First a little bit of context:
Here at Gingersnap Studios, we’re on a mission to put our app technology to good use, so we can help families stay better connected, even when they’re apart. And we’re always on the look out for research or blog posts that explain how family dynamics are changing in the modern age or that help remind us of why those family ties are still relevant.
Most of the people who we’ve invited to our app testing sessions over the last few months have told us that they instinctively believe that “there is a special bond between kids and their grandparents that still needs to be nurtured”.
Some say it’s as strong as ever, but others worry that family separation, parental break-ups and even the increased pressure on kids’ home-time, mean the older generations are in danger of losing touch and falling out of favour with their grandkids.
So we’ve been doing a bit of old-fashioned desk research to remind ourselves why the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren is so important… and we wanted to share it with you.
(This blog comes in two parts, so if you’re a list fanatic and want to skip the history bit then look for the link at the bottom of the page).
50 years in the writing
Back in the late 1960s, the prominent American cultural Anthropologist, Margaret Mead, observed that grandparents and grandchildren were important allies, often united against the parents. She argued that grandparents needed grandchildren “to keep the changing world alive for them” and that, through the stories the grandparents told, children not only learned about the world as it had been for that generation but also about what their parents’ childhood had been like.
And so it was , she argued, that grandparents linked the past to the present, whilst children linked the present to the future.
“Everyone needs to have access both to grandparents and grandchildren in order to be a full human being.”
Mead was keen to emphasise that the value of these intergenerational bonds represented a model for mutual learning across society, and in 1969, when she became a grandmother herself, she succinctly remarked in her monthly column for the Redbook magazine, “Curious! Through no immediate act of my own, my status was altered irreversibly and for all time.”
A product of the time?
Back in the 1960s when Mead first started to write about the ‘grandparent effect’, the ‘generation gap’ between kids and their elders was a hot topic for discussion, and what Mead had to say about adolescents in particular, garnered lots of media attention. Cosmopolitan Magazine did a profile on her and noted that “her latest vogue is as a folk heroine today’s youth”.
Mead caught the tabloids off guard because, far from criticising the teenage rebellion that was sweeping across the United States and Europe, she sided with the youngsters and sympathised with their angst. “These children were born into a whole world. They’re involved in everything at once – the bomb, space exploration, computers, pollution. Things happen every place and every place – through television – is theirs. We know this world as a second language. They know it as a mother tongue”.
Fifty years on and the digital revolution is couched in similar terms. At the turn of the millennium Mark Prensky coined the term ‘digital native‘ for children who had never known a world before the internet. (It was later arbitrarily applied to children born after 1980). Whilst their grandparents’ generation have been relegated to the status of “digital immigrants“.
Yet, ironically, despite the advances in behavioural sciences, still very little has been written about what needs to be done to break down this digital divide.
Social anthropologists no longer work up their hypotheses based on personal observation alone, and the rapid development of neuro-sciences should gives us a much better understanding of which emotional drivers are triggering the different parts of the brain when the generations interact. But detailed explanations are still few and far between.
So what can we say with any certainty?
Those bloggers and social commentators that do cover the subject, seem unanimous that the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren is more important than ever. And this does seem to be borne out by the occasional academic report that reinforces these everyday observations.
There’s also clear evidence corroborating Margaret Mead’s assertion that a strong relationship and bond from a young age can be mutually beneficial for both grandparents and grandchildren (as you’ll discover below).
And although we couldn’t find any major studies into causality, there seems to be a consensus amongst social scientists that grandparents still have a strong influence on their grandchildren’s lives and continue to play an important role in their childhood, helping to shape their perception of family and providing valuable lessons that will follow them into adulthood.
This is all very useful information for those of us that work in the ‘inter-generational space’, but we still definitely need more research into the subject. In particular, as families continue to disperse (for work or other reasons), the more we need to understand how these traditional bonds can be supported when relatives are apart. For example, can a virtual exchange between a child and grandparent have the same effect as a face-to-face interaction and help lessen the effect of geographical separation?
These are some of the questions that preoccupy us here at Gingersnap. Our personalised story-app collection was developed after months of in-home trials, specifically with the ambition of helping grandparents (and other relatives) feel more connected with what their digitally-savvy kids might be up to the other side of the world. (Forgive the blatant plug but if you’re interested you can find our latest app collection for iPad here). But there are still so many unanswered questions.
In our daily work, we obsess about how best to “accentuate the positive” aspects of personalisation, gift-giving and reciprocity between the generations, so that grandparents feel they want to get involved with technology rather than see it as admission that they need help. (From our experiences of the ‘senior-tech’ solutions industry, far too many tech companies dwell unnecessarily on the unpleasant aspects of old age – which can only have a negative effect). But again we’re probably only scratching the surface.
And when each new report or study comes out we’re amongst the first to pull it apart and try to understand what it means. So here are our ten top reasons why we should encourage grandparents to take an active role in their young grandchildren’s life.
Continue to Part 2 of this blog.