Grandchildren may ask, “Grandpa, did you have a cell phone when you were growing up?” For many men, the role of a grandfather includes helping grandchildren learn about the past, specifically about his and the family’s history. Lineage work refers to a grandfather’s efforts to provide an historical road map of people, places, and information that teaches his grandchildren their family’s heritage. Grandfathers are motivated to do lineage work by their grandchildren’s need to be connected to their ancestral roots—to know who they are and where they came from. It also helps them become acquainted through memory or story with progenitors. They are also motivated to share with grandchildren their own life stories and transfer the lessons they learned to their grandchildren. For many men, simply having grandchildren is meaningful because it represents a part of them and their family that will live on into the future.
Lineage work is a 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 he takes 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
Some have asked, “Do grandfathers really make a difference in the lives of their grandchildren?” Lineage work creates a link between the present and the past. Through lineage work, grandchildren gain an awareness of family relationships across the generations. They also come to better understand themselves—their likes and dislikes—and why they look the way they do. Lineage work can also inspire grandchildren to do great things as they learn about the contributions of their ancestors. Grandchildren learn that they are part of something greater than themselves, that their family began many years ago, and that they will continue the family’s lineage into the future.
Grandfathers’ efforts to perform lineage work can influence a grandchild’s personal growth as well as his or her values and beliefs. Research indicates, even after accounting for the amount of contact, there is a moderately strong tie between doing lineage work and a grandfather’s influence on his grandchild’s religious and political beliefs, family ideals and values, personality traits, work ethic, beliefs about education, and family cultural identity. This suggests that by helping his grandchild link the present and the past, a grandfather helps his grandchild gain personal, relational, and intellectual benefits that will assist him or her throughout their life.
Do grandfathers really make a difference? The answer is clear—yes, grandfathers’ efforts at lineage work can make a difference.
Benefits to Grandfathers
Research on grandfathers who participate in lineage 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 doing lineage work strengthens a grandfather’s personal connection with his grandchild and makes that relationship more meaningful and satisfying. Lineage work is also related to a man’s satisfaction as a family historian. As he helps his grandchildren learn their family’s history, he experiences greater satisfaction knowing that he is doing his part in continuing the family.
Activities for Grandfathers to Do with Grandchildren
- Share with grandchildren the names of ancestors from the family tree. Help grandchildren create their own paper or electronic copy of the family’s genealogy.
- Share memories with grandchildren and tell them stories about their ancestors.
- Share family photos and important documents with grandchildren.
- Tell grandchildren about important events in the family’s past.
- Discuss with grandchildren the family’s health history.
- Describe to grandchildren what it was like to grow up long ago, the way the family functioned back then, and what the family’s community was like.
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.