Nurturant Grandfathering: Spiritual Work

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

Why does a grandfather comfort a grandson who just skinned his knee? Why does a grandfather encourage a granddaughter to pursue her dreams of becoming a ballerina? How can a grandfather reconnect with an adult grandchild who no longer attends family gatherings? The answer is by doing spiritual work. Spiritual work refers to a grandfather's efforts to be compassionate, patient, empowering, affirming, and empathic to his grandchildren. Grandfathers are motivated to do spiritual work because of their grandchildren's needs for advice, guidance, encouragement, emotional comfort, physical affection, and love (Bates & Goodsell, 2013). Grandfathers are also internally motivated to create an emotional bond with their grandchildren and to offer them kindness and support.

Spiritual work occurs in a variety of settings. For instance, a grandfather could attend a grandchild's sporting event or musical recital and celebrate his or her performance with encouragement and kind words. Spiritual work could be an integral part of a formal family ritual such as during the observance of a religious holiday, or it may occur in a private discussion between a grandfather and his grandchild. For some grandfathers, spiritual work may be grounded in religious principles and practices, whereas for others, guidance, comfort, and correction are not associated with religion. Faith is not necessarily connected with spiritual work and is not a precondition.

Spiritual work is an important dimension of grandfatherwork. Grandfatherwork "is 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). Simply being a grandfather does not take much effort. However, grandfathering is more than being a passive observer; it implies action and engagement. It means that a grandfather makes a conscious commitment to be present and participate actively in his grandchildren's lives. It also means that a grandfather will take a personal interest in helping his grandchildren reach their potential.

Grandfatherwork is grounded in the human developmental stage of generativity. Life span theorist Erik Erikson (1950) proposed the term generativity, which refers to the motivation to teach, establish, contribute to, and care for subsequent generations. Grandfatherwork is one way aging men can practice generativity. By teaching, guiding, and nurturing grandchildren in and through various activities, grandfathers are fulfilling their own developmental need to be generative. If aging men are not actively engaged in generative activities, they are not working toward their developmental potential and may become stagnate and self-absorbed (Erikson, 1982).

Benefits to Grandchildren

In spiritual work, grandfathers give advice and encouragement to grandchildren who strive to accomplish a goal but want to give up because their efforts are consistently insufficient. Grandfathers offer a listening ear to grandchildren who want to vent about difficulties with parents or siblings, complaints about the stresses and strains of life, and exclamations about the challenges of school and work. A grandfather may also be a source of comfort and solidarity in times of major crisis such as when a grandchild's parents divorce, the death of a family member, or the loss of a romantic relationship. A grandchild turns to his or her grandfather because trust has been fostered by his accommodating and supportive expressions of love.

A grandfather's efforts to perform spiritual work can be influential on his grandchild's personal growth, values, and beliefs. Research indicates, even after accounting for the amount of contact, there is a moderately strong tie between doing spiritual work and a grandfather's influence on his grandchild's friendliness, composure and flexibility, family ideals and values, work ethic, and beliefs about education and morality. This suggests that by nurturing the emotional and spiritual dimensions of his grandchild's humanity, a grandfather exerts a meaningful impact on other areas of his grandchild's personal growth and development.

Benefits to Grandfathers

Research on grandfathers who participate in spiritual work has found that greater involvement is related to an enhanced grandfather-grandchild emotional closeness and relationship satisfaction. This means that doing spiritual work strengthens a grandfather's personal connection with his grandchildren and makes that relationship more meaningful and satisfying. Spiritual work is also related to the satisfaction a grandfather experiences as an advisor, nurturer, and religious or spiritual guide. As he advises, comforts, praises, and corrects his grandchildren, a grandfather demonstrates what it means to support and sustain others, and in turn, he experiences greater satisfaction knowing that he is fulfilling his role in the family. Research has also found that grandfathers engaged in spiritual work also reported fewer feelings of sadness, depression, loneliness, and anxiety. Further, grandfathers engaged in spiritual work experienced increased sentiments of happiness, hopefulness about the future, and life enjoyment.

Activities for Grandfathers to Do with Grandchildren

  • Celebrate the successes of grandchildren with words and actions of encouragement and praise.
  • Be present to provide grandchildren with emotional support during times of crisis.
  • Talk "heart-to-heart" with grandchildren about important things in their lives.
  • Be available to listen, without giving unsolicited advice, as grandchildren voice concerns about life.
  • Offer encouragement to grandchildren who experience setbacks or failures.
  • Show appropriate physical affection to grandchildren.
  • Reassure grandchildren with meaningful advice or counsel.


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.

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

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

Data mentioned herein are from James S. Bates and Alan C. Taylor's research project, Grandfather Involvement and Health Survey. This is the first time these data have been published.