Willy de Lange (70) and Kiek Boelaars (65) have four grandchildren aged between six and nine: two granddaughters from Willy’s daughter, two grandsons from her son.
The couple, who live in the Netherlands, babysits the girls once every two weeks and the boys once a month. They have frequent sleepovers which the grandchildren "always look forward to," says Willy – they love playing games, reading stories and just spending time together.
Willy: “And we don’t just spoil them; we discipline the children occasionally as well. If they’re chewing with their mouths open, for example. I can’t stand that and will always say something about it. And they’ll listen to us.”
Kiek: “Then promptly ignore us.”
Babysitting, sleepovers and even simple visits are now out of the question, during the coronavirus pandemic. Both Willy and Kiek feel the loss greatly. To Kiek, the measures seem a bit excessive: she doesn’t feel vulnerable, while the newspapers inform her that children are unlikely to get ill from the coronavirus and probably won’t spread it, either. Why shouldn’t she be allowed to hug, cuddle, roughhouse or play with her grandchildren? “Sometimes I wonder: is this all really necessary?”
But Willy’s son and daughter are both “strict” when it comes to following the guidelines. “They’re not allowing any form of physical contact,” she says.
The couple does cycle past their grandchildren’s houses regularly; they wave to each other through the window. And the other day, on Kiek’s birthday, the families sat together outside in the garden, making sure to keep well apart. Still, it hasn’t been easy. Like most young children, Willy and Kiek’s grandchildren are active and energetic, preferring to cuddle and play over “having a nice chat over a cup of tea,” as Willy puts it.
It’s precisely these physical, active ways of showing affection – connecting through actions rather than words – that are now off-limits.
The pandemic and the generations
Over the past several months, the message has been clear: older people and vulnerable populations – particularly those who fall into both groups – should stay home as much as possible. Elderly nursing home residents have been barred from receiving visitors. Even grandparents who feel fit and active, like Kiek, have been advised not to get too close to grandchildren.
As a result some grandparents have stopped seeing their grandchildren altogether, while others continue to visit despite often feeling that they’re doing something “sneaky”. Some grandparents have isolated themselves for self-preservation; others are denied access by their own children – which for many feels more like a punishment than a form of loving protection.
My own parents came to visit for the first time two months into the lockdown. We stuck dutifully to social distancing guidelines at first, but eventually the desire for closeness and connection became too much to bear: the children crawled into their laps for a story, and my parents relished this break in the rules.
There’s something strangely artificial about separating “older people” from “the rest”.
While the impact differs from grandparent to grandparent, just as the role of grandparents differs from family to family, nearly everyone I spoke to over the past few months felt that there was something strangely artificial about separating “older people” from “the rest”.
For many, this isolation has been painful. Kiek’s grief was palpable when I spoke to her, transmitted loud and clear despite our patchy Zoom connection. And it’s easy to see why. The current situation in which many grandparents suddenly have been cut off from their grandchildren flies in the face of one of the defining characteristics of our species: cooperation among generations.
The long overlap between grandparents and grandchildren sets our species apart
This inter-generational interdependence is a uniquely human trait – few species know such close ties between grandchildren, children, parents, and grandparents.
The bond between grandchild and grandparent isn’t always a close one, of course. Plenty of grandchildren grow up without seeing much of their grandparents at all, and many grandparents only visited their grandchildren sporadically even before the pandemic hit. Even so, grandparents can be an intrinsic part of what it means to be human. After all, everyone had them.
And we’re enjoying them for longer, on average, than ever before. Had you been born in Finland in 1860, for example, you would have shared on average only four years of your life with a grandmother and only one year with a grandfather. A century later, the average overlap between grandchild and grandparent had risen to no less than 24 years for grandmothers and 13 years for grandfathers. In the United States, the number of 10 year-olds with four living grandparents increased seven-fold over the course of the 20th century: from 6% at the turn of the century to 41% at its close.
Human grandparents are exceptionally long lived compared to most other species, for which the lifespan of animal grandparents rarely overlaps those of their "grandchildren”. This simple fact of life has long confused researchers. Why are we so different?
It all starts with menopause, an all too friendly term that suggests a temporary interruption – as if a woman’s regularly scheduled programming could resume at any moment, as if a “play” button might be pressed to get everything up and running again. But as we know, menopause is an irreversible process that marks the end of a woman’s fertile years.
Not that it marks the end of her life – not even close. Many post-menopausal women still have decades of life ahead of them. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is quite puzzling. Usually, as two anthropologists put it: “Sterility is the evolutionary equivalent of death.”
Why do the females of our species (along with orcas, Japanese aphids and a handful of other exceptions) live much longer lives than Darwinian natural selection would seem to predict? Men, for that matter, also tend to stop procreating several decades before the end of their lifespans despite remaining fertile for virtually their entire lives.
The evolution of grandparents
Our exceptionally long post-reproductive years can’t be attributed to improved living conditions alone. While it’s true that advancements in hygiene, nutrition, and medical knowledge have caused our average life expectancy to increase by two years each decade over the past 200 years, humans regularly lived to old age even before these modern developments.
In the late 1970s, US anthropologist Kristen Hawkes posited her “grandmother hypothesis”, which argues that grandmothers are useful from an evolutionary perspective because they provide vital support to their children and grandchildren. Raising children is a lot of work, after all; women who receive help from their mothers can have more children more quickly. Their offspring are also more likely to survive. Over time, this process helped to spread hereditary traits which contribute to longevity in women, leading gradually to longer and longer post-menopausal lifespans.
From an evolutionary perspective, grandmothers are ‘useful’ because they provide vital support to their children and grandchildren
In the years since Hawkes first formulated her hypothesis, researchers found more evidence to support this theory. For example, several studies found that women who live close to their mothers go on to have more children than their sisters who move further away. This was not only true for populations in the 17th and 18th centuries, but even for modern industrialised societies.
The exact evolutionary mechanism behind our long post-reproductive lifespans is still subject to considerable debate among biologists and anthropologists, as is the question of just how grandparents contribute to their grandchildren’s odds of survival in various contexts.
“The evolutionary story is that without multi-generational households, we would not exist as we do,” US anthropologist Michael Gurven explained to me. “Children are dependent for such a long time; they’ll eat more than they’ll produce well into their teens, and if you have more mouths to feed besides theirs, well, it’s just not gonna happen on your own. The human family is an extended, multi-generational family.”
Grandparents’ help is crucial – and not just because of the huge amount of energy and resources it takes to raise a child, although that’s certainly part of the puzzle. According to Gurven, grandparents make “a unique contribution to children’s development”. Decades of fieldwork with indigenous communities in the Amazon have led him to believe that grandparents’ added value lies not just in the food they collect for their grandchildren, but particularly in the stories they tell – information they pass on.
Children learn different things from different generations, says Gurven: parents tend to focus on teaching practical skills, while grandparents are responsible for helping children develop a sense of the world around them and teaching them to see the bigger picture – skills equally important for their survival.
Caregivers and teachers
While most humans no longer live in small hunter-gatherer communities, the role of grandparents has in no way diminished. In many parts of the world, grandparents have become increasingly involved in childcare over the past several decades.
People above the age of 60 already outnumber children younger than five. Their proportion of the world population will only increase in the decades ahead. As fertility rates continue to shrink, the result is more grandparents and fewer grandchildren, enabling grandparents to divide their time and attention among a smaller brood. Their support is often badly needed – as parents are squeezed economically across much of the industrialised world.
Of course, not all grandparents are involved in caring for grandchildren. Kiek and Willy have very few memories of their own grandparents, and Willy raised her children with little help from either her parents or in-laws. My own mother occasionally regales me with tales about friends of hers, who refuse to babysit their grandchildren because they find it too exhausting, too physically demanding, or simply not enough fun.
(These stories always leave me feeling a bit uneasy: is she trying to tell me something?)
According to sociologist Pearl Dykstra, grandparents’ roles differ widely based on preferences, family circumstances and the cultures in which they live. In China and the Philippines, parents may move to faraway cities or abroad in search of work, leaving children in the care of their grandparents. In parts of Africa that were ravaged by the HIV/Aids epidemic, millions of children lost both parents and were subsequently raised by grandparents. In the United States, where 10% of grandparents share a household with one or more of their grandchildren, over two million grandparents are raising their grandchildren due to factors including parental illness or death.
In Europe, 44% of grandmothers and 42% of grandfathers help look after their grandchildren either regularly or occasionally. (Maternal grandparents are more likely to do so than paternal grandparents ). In some countries, such as Italy, childcare is so expensive and in such short supply that having grandparents who are willing to babysit is a prerequisite for many women to work outside the home. Even where childcare is more accessible, grandparents often pitch in to help: in the UK, for example, “informal care” provided by grandparents is estimated to save £7bn every year in childcare costs.
In the Netherlands, where I live, many grandparents help care for and raise their grandchildren. Four out of 10 Dutch families with young children combine “formal” care (such as day care and after-school care) with “informal” care, often provided by grandparents like Willy and Kiek who watch the children for a certain number of hours each week.
Many grandparents donate not only their time but also money and material goods. My own parents, for example, have ‘gifted’ us a small fortune in puzzles, books and children’s clothing over the past six years.
What you learn from grandma and grandpa
All of this is great for parents, who get free childcare and can go off to work knowing that their children are in good hands (well, mostly good: according to at least one study, children cared for by their grandparents are at greater risk for obesity). But it’s also great – in fact, beneficial – for grandchildren, and for the grandparents, too.
According to US developmental psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik, help from grandparents can have a positive impact on children’s development. During infancy and early childhood, our single most important goal in life is to explore the world around us as much as possible. The key word here is variety, Gopnik explained recently: “Children don’t just learn from their parents; they learn by observing and listening to – and being cared for by – as many different people as possible. The more examples they are given of how to be in the world, the better they develop.”
(This will probably ring true for many readers. I for one have found that my own parents have far more patience with my children than I do: they will sit through games that I find excruciating and read them stories that I can’t stand.)
Being involved in grandchildren’s lives benefits grandparents as well, says Dykstra. “Older people today are living longer, are more affluent and have more free time,” she says. “Caring for grandchildren can add purpose and meaning to their lives.” It may also keep them young: “Research shows that older people who spend more time with their grandchildren demonstrate slower ‘cognitive decline’ than those who do not.”
(Of course caring for grandchildren can also be tiring and stressful, especially when grandparents take on the responsibilities of parents. Data from the United States shows that grandparents who serve as primary caregivers are much more likely to suffer from fatigue, stress, depression, insomnia and feelings of isolation.)
For many grandchildren, the relationship with a grandparent is a special kind of bond: you can confide in your grandma or grandpa about things you might not want to share with your parents. Perhaps just as important: you can talk to them about your parents too.
Research among British children found that frequent contact with grandparents was associated with greater well-being. Of course it’s always difficult to separate cause and effect in studies like these. It’s entirely possible that happy, well-adjusted children might open up to their grandparents more easily than children who are struggling or unhappy.
The benefits aren’t felt just on an individual level. “Families are one of the few remaining places in our society where members of different generations meet and interact,” says Dykstra. “That’s important for social cohesion. Grandparents can teach their grandchildren traditional games and songs, while grandchildren can introduce their grandparents to modern technology, showing them how to use Zoom, for example.”
The result: “Greater social participation for the older generation and more historical perspective for young people” – not to mention that young people who see their grandparents more often tend also to have more positive attitudes toward older people in general.
Intertwined but segregated
Whether you look from an evolutionary, psychological or economic perspective, then, it’s clear that raising children is too big a job for parents to do alone. Grandparents can, and often do, play a crucial role. As a society, we often fail to appreciate the true importance of this complicated inter-generational dance.
The Covid-19 pandemic has made this painfully clear. Many people have been quick to remark that older adults should just stay at home, as if being involved in their grandchildren’s lives were merely a luxury that could easily be done without. Even so, Dykstra’s observation – that industrialised societies offer very few opportunities for different generations to interact outside family gatherings – held true even before the coronavirus.
In many parts of the world, industrialisation and urbanisation are driving the different generations and stages of life increasingly apart, explains Gopnik. Children spend their days at school (neatly sorted by age group) while their parents work elsewhere, with grandparents living in their own homes or in a nursing home or assisted living community.
Many modern, industrial societies are built on the ideals of individualism and independence, much more than the possibilities of mutual cooperation and interdependence. The nuclear family – father, mother, two or three children – has become the main unit for nurturing future generations, sometimes with the help of paid care in the form of nannies or child minders and day care.
This concept of the nuclear family is in keeping with our current view of society, as something that can be broken down into individualised compartments – a single task for each assembly line worker, a single product for each manufacturer, a single family living in each house, a single set of parents for each child, a separate home for grandparents. But when you stop to think about it, this is a pretty poor way of organising society. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s downright ludicrous.
Gopnik’s observation on age segregation reminded me of a scene from the novel Kudos by British writer Rachel Cusk, in which the narrator finds herself in a hotel lobby, watching a wedding reception take place further down the road. She notices that the guests are all the same age as the bride and groom – there are no older people in attendance, and no children either. This leaves her with an impression that “these events were bound neither to the future nor the past, and that no one was entirely certain whether it was freedom or irresponsibility that had untethered them.”
It’s something of a paradox: the technological and scientific progress we’ve made over the last several centuries enabled us to grow wealthier, healthier and to live longer than ever before, but it’s also prevented us from fully appreciating the extra years that we’ve been granted. This may have to do, in part, with the fact that the care provided by grandparents is usually free of charge – few parents actually pay grandma and grandpa for their time.
We tend to view this type of care, like most other forms of care, as a labour of love rather than as a key pillar of our society and our economy. Despite the fact that so many parents and children depend on grandparents’ time and efforts, we consider their help to be something incidental, a mere lifestyle choice, rather than a phenomenon that is both systematic and fundamental to our way of life.“This kind of care doesn’t show up in the GDP,” says Gopnik – which might just be why we’ve come to overlook it entirely.
Many of the most important decisions of our lives – how many children to have, where to live – depend on whether or not we have grandparents or other family members close by. We’re rarely conscious of how these factors influence our choices. As Dykstra puts it: “If you ask someone whether they chose to have a second child because grandma did such a great job babysitting their firstborn, they’ll probably tell you, ‘No, of course not!’”
Grandparents aren’t (just) vulnerable – they’re essential
In a world where half of all Dutch families regularly ask grandparents to provide childcare, and those in other countries do so too; where care provided by grandparents in the UK saves over £7bn each year; and where a significant proportion of US, Filipino and Romanian children are raised by their grandparents, it’s safe to say that grandparents play a key role in shaping future generations.
The different generations are much more closely intertwined than we like to admit. Seen in this light, it’s a shame that many older adults are now being described, first and foremost, as “vulnerable”. If only because our collective strength is not defined by our ability to separate “the vulnerable” from “everybody else” but, as Amy Davidson Sorkin aptly wrote in a recent piece for the New Yorker, “by our willingness to stand together”.
“Covid-19 has caused generations to become increasingly separated from one another,” Gopnik says. “It was already happening in many places, but I think the pandemic makes us realise even more how much we depend on the fact that we have grandparents involved in caring for grandchildren. It makes it really vivid that we’ve sort of neglected those two ends of the life-span.” It also makes vivid the loss that ensues when grandparents and grandchildren are unable to interact.
And no, this situation won’t last forever. Just as the learning gaps from months of distance learning are likely to be relatively minor in the long run, the quantifiable “damage” caused by a few months without wisdom and snuggles from grandparents should be fairly minimal. Parents struggling to get their jobs done without grandma and grandpa to babysit for them will eventually find a way to make things work.
The loss that Gopnik describes is altogether more subtle; a private grief felt on an individual level rather than on a societal one. That doesn’t make it any less real for those who are experiencing it.
How about giving the older members of our society a round of applause too – whether or not they’re grandparents
In the case of Willy and Kiek, this loss has been much harder on them as grandparents than for their grandchildren – fortunately, they hasten to add. “The children have their parents around them all day, they’re busy with their schoolwork, and they see us waving at the window from time to time. I don’t think they’re stressed about missing us,” says Willy.
Although, Kiek adds: “That day in the garden, they ran over to us like they wanted to jump into our arms, and had to stop themselves from doing so... As the day wore on, they started coming closer and closer. Sorry, but I’m not going to push them away.”
It reminds me of how my own children began inching closer and closer to my parents on our first lockdown visit together, eventually crawling onto their laps – a little hesitantly, then more confidently – and how enjoyable this seemed for everyone. Like a return to the natural order of things.
In recent months, residents in cities across the world have been clapping to show support for “essential workers” – nurses, sanitation workers, teachers, supermarket staff. Before the pandemic, these professions were often characterised by their lack of prestige; it took a crisis for us to realise that we can’t live without them. It remains to be seen whether our newfound appreciation will last once things return to “normal”, but it’s a start.
While we’re at it, how about giving the older members of our society a round of applause too – whether they’re grandparents or not? Not because they’re vulnerable. Because we make each other stronger.