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With the fast-moving pace of family life, grandparents have to adapt to new approaches. So, what does it mean to be a grandparenting the 21st century? 

Amy Chien-Yu Wang
Published on
Friday, April 26, 2019 - 10:03
File size
6 min 32 sec

Professor Doreen Rosenthal has experienced different grandparenting styles as a granddaughter to Russian-born grandparents earlier in the century to being a grandmother of seven grandchildren herself.

Her own lessons were combined with that of over a thousand grandmothers in the book “New Age Nanas: Being a Grandmother in the 21st century”. 

“My grandparents although they came out in the 20s, they still had a very different cultural lens through which they viewed the world and of course they were strangers to Australia, so they didn’t really know the sort of expected behaviours and norms here and they were stay at home women. My mother occupied the sort of middle ground. She was just before that period of transition for women from being at home, being homemakers, housewives to doing paid work outside the home.”

These days with two-thirds of parents from couple families both working and raising children under the age of fifteen, grandparents are playing an important role as unofficial babysitters in Australia.

They look after close to a third of children while their parents work.

Professor Rosenthal has done extensive research in contemporary grandparenting.

She found that many grandmothers share the daughter-in-law problem when it comes to grandparenting.

“When a daughter in law didn’t want the children to have any relationship with her partner’s mother. Sometimes the children get taken out of the country or out of the state or in places that are less accessible and some of our grandmother became very good at technology to maintain a relationship. It’s not an easy job. Most of the women that we spoke to felt that they had to sort of put the needs of their grandchildren first before their own."

Being more conscious than ever of new family dynamics, grandparents are learning to hold their tongue as they adjust to different styles of parenting and grandparenting.

“The worst thing is for you to turn round to your son or daughter and say, ‘look you’re doing it the wrong way’, I mean, however nicely you say it. ‘This is the wrong way, this is a better way. This is the way I used to do it.’ So you just have to back off and let your children manage their children in the way they want to, and of course, times have changed. I mean, we didn’t have a lot of the concerns children these days have.”

With grandparents having less control over families these days, taking a step back when it comes to voicing your concerns is what Bill Asher has learnt over the years as a grandfather to three grandchildren. 

“The grandparents now is a backstop. They’ve got to be supportive. They can’t interfere as much as they’d like to because it’s the role of the parent to bring up the child. I know in a lot of Asian society, for instance, grandparents used to bring the child up. The western society, it’s very much a family affair which did involve the grandparents. Now, not to that extent anymore. So I think the grandparents just got to be there and just sense what goes on and step in where its necessary and sort of be one step ahead of them all the time.”

With more than a quarter of Australians born overseas, grandparents are relying more than ever on new technology as a means to keep family relationships alive.

Migration scholar Professor Loretta Baldassar has been studying transnational families and the use of new technologies at the University of Western Australia. 

“They have no other way of being in touch with grandchildren particularly if they have got to a point in their life when they are no longer able to travel long distances which happens with ageing. So for some grandparents their only way of being in touch with their grandchildren is using new technologies.”

In the digital realm, transnational family relationships are carefully maintained via social media and new technologies with active participation by different family members.

Grandparents can still provide moral and emotional support even without living close to their grandchildren.

“The video call facility is really a fantastic development because little children are not very good at talking on the phone particularly if they don’t want to talk on the phone so what you can do with like Skype or Face Time or any of the video call facilities is you can just have it on and grandparents can just watch their grandchildren as they would do if they were physically present.”

Does the use of new technologies change the way we stay connected and provide care as a family separated by distance?

Baldassar’s research shows that many children of transnational families now see talking to their grandparents as being synonymous with talking through a digital device.

The word ‘nanosecond’ varies into “nana-second” in this scenario. 

“What is the definition of a ‘nana-second’? A ‘nana’ second and it’s the time that it takes for a nana to like a picture of a grandchild that’s posted by the mother on social media.”

With eighty being the new sixty and sixty being the new forty as people live longer, 84-year-old Bill Asher feels his role as a grandparent has also changed. 

“You should be a mentor as well as a playmate as much as you can because grandparents these days are a lot more active and they’re a lot more able to involve themselves with the activities of the kids. I like involving myself with youngsters because they do keep you young. You’ve got to look after them and say you can’t keep up with them but you can do your best.”