When Grandparents Raise Grandchildren

This article first appeared in the Island Word in 2005.

Friends of ours were at Value Village a few months ago when they met an older gentleman checking out a child’s comforter blanket. “Grandchild visiting?” they asked, making friendly conversation. The older man looked down, as though he were ashamed of something. “No,” he said, “my daughter was here last week and left her son with us. It looks like he’ll be staying, and we don’t have anything we need anymore at all.”

As it turns out, the man spoke to the right people; our friend, a woman in her fifties, is also raising two grandchildren. Not only did she steer him toward the children’s items; she also gave him a pep-talk about the shared hardships and joys of raising grandchildren. Above all, she told him, “don’t ever be ashamed or apologize for raising a grandchild! Be proud that he has you to lean on.”

Over the last 30 years, the proportion of children in the custody of grandparents in Canada has doubled. According to a major study of custodial grandparents, these families face unique challenges. Over 30% live below the poverty line, and those who do not are still likely to find retirement plans postponed and scaled back. Many live in fear of losing the children to “the system”, or to parents who they believe are not ready to take on the full responsibility of child care. The grandchildren themselves often arrive with deep emotional scars and special educational needs, especially if they have been in state care or suffered the strains of a parent’s falling apart. Substance abuse, addiction, and high rates of poverty among young adults have contributed to the trend of more grandparents stepping up to the role of full time caregiver and guardian, with or without legal rights to guarantee their continued role in the children’s lives.

The issue of grandparents’ rights is complicated, and we won’t address it here. Certainly there are many cases where parents and grandparents end up in court, battling over custody or even access to children. This is always a tragedy, even when it seems unavoidable. Our point here is that grandparents who are willing, physically able, and emotionally mature enough to help are often the first line of defense for children when parental custody breaks down. And many of us have some prejudices to get over when it comes to supporting these “skipped generation” families of grandparents raising grandchildren.

In some cultures it is common for children to be raised by a flexible combination of parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Fostering among relatives in First Nations communities serves many purposes. Close ties to grandparents foster a knowledgeable connection to the values and skills of the elders, and a strong sense of belonging in the larger order of things. In the African American tradition, grandmothers have commonly taken care of children while mothers worked long hours for a living since before the emancipation of slaves. Researchers studying child survival in the Sub-Sahara of Africa found that the presence of a grandmother greatly increases a child’s chances, whether the threats come from famine, diseases (such as the current epidemic of HIV), or warfare. In fact, it may be under conditions of hardship that the role of grandparents is most clear and appreciated.

Part of what haunts custodial grandparents of Canada’s middle class is the sense that “it wasn’t supposed to be this way.” They feel that their families are failing the ideal, and that their “proper” role is on the margins, with parents in the lead. Service and government agencies can unintentionally add to this sense of stigma, asking questions about what went “wrong” in the upbringing of the child’s parents. What is missing when custodial grandparents are stigmatized is the broader picture. The job of a grandparent raising grandchildren, while difficult, is also normal and common across many times and places. The expectation that grandparents won’t be needed only works in very affluent, trouble-free times.

A second missing piece is the knowledge that even the best parents don’t always raise children who make it as parents themselves; there is much about how our children turn out that is out of our control. The rule that “good parents always produce good and capable children” is a cruel myth, particularly when applied to parents who don’t start out with adequate resources, skills, or back-up to do the job, or who parent in a war zone of violence, poverty, racism and stigma. Instead of turning on custodial grandparents with questions about what they did wrong, it is much more useful to start by acknowledging the strength of their commitment, and the good fortune of grandchildren to have such love in their lives.

The truth about custodial grandparents in Canada is that they are doing a heroic job. They are taking parenting courses where they are the only people over 40. They are spending their retirement years driving children to swimming lessons, therapy, tutoring and hockey, then taking post-retirement jobs to pay for these things. They are sitting at kitchen tables struggling over homework, then staying up late to figure it out a day ahead of the kids. They are providing children with stability and resources that foster parents, dedicated and skilled as they are, can rarely match. They do this without access to the financial and other resources that foster parents receive, and yet many are determined to keep the children out of the foster care system. And still, they are finding humor and rewards in this job. Most thrive by tapping into deep strengths and reserves that they otherwise would not have known were there.

The other truth about custodial grandparents is that they could use a hand. The children they are raising tend to be more vulnerable than average, and the resources they have to do the job tend to be tighter than average. They need to be acknowledged and supported in the work that they do, and sometimes they need to be reminded to be proud. They have a particular need for time—time to upgrade their own skills, to relax and recharge, to connect with other custodial grandparents, to keep their own marriages in good shape, and to look after their own health and spiritual well-being. Many of them have a need for more money. Some of them have a need to grieve lost dreams—dreams for their own retirement, and dreams for children who are struggling or lost.

There are many excellent resources for grandparents raising children. One internet source that we liked is www.cangrands.com. This site has many links, and information that ranges from health and safety to legal issues to just plain fun. Locally, families can find some support through Family Services and through the Ministry for Children and Family Development. Many families can get help to pay for private counselling through employee assistance or extended health benefits available through their place of work.



Fuller Thomson, Esme, (2005).   “Grandparents raising grandchildren in Canada:  A Profile of Skipped Generation Families”.  SEDAP (Social and Economic Dimensions of an Aging Population) Research paper # 132, SEDAP Research Program, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ont.