Families Are Changing, But Still Key to Happiness

Extended and nontraditional families are creating new relationship models—and challenges.

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Karen Fingerman, professor of human development and family science at the University of Texas, has found in her research that the happiness of parents in middle age is tied to how well their grown children are faring in life. Even parents with several successful grown children could be unhappy if one child is not doing well. Negative emotions have a larger and longer-lived impact than positive ones, leading Fingerman to conclude that "grown children's distress may be contagious" for their parents.

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Even the importance of grandchildren does not eclipse the primacy of the parent-child bond. Here, however, grandparents may get a much richer emotional lift than they did from being a parent. But the path to greatest happiness for a grandparent is not always apparent or easy.

"Grandparents have kind of an ambiguous role to play," Silverstein says. "They want to do things and be important in the lives of their grandchildren. But they need to balance their impulses to control, help raise, or teach the child against the parents' rights. It's kind of an anxiety-producing role."

And it can be a varied role, he adds. There can be the fun-loving grandparent who sweeps in, takes the little ones to Disney World, and then heads off. There can be the authoritarian grandparent who provides a lot of guidance and tries to parent their grandchild. There is also the detached grandparent, who is not very involved. And then there's the helping grandparent, who comes over to babysit his grandchildren and gives their parents tremendous support and relief.

To develop the right role, Silverstein advised, grandparents need to listen to the wishes and preferences of their children. "Tune in to what your children expect from you and need from you," he says. "You've got to have discussions about these issues."

The other reality about grandparents is how many of them there will be. Swelled naturally by the ranks of aging boomers and again by decades of high divorce rates and remarriages, we will see an explosion of grandparents.

The aging of America "will increase the importance of vertical kinship ties, up and down the generations," Johns Hopkins' sociologist Andrew Cherlin said in a research paper. "Intergenerational relations involving grandparents, their children, and their grandchildren will play a larger role in family life."

In other words, while the shape of the family is surely changing, these shifts can also enrich family ties. Relationships across generations will have unparalleled opportunities to flourish as America ages.