Nurturant Grandfathering: Character Work

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

A recent survey of grandfathers revealed that the most important character traits they hoped their grandchildren would develop were kindness, cooperation, warmth, generosity, and selflessness. Grandfathers can play an important role in helping their grandchildren develop these and other character traits. Character work refers to grandfathers' efforts to nurture and shape the character and personality traits of their grandchildren. As they do so, they are addressing grandchildren's needs to be sociable, responsible, and ethical members of society (Bates & Goodsell, 2013). Many grandfathers feel that they not only have a responsibility to discuss with their grandchildren the importance of having good morals and values such as integrity and courtesy, but they also work to instill good morals and values in their grandchildren. This includes grandfathers acting as moral guides or being role models of behaviors and character traits they want their grandchildren to develop.

Character 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 character work, grandfathers encourage their grandchildren's innate desires to be compassionate, helpful, and social. They foster in their grandchildren a sense of right and wrong by being ethical themselves and by correcting their grandchildren's inappropriate or unethical behaviors. As grandfathers lead by example, grandchildren learn to trust their grandfathers for moral and ethical grounding. A grandfather who is loyal and faithful to his family—who treats his family members with respect and dignity—will always be held in high regard by his grandchildren. In fact, future generations of posterity will gain confidence, determination, and pride as they reflect upon the life and legacy of their grandfather.

A grandfather's efforts to perform character work can be influential on his grandchild's character and personality as well as on his grandchild's personal values and beliefs. Research indicates, even after accounting for the amount of contact, there is evidence that doing character work contributes to a grandfather's influence on his grandchild's outgoingness, friendliness, trustworthiness, composure and flexibility, family ideals and values, work ethic, and beliefs about morality. This suggests that by working to model and instill good character in his grandchild, a grandfather brings to bear a meaningful impact on many areas of his grandchild's personal growth and development.

Benefits to Grandfathers

Research on grandfathers who participate in character work has found that greater involvement is related to an enhanced grandfather-grandchild emotional closeness and to relationship satisfaction. This means that doing character work strengthens a grandfather's personal connection with his grandchild and makes the relationship more meaningful and satisfying. Character work is also related to the satisfaction a grandfather experiences as he sets an example of good citizenship. As he demonstrates and encourages ethical behaviors, creativity and intellectual growth, confidence, and kindness, his grandchildren see what it means to develop qualities and attributes valued in society. He, in turn, experiences greater satisfaction knowing that he is fulfilling his role in the family. Research has also found that grandfathers engaged in character work also reported fewer feelings of sadness, depression, loneliness, and anxiety. Further, grandfathers engaged in character work experienced increased sentiments of happiness, hopefulness about the future, and life enjoyment.

Activities for Grandfathers to Do with Grandchildren

  • Role-model for grandchildren the types of character and personality traits they should emulate.
  • Together, with grandchildren, become involved in civic, faith-based, service, or other community organizations to show commitment to helping others.
  • Tell stories, sing songs, or read nursery rhymes about people who have demonstrated characteristics worthy of emulation.
  • Set goals and strive to achieve them. Encourage grandchildren to set goals and strive to achieve them as well. Encourage each other to accomplish the goals.
  • Help grandchildren become reliable and trustworthy by giving them age-appropriate tasks and encouraging them to complete the tasks.
  • While playing games with grandchildren, teach good sportsmanship by example and also by encouraging them (1) not to get upset when things don't go their way and (2) not to be smug when winning.


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.