Five Styles of Grandparenting


There is no one-style-fits-all approach to grandparenting any more than there is a single style of marriage or parenting that fits all couples. Couples work out their own styles of marriage just like grandparents work out their roles as grandparents. In the seminal study[1] of grandparenting in 1964 five styles were posed that have become a sort of taxonomy describing how grandparents relate to their grandchildren. There are basically five styles of grandparenting: Which style best describes your own grandparents?


1. Formal

The formal grand parent plays their role from a distance. Formal grandparents consider themselves more as parents than grandparents. They parent their own adult children first and only act as grandparents because their kids have kids. They sometimes say to their adult children (or more commonly to themselves), “I took my turn raising you—I’m your parent, not your kids’ parent.” Grandchildren often see this kind of grandparent as distant icons and they get their information on them from stories their own parents tell. The model (good or bad) these grandparents become to their grandchildren depends on the stories and descriptions the grandchildren hear from their own parents.


2. Playmate

The playmate grandparent interacts with the grandchildren for fun. They say, “Let’s bake cookies together” or “Wanna’ go shoot some birds with the B-B gun?” They don’t worry about “spoiling” their grandkids with extravagant gifts and expensive experiences. Men are slightly more inclined to this style than women. The playmate grandparent doesn’t feel responsible for how the grandchildren are turning out. They may even prod them to do naughty things their parents have to correct. The playmate grandfather might teach a nine year old to drive a car or shoot a shotgun. They invite their grandkids over for a weekend and sometimes their parents tremble at what the kids will come home and report. Grandchildren see these grandparents as far more fun then their parents.


3. Ghost

The ghost grandparent seldom shows up though occasionally makes an “apparition.” Sometimes it is because of physical miles, sometimes it is due to personal choice, and sometimes the parent chooses to eliminate the grandparents from the life of their grandchildren. The Ghost is like a formal grandparent in being largely uninvolved in the lives of their grandchildren but they are even less involved than formal grandparents. Formal grandparents might often visit the children, but relate mostly with their own children—the parents of their grandkids. The grandchildren see the ghost grandparent as a distant shadowy figure—people who show up occasionally in their life but they only understand their role vaguely. In the original study one in five males had this style and only slightly fewer females.[2]


4. Surrogate

The surrogate grandparent acts like a parent when they are with their grandchildren. They feel responsible for how the grandkids turn out so they intervene with correction and discipline and help “bring them up right.” They believe “it takes the whole family to bring up a child.”  Surrogates might have a regular schedule of caring for the grandkids and consider it their job to reward good behavior and punish unacceptable behavior just like they did with their own kids. They may offer generous advice to the parents of their grandkids. In the original study one out of ten grandparents acted in the surrogate role, though I think this style may be more common today.


5. Sage

The sage grandparent is a Yoda—they are there when needed for consultation and advice if the grandchild comes to them. They interact with the grandchildren when invited but seldom initiate.  If the grandkid asks, they respond, but seldom intervene on their own. Grandparents who took other roles when the grandchildren were little often adopt this role by the time their grandchildren are in college. The sage grandparent who is a Christian prays daily for their grandchildren and sends notes saying so, then stands by for a time when the grandchild comes to ask for advice. When they do, the sage offers the “long view” on things to their grandchildren. The sage grandparent is sometimes mistaken for a ghost.



So, if these are the five basic approaches to grandparenting, who decides which role grandparents should take? The grandparents themselves? The parents? The children? Or some negotiated family decision? Which kind might you prefer yourself when you become a grandparent? What situations arise when you have no choice at all but the “situation” forces you to adopt one or another of these styles?  Does the church have any role in helping  grandparents like it does in helping parents? Which kind of grandparenting did you experience?


So what do you think?

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Keith Drury   March 3, 2009



[1] Adapted from 1964 study by Bernice L. Neugarten  & Karol K Wienstein which supplied the classic taxonomy for the five approaches to grandparenting—their study was titled The changing American Grandparent" "Formal" is their title, the rest are my own titles for their categories as follows: Their Fun-seeker I titled “playmate”; Their Distant Figure I have titled “Ghost;”  Their surrogate parent I titled surrogate; Their “Reservoir of family wisdom” I titled “sage.” In a more recent (1985) study by Andrew J. Cherlin and Frank K. Furstenberg, Jr the five styles are titled Detached (seldom even see grandchildren), passive(see them but not active), supportive(seeing often and running chores and helping out by baby-sitting etc.), authoritative(practicing parent-like behaviors like advising and correcting), and influential(a combination of supportive & authoritative behaviors).

[2] In the original 1964 study the percentages were as follows: Formal  (22% of females 23% of males);   Playmate (17% of females, 20% of males);  Ghost (13% females, 20% males); Surrogate (9% females 10% males)   Sage (1% females, 4% males). I suspect these numbers have changed since 1964 but I have not yet found the research to show present distributions of the five styles—I’m headed for Bermuda for Spring Break ;-). Perhaps one of my readers will find more recent data and post the new distributions.