If you've overheard a parenting gripe session, you'd think grandparents were a big problem. They just don't get the gluten-free or even nut-free diet that Madison is on. They're not interested in the latest parenting expert's theory. And: All. That. Candy.
But dig a little deeper and most parents know they are benefiting hugely from the support grandparents are increasingly called on to provide. They may have read about new research that signals great things coming from the swelling ranks of baby-boomer grandparents, from mental-health benefits to improved educational outcomes. Or they may noticed some of the learned skills grandparents openly boast about, including hard-won wisdom and an ability to focus on the long view.
You could say grandparents are poised for a surge of respect coming their way. "Grandparents can put things in perspective: that it all goes fast and that this, too, will pass" during an illness or crisis, says Vancouver parenting educator Kathy Lynn, herself a new grandmother of three.
A recent University of Alberta report found that more than one in five Canadian adults aged 65 to 74 and 9 per cent of those aged 75 and over help with child care.
For her TVO documentary Grandparenting (airing Oct. 16 and available online thereafter), filmmaker Karen Shopsowitz interviewed grandparents who are raising their grandkids when they could be kicking back in retirement. About 75,000 Canadian grandchildren live full-time with their grandparents, who go back to work, fight for educational services for a raft of special needs, and spend their retirement funds to keep it all together.
The poster grandmother of the documentary is Betty Cornelius, an outspoken dynamo whose journey as a full-custody gran started when her granddaughter Asheleigh was 3 and being abused and neglected in the drug-riddled home she lived in with her father.
"I don't get to be the spoil-and-return grandma," says Cornelius, who has not seen her own son for 12 years. "This is a club no one wants to join. But, of course, every one of us would do it again."
In the doc, Asheleigh, now in college, fidgets while she tells the camera she is sure she would be dead had her grandma not rescued her.
Yet until called into action, whether as a guardian or a spoil-and-return grandparent, many will say that they didn't know their own emotional capacity.
Kathy Lynn knew she wanted to be a grandma, but she has been blown away by the joy of having three grandchildren within 17 days of each other – a set of twins from her daughter's family and a singleton from her son's.
In conversation with her fellow grandparents, she has seized upon a few theories about the upside of grandparents.
"When you're a grandparent, you can be 100-per-cent focused on the child without having to worry about any of that other peripheral stuff," she says.
She gives the example of changing a diaper. She can just change a diaper, not worry about whether there's been a Costco trip, whether there are clean clothes.
One of the most powerful functions of grandparents is as the keepers of the stories, she says. For one thing, recent research found that when children spend time with adults over 55 – who are presumably reading books and spinning these family tales – kids' reading and cognitive test scores improved by large margins.
Nowhere is that more crucial than in the families Shopsowitz visited over the three years she filmed her documentary. Most share the kids' unsavoury histories with them to set the stage for an honest relationship. "The grandparents don't want the kids to think they came and took them away," she says.
And while Cornelius and her peers are an extreme group, many of her observations will ring true, including the simple fact that grandkids keep you on your toes and help you stay young. "I had to be at soccer practice with all the 29-year-old moms," the gregarious blonde says.
While there is research that shows grandmothers who are raising grandchildren appear to be vulnerable to depression, a study in August showed that strong grandparent/adult-grandchild relationships reduce the symptoms of depression for both groups.
Much of Cornelius's work involves her gut instincts on this fact. She visits grandmas in despair who feel they can't keep parenting their grandkids because of behavioural problems and are considering putting them in foster care. She is there to give them tough love, connect them with services to help them, and remind them of the long-term relationship they are building: "I tell them to hang on and dig deeper. Nobody is going to love that child the way you do."
These are extreme cases of grandparents who are stepping up to the plate to save their grandkids, but Shopsowitz says working on the film gave her a broader perspective on the power of all grandparents.
"We don't always value them enough," she says.