What are Grandparents For?


The writer's late grandfather, Tomas Spiers

I was not close to my grandparents. My mom’s parents divorced long before I was born, her father remarried and I rarely saw him. My mom’s mother was eccentric and a little sour, with only flashes of humor and warmth. My dad’s mother died when he was six. His father—Grandpa—was my favorite; he was deeply intellectual and deeply spiritual, and a whole lot of fun. Thirty-some years after his death, I can still hear him strumming his mandolin and belting out chorus after chorus of “The Martins & The Coys.” (“They could shoot each other quicker/Than it takes your eyes to flicker/They could knock a squirrel’s eye out at 90 feet.”) I wish I had been able to spend more time with him and had known him better. I could have learned a lot from him. And Grandpa, I’d love to be able to tell you that I gave my oldest son your name.

For these reasons I was fascinated to learn what a panel of Road Scholars — all of whom have been on Road Scholar intergenerational programs — told us in a recent survey about how they describe their role as a grandparent.

What are grandparents for? Here’s the Road Scholar Top Ten:

A grandparent provides unconditional love. Parents provide this, too, but one Road Scholar described it as “special love from someone other than parents.”

A grandparent supports and encourages. Grandparents have a unique perspective from which to support and encourage. “I can see the long view where parents see day-to-day,” one wrote. “Parents are too close and sometimes don’t see the dreams and encourage them.”

A grandparent is a role model, “modeling a good friend, a good neighbor, a good citizen, and an open-minded joyous learner.” 

A grandparent is fun. While parents often must discipline their children, a grandparent can “be the adult who always makes them laugh,” said one respondent. Another: “grandparents should be allowed to act silly around their grandchildren… and vice versa.”

A grandparent gives education and new experiences. Grandparents can “provide experiences that parents don’t always have the money or time to provide.”

A grandparent conveys wisdom. “Grandparents should find ways to pass on the hard-won wisdom of living, and surviving a constantly changing world.”

A grandparent supports the parents by being available as “a short-term caretaker to give the parents a break.”

 A grandparent teaches values such as “caring, tolerance, and acceptance of family and others.”

A grandparent is a link to family history and traditions. She can “share some of her own experiences and family history so the grandkids know their ancestors as more than just names on a family tree.” This includes “family recipes”!

A grandparent is, simply, “there” for his or her grandchildren. This includes listening attentively and just spending time together, “especially when they ask you to attend an event or game they’re involved in.” One Road Scholar wrote: “Interact with them as much as possible. Time is short!” 


What do you remember about your grandparents? What kind of grandparent are you?


Peter Spiers
Peter Spiers, Senior Vice President of Strategic Outreach, is the author of “Master Class: Living Longer, Stronger, and Happier.”

  • I never knew a grandparent. Three of them died before I was born and my mother's father lived 3000 miles away and died when I was nine. I've been making it up as I go along. I agree with the comments above - unconditional love, being there to help and sharing family stories and traditions. I have taken each of the six of them separately on Road Scholar intergenerational trips and that has helped me to know each of them better. I have also taken three of them on other trips that I thought they would like. I love working through the small vicissitudes of travel together. That's when you really know who they are.

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