What does it mean to be a family? What makes one family different than 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, behavior patterns, and preferences of their family. Family identity work refers to grandfathers’ efforts to help grandchildren learn what it means to be a member of their family and how the 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, which 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, 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 proposed the term generativity in 1950 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, that 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, attend large family gatherings, or interact with multiple generations of family members. 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 a grandfather’s 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 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 fulfilling his role in the family. Research shows that grandfathers engaged in family identity work also had increased sentiments of happiness, hopefulness about the future, and life enjoyment. Further, grandfathers engaged in family identity work also 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 and help grandchildren learn it.
- Share religious values and beliefs and attend religious services with grandchildren.
- Make foods with grandchildren that reflect the family’s culture or ethnicity.
- Offer to provide childcare for grandchildren.
- Host a family reunion.
- Make a word collage with the grandchildren that describes characteristics of the family.
Note: Data mentioned in this document are from the author’s research project titled “Grandfather Involvement and Health Survey.” This is the first time these data have been published.
This fact sheet is part of the Nurturant Grandfathering series, including: Let's Get Involved (HYG-5800), Lineage Work (HYG-5801), Mentoring Work (HYG-5802), Spiritual Work (HYG-5803), Character Work (HYG-5804), Recreation Work (HYG-5805), Family Identity Work (HYG-5806), and Investment Work (HYG-5807).
Bates, James. 2009. “Generative grandfathering: A conceptual framework for nurturing grandchildren”. Marriage & Family Review, 45, 331-352.
Erikson, Erik H. 1950. Childhood and society. New York: Norton.
Erikson, Erik H. 1982. The life cycle completed. New York: Norton.