visit as often as possible the grandchildren in Michigan.

The grandchildren are, without exception, both engaged and engaging.

The researchers also asked each child subject's parent about financial assistance from a grandparent (not necessarily the same grandparent) and found that, in the case of households headed by a single parent, in those that received help, the child had a higher degree of school engagement, from paying attention, doing homework on time and following rules to being happy and excited about school. It held true without the child necessarily knowing about the fiscal aid.

Again, the why is more speculative, Yorgason said. "One interpretation is maybe there's more focus on school or a sense of obligation to do well if grandparents are helping out financially," he said. "Or maybe it's just reducing the financial strain in the home. But this finding kind of fits with the idea that grandparents are like the National Guard. If there's a problem, they come in and help out."

They didn't ask specifics about how much grandparents gave, but they did find that in African-American homes, the more often the grandparents gave, "the higher the social engagement for those kids. It was a stronger effect for the African-Americans families than for the Caucasian families in the sample." The effect, he noted, was small but significant.

The take-away message, said Yorgason, is that it's healthy to spend some time with grandparents, and if you're not as connected, you might want to get more connected. And for grandparents, the message is that you can make a difference in a grandchild's life.

Peter and Susan Morgan, West Valley City, believe that. Their have seven grandkids — and untold joy. The grandkids — who range in age from 6 to 15 — all live within about 20 minutes of the Morgans. And for a time, their daughter and her twin sons lived with them.

Sometimes their grandchildren go to church with them. Sometimes they just hang out together, he said. But there's an individual bond with each of the children — good for both generations.

Grandparents speak:

72% think being a grandparent is the single most important and satisfying thing in their life

63% say they can do a better job caring for grandchildren than they did with their own

68% think being a grandparent brings them closer to their adult children

90% enjoy talking about their grandkids to just about everyone

Source: Grandparents.com

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com

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