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5 Myths About Grandparents It’s Time to Trash

Let’s ditch the stereotypes and start embracing reality


(This article previously appeared on GrandparentEffect.com)

These are five myths about grandparents that we should all retire:

1. Grandparents are old.
 
Some are. Most aren’t.
 
As of 2010, 54 percent of American grandparents were younger than 65 and 80 percent were younger than 75, according to a MetLife report.
 
And, contrary to popular belief, most Americans with adult children aren’t waiting an eternity for their first grandchild.
 
The median age at which an American woman welcomes her first grandchild is 50, says the MetLife Report on American Grandparents, which was prepared by Peter Francese, founder of the magazine American Demographics. The median age at which a man welcomes his first grandchild is 54.
 
(MORE: How to Manage Grandkids’ Expectations)
 
2. Grandchildren are young.
 
Some are. Many aren’t.
 
More than 75 percent of American 30-year-olds still have a living grandparent and more than 20 percent of 40-year-olds do, according to estimates by demographer Peter Uhlenberg of the University of North Carolina.
 
It was a very different story a century ago, when we didn’t live as long, and grandparenting careers were shorter. In 1900, only 21 percent of 30-year-olds had a living grandparent and a mere 1 percent of 40-year-olds did, says Uhlenberg.
 
3. Grandparents play a smaller role in children’s lives than they used to.
 
Nope. If anything, they play a bigger role than in the past, scholars think.
 
In fact, writes Uhlenberg, “[i]t is likely that grandparents play a more significant role in the lives of children now than ever before in history.”
 
Due to increases in longevity in the developed world, children have more grandparents than they used to. And due to decreases in family size, grandparents have fewer grandchildren, which means they can lavish more resources on each, explains Uhlenberg.
 
(MORE: Are You Playing Favorites With Your Grandkids?)
 
Moreover, because the prevalence of working mothers and single parents has risen, “older family members are an increasingly important source of financial, instrumental and emotional support for their families,” according to sociologists Sara Arber and Virpi Timonen.
 
In the United States, more than 10 million children, including one-quarter of all kids under five and 14 percent of kids ages five to 14, are watched by a grandparent at least once a week, according to the Census Bureau.
 
4. Grandparents depend on their adult children for financial support.
 
No way!
 
These days, it’s often the other way around: parents depend on grandparents to help them pay the bills.
 
(MORE: Bank of Grandma Paying for College Bills)
 
“The notion of adult children providing economic support for their aging parents is obsolete,” writes Uhlenberg. Instead, “older people are frequently using part of their pension income to assist children and grandchildren who have needs.”
 
A recent study by MetLife found that 62 percent of American grandparents were helping support their grandchildren financially, either directly or through gifts to the middle generation. Forty-three percent of these grandparents had upped their support since the onset of the Great Recession, which, on the whole, hit parents harder than grandparents, researchers say.
 
5. Fewer and fewer children grow up with a grandparent in their home or nearby.
 
Wrong again.
 
After declining sharply during the postwar years, the percentage of American children sharing a roof with a grandparent began rising again late in the 20th century.
 
Between 1992 and 2012, the share of children who lived with a grandparent rose from 7 to 10 percent, according to the Census Bureau. The government attributed the surge both to increased longevity among grandparents and to financial distress among parents.
 
What’s more, “contrary to widespread belief,” writes Uhlenberg, “no evidence supports an increasing rate of geographic mobility in the U.S. over the 20th century.” As a result, says Uhlenberg, “it is no more likely now than in the past for a child born in the U.S. to live far from his or her grandparents.”

By Olivia Gentile
Olivia Gentile is an author, journalist, and mother in New York City. She launched The Grandparent Effect to honor her grandparents, who thrived into her 30s and their 90s. She's also started a discussion about the extended American family on Facebook.

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