Nurturant Grandfathering: Let's Get Involved

Family and Consumer Sciences
James S. Bates, Assistant Professor, Field Specialist, Family Wellness, Ohio State University Extension

A national study found that there were an estimated 27,492,429 grandfathers in the United States (SIPP, 2008). That is about 11 percent of Americans. Interestingly, most American men, nearly 94 percent, who have children 40 years of age and over are grandfathers (Szinovacz, 1998). Because men today are living longer than men of previous generations, they will likely have more years to devote to grandfatherhood than their predecessors had.

Grandfathers in the Family

As men's roles in the family have changed in recent decades toward a greater variety of nurturing behaviors, there has been an increased interest in the roles and responsibilities of grandfathers. Early scholarly research depicted grandfathers as wise, authority figures in the extended family clan, people who primarily gave advice about getting an education, finding a job, or managing money (Hagestad, 1985). Grandfathers were also depicted as recreational playmates that enjoyed grandchildren in leisure activities (Neugarten & Weinstein, 1964). Recent research paints a picture of the grandfather performing a wider range of roles, including being a surrogate parent (Chan, 2007), a participant in religious ceremonies (Taylor & Bates, 2014), a babysitter (Lesperance, 2010), a financial provider (Roberto, Allen, & Blieszner, 2001), a playmate (Scraton & Holland, 2006), a family historian (Waldrop et al., 1999), and an example of fatherhood (Bates & Goodsell, 2013). Active involvement in grandchildren's lives is not only impactful and beneficial to grandfathers' well-being and mental health (Bates & Taylor, 2012), but young adult grandchildren report that their grandfathers were influential in their personal growth and attitude development (Roberto & Stroes, 1992).

Aging and Human Development

In 1950, developmental psychologist Erik Erikson proposed the term generativity to refer to a stage of human maturity in which adults develop "the interest in establishing and guiding the next generation" (Erikson, p. 231). This generative interest and motivation occurs in the seventh of eight stages of lifespan development and is marked by a crisis or struggle between generativity and its antithesis, stagnation (Erikson, 1950). Generativity is concerned with "teaching" (Erikson, 1964, p. 130) and encompasses learning "to know what and whom you can take care of" (Erikson, 1974, p. 124). It involves contributing "to the life of the generations" (Erikson, 1975, p. 243) and when it is successfully achieved, it gives rise to the virtue of care, or "a widening commitment to take care of the persons, the products, and the ideas one has learned to care for" (Erikson, 1982, p. 67). If generativity is not achieved, then the individual experiences feelings of stagnation and being self-absorbed.

Erikson did not originally specify that generativity was linked to a certain age or life role, although there are intimations in his writing that such inclinations began in parenthood and in the care of other humans. However, in his later work he wrote that "old people can and need to maintain a grand-generative function" (Erikson, 1982, p. 63). Erikson, Erikson, and Kivnick (1986) elaborated that the grandparent role offered older adult opportunities for development through "the possibility of caring for the newest generation" (p. 91). Recently, scholars have begun to explore generativity in middle- and old-age and among grandparents (Thiele & Whelan, 2008).

Generative Grandfathering

Generative activities or actions with and/or for grandchildren are conceptualized as generative work. As such, grandfathers are actively engaged in caring for, guiding, and nurturing their grandchildren. Bates (2009) proposed the generative grandfathering conceptual framework, not as a comprehensive theory of involvement, but as a way of characterizing the breadth of care activities in which grandfathers participate for and with their grandchildren. The term grandfatherwork, "defined as the effort, energy, time, and resources grandfathers put forth to care for, serve, meet the developmental needs of, and maintain relationships with their descendants" (Bates, 2009, p. 338) encapsulates grandfathers' efforts to be generative. The seven framework concepts represent domains of nurturant grandfathering activities. Each was derived from the grandparenting literature and represent dimensions of well-established grandparenting behaviors (Bates & Taylor, 2013). They include lineage work, mentoring work, spiritual work, character work, recreation work, family identity work, and investment work. These grandfatherwork concepts are discussed in detail in this "Nurturant Grandfathering" fact sheet series. 

This Fact Sheet Series

The author's goal in creating the "Nurturant Grandfathering" fact sheet series is to translate theoretical concepts into activities that any grandfather can do with his grandchildren. The purpose of the material is to encourage grandfather involvement in grandchildren's lives and to promote stronger grandfather-grandchild relationships. Each fact sheet highlights a different dimension of grandfatherwork. Readers will note that some material is repeated in each fact sheet. That is because not all readers will have access to the entire fact sheet series, and without that material, important knowledge would not be gained.

One key dimension of this series is the reporting and explanation of data collected from grandfathers on each of the grandfatherwork dimensions. The data presented in the fact sheets highlight the important connections between research and practice. They bring to life the realities of what healthy, meaningful grandfather-grandchild relationships can do for both grandfathers and grandchildren.


Bates, J. S. (2009). Generative grandfathering: A conceptual framework for nurturing grandchildren. Marriage & Family Review, 45, 331-352.

Bates, J. S., & Goodsell, T. L. (2013). Male kin relationships: Grandpas, grandsons, and generativity. Marriage & Family Review, 49, 26-50.

Bates, J. S., Taylor, A. C. (2012). Grandfather involvement and aging men's mental health. American Journal of Men's Health, 6, 229-239.

Bates, J. S., & Taylor, A. C. (2013). Grandfather involvement: Contact frequency, participation in activities, and commitment. Journal of Men's Studies, 21, 305-322.

Chan, Z. C. Y. (2007). The grandfather-grandson relationship in Hong Kong. International Journal of Men's Health, 6, 115-126.

Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.

Erikson, E. H. (1964). Insight and responsibility: Lectures on the ethical implications of psychoanalytic insight. New York: Norton.

Erikson, E. H. (1974). Dimensions of a new identity. New York: Norton.

Erikson, E. H. (1975). Life history and the historical moment. New York: Norton.

Erikson, E. H. (1982). The life cycle completed. New York: Norton.

Erikson, E. H., Erikson, J. M., & Kivnick, H. Q. (1986). Vital involvement in old age. New York: Norton.

Hagestad, G. O. (1985). Continuity and connectedness. In V. L. Bengtson & J. F. Robertson (Eds.), Grandparenthood (pp. 31-48). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Lesperance, D. (2010). Legacy, influence and keeping the distance: Two grandfathers, three stories. Journal of Men's Studies, 18, 199-217.

Neugarten, B. L., & Weinstein, K. K. (1964). The changing American grandparent. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 26, 199-204.

Roberto, K. A., Allen, K. R., & Blieszner, R. (2001). Grandfathers' perceptions and expectations of relationships with their adult grandchildren. Journal of Family Issues, 22, 407-426.

Roberto, K. A., & Stroes, J. (1992). Grandchildren and grandparents: Roles, influences and relationships. International Journal of Aging & Human Development, 34, 227-239.

Scraton, S., & Holland, S. (2006). Grandfatherhood and leisure. Journal of Leisure Studies, 25(2), 233-250.

Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP). (2008). 2008 panel, wave 2 topical module. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau.

Szinovacz, M. E. (1998). Grandparents today: A demographic profile. The Gerontologist, 38, 37-52.

Taylor, A. C., & Bates, J. S. (2014). Activities that strengthen relational bonds between Latter-day Saint grandfathers and their adult grandchildren. Journal of Religion, Spirituality and Aging, 26, 41-64.

Thiele, D. M., & Whelan, T. A. (2008). The relationship between grandparent satisfaction, meaning, and generativity. International Journal of Aging & Human Development, 66, 21-48.

Waldrop, D. P., Weber, J. A., Herald, S. L., Pruett, J., Cooper, K., & Juozapavicius, K. (1999). Wisdom and life experience: How grandfathers mentor their grandchildren. Journal of Aging and Identity, 4, 33-46.