Nurturant Grandfathering: Family Identity Work

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

What does it mean to be a family? What makes one family different from another family? Why does a family do things the way they do? Grandfathers help grandchildren learn the answers to these questions as they demonstrate and discuss the characteristics, habits, and preferences of their family. Family identity work refers to grandfathers' efforts to help grandchildren learn (1) what it means to be a member of their family and (2) how family operates. Grandfathers respond to grandchildren's needs for strong familial bonds, stable and trusting relationships, discipline, communication, and leadership. As a result of these efforts, grandchildren form an identity of who they are, how they should and should not behave, and how to relate to other family members.

Family identity 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

A grandfather's efforts to perform family identity work can be influential on his grandchildren's personal growth, values, and beliefs. Research indicates, even after accounting for the amount of contact, there is a moderately strong tie between doing family identity work and a grandfather's influence on his grandchild's trustworthiness, family cultural identity, family ideals and values, work ethic, and beliefs about religion, education, and morality. This suggests that by teaching and demonstrating family culture and values, a grandfather exerts a meaningful impact on many areas of his grandchild's personal development.

Another dimension of family identity work is when grandfathers reinforce parental authority, parental values, and support parents' efforts to teach, guide, and discipline their children. Grandchildren benefit when grandparents and parents demonstrate similar beliefs and values about family life. The grandchildren are not confused with inconsistent messages, and they learn to trust their parents and grandparents as leaders and role models. Such consistent messages are salient when grandchildren are left in the care of their grandfather and in the context of large family gatherings when multiple generations of family members are present. In families where parents are not present, a grandfather can be a sustaining influence on his grandchildren's understanding of family cohesion and stability. Whether grandfathers' support of family norms is spoken or unspoken, grandchildren learn what is important to their elders and thus what is important to themselves.

Benefits to Grandfathers

Research on grandfathers who participate in family identity work has found that greater involvement is related to an enhanced grandfather-grandchild emotional closeness and to higher levels of relationship satisfaction. This means that participation in family identity work strengthens a grandfather's personal connection with his grandchild and makes their relationship more meaningful and satisfying. Family identity work is also related to a man's satisfaction as a teacher of his family's culture and identity. As he teaches his grandchildren about family life and the meaning of being a family member, he experiences greater satisfaction knowing that he is doing his part in the family. Research has also found that grandfathers engaged in family identity work reported increased sentiments of happiness, hopefulness about the future, and life enjoyment. Further, grandfathers engaged in family identity work reported fewer feelings of sadness, failure, and loneliness.

Activities for Grandfathers to Do with Grandchildren

  • Encourage grandchildren's loyalty to the family.
  • Speak the family's native language to help grandchildren learn it.
  • Share religious values and beliefs, and attend religious services with grandchildren.
  • Together, with grandchildren, make foods that reflect the family's culture or ethnicity.
  • Offer to provide childcare for grandchildren.
  • Host a family reunion.
  • Together, with grandchildren, make a Wordle of words that describe the characteristics of the family.


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

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.