Nurturant Grandfathering: Lineage Work

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

Grandchildren may wonder, "Grandpa, did you have computers when you were growing up?" For many men, the role of a grandfather includes helping grandchildren learn about family history. Lineage work refers to a grandfather's efforts to provide an historical road map of people, places, and information so that his grandchildren learn their family's heritage. Grandfathers are motivated to do lineage work by grandchildren's needs to be connected to their ancestral roots, to know who and where they came from, and to become acquainted through memory or story with progenitors. They are also motivated to share with grandchildren their own life stories and transfer the lessons learned to the grandchildren. For many men, simply having grandchildren is meaningful because it represents a part of them and their family that will live on in the future.

Lineage 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 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

Some may ask, "Do grandfathers really make a difference?" 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 also encourages grandchildren to do great things. Grandchildren also learn that they are part of something greater than themselves: that their family began many years ago and, through them, will continue into the future.

A grandfather's 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 life. So, do grandfathers really make a difference? Yes, grandfathers' lineage work really does 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 grandchildren 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 family history, he experiences greater satisfaction knowing that he is doing his part in the family.

Activities for Grandfathers to Do with Grandchildren

  • Share with grandchildren the names of ancestors from their family tree. Help grandchildren create their own paper or electronic copy of their family's genealogy.
  • Share life memories with grandchildren, and tell them stories about their ancestors.
  • Share family photos and important documents with grandchildren.
  • Tell grandchildren about important events in their family's past.
  • Discuss with grandchildren their family's health history.
  • Describe to grandchildren what it was like to grow up long ago, the way their family functioned, and what their family's community was like.


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.