What's to be done about pesky grandparents and their bad influence?

grandparents walking in the forest
CC BY 2.0 pawpaw67

How about nothing? You're lucky to have them.

A new review from the University of Glasgow has found that grandparents have a negative impact on their grandchildren's health. Did your eyebrows shoot skyward upon reading that statement, as mine did? Allow me to explain further what the researchers found.

Grandparents who provide part-time childcare tend to exhibit less-than-desirable behavior traits, such as smoking and physical inactivity, that rub off on the child and incline him or her to the same, thereby increasing their risk of getting cancer later in life.

Food is another sticky area. Grandparents have a tendency to 'spoil' grandchildren by over-feeding or providing sugary or fatty treats that parents would not normally condone. These actions, researchers say, contribute to the development of unhealthy eating habits that become harder to break as the child grows.

Since smoking, diet, and lack of exercise are all identified as risk factors for non-communicable diseases, including cancer, the authors suggest that, despite the risks being unintentional, grandparents could benefit from re-education. (I wrote about this very topic of training grandparents earlier this year: "Who cares if grandparents have an old-school approach?") Lead author Dr. Stephanie Chambers told the University of Glasgow News:

"Currently grandparents are not the focus of public health messaging targeted at parents and in light of the evidence from this study, perhaps this is something that needs to change given the prominent role grandparents play in the lives of children."

While I understand the need for children's long-term health to be at the forefront of any discussion about child care, I do find the entire premise of 'grandparents damaging grandchildren' to be quite puzzling, especially within the context provided by the Financial Times, poetically titled "In defence of the killer grannies":

"A report this year found that grandmothers and grandfathers save parents £16.1 billion (US $21.3 billion) each year in formal childcare costs, about £1,786 (US $2,362) per family."

With that level of support being offered free of charge -- I'm going to be blunt here -- what on earth do parents have to complain about? That is huge! To save thousands of dollars annually, while furthering one's career, all thanks to a kindly grandparent who is willing to put off retirement plans to chase around a toddler, is nothing to scoff at. It seems downright ungrateful to complain about a bit of junk food and too much TV.

If those 'risk factors' are such a concern to parents, then they should opt for another, considerably more expensive child-care route; nobody is making parents use free grandparent care. Now, one might argue, saying the alternatives are too expensive or impossible to access, but my point is that there are plenty of other people who are forced to make do without grandparents around. Somehow they scrape by. So, no, you don't need grandparents, although they make life easier.

Obviously, parents are justified in feeling resentful when grandparents disregard requests for how a child should be cared for, but then that's more of a communication problem than it is a lack of grandparental awareness.

How about talking to grandparents and getting their perspective? Presumably they haven't forgotten how to raise kids. Unless their approach has changed considerably in a couple decades, who better than the parents themselves to know they turned out just fine in the end?

Crucially, "the studies did not take into account the positive emotional benefit of children spending time with their grandparents," according to the University of Glasgow News. That strikes me as a significant oversight.

I'd like to tell those irritated parents, "Put this incredible gift into perspective. You are lucky to have help of any kind, let alone from a relative who loves that child almost as much as you do." A bag of chips and a few too many SpongeBob episodes hardly matters in the big picture.

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