Mary and Michael Johnson with five of their six grandchildren. The Johnsons spend as much time as they can with their grandchildren, seeing it as an opportunity to help out as their children try to get by in the world. Photo by Michael Swan

Grandparents are becoming more involved with their children's children

  • October 8, 2016

The death knell for the nuclear family continues to ring out in a new compilation of statistics from the Vanier Institute of the Family. But the good news is that grandparents are more involved than ever in raising their grandchildren and helping out their extended families.

“It’s a second chance at parenting,” said Mary Johnson, a grandmother of six. “I just love being with my grandchildren.”

Johnson would love to retire early to spend more time taking care of the grandkids, but she and her husband Michael still have a mortgage. When she was a young mother she stayed at home.

“My kids didn’t have to go to day care,” she said.

Johnson sees herself as adding some of the little extras that busy, stressed parents can’t. She takes seven-year-old Jasmine Johnson to Beavers on Thursday nights. It’s just one instance where grandma can step in to help Jasmine’s time-stressed parents. Picking up Jasmine from day care is another.

Although Johnson doesn’t live with her grandkids, a growing number of grandparents are living with their children and grandchildren. Nearly 600,000 grandparents shared a household with their grandchildren in 2011. That’s a 23-per-cent increase over 10 years.

Given the general greying of North American society, it’s no surprise to discover there are now 7.1 million Canadian grandparents living in private households — a 25-per-cent increase between 2001 and 2011, compared with overall population growth of 12 per cent in the same period.

While there are more grandparents, there are fewer grandchildren to go around. The average Canadian granny in 2011 had 4.2 grandchildren, down from 4.8 a decade previous. A continuing decline in Canadian fertility rates is to blame, said the Vanier Institute analysis of Statistics Canada census information.

Economics has a lot to do with the growing role of grandparents in raising their grandchildren. Day care is expensive. More than a quarter (28 per cent) of parents told Statistics Canada in 2011 they rely on private arrangements such as grandparents to care for children up to the age of four. More than half (50.3 per cent) of grandparents living with their grandchildren report they have financial responsibility for supporting the household. In homes where a single parent is living with grandpa and/or grandma, 75 per cent of grandparents are contributing financially.

The greater financial burden on grandparents corresponds with the increasing number of seniors still working. One in seven (13.4 per cent) of Canadian seniors in 2015 are in the labour force, compared to just 7.1 per cent in 1995. Looking at just the young seniors (65 to 69 years old), 26 per cent are still working for a living.

But the grandparent boom isn’t all economics, fuelled by seniors who can’t afford to retire and young parents who can’t afford day care. Culture plays a significant role in who chooses extended family arrangements.

Among aboriginal Canadians, 10.7 per cent of grandparents are living with their grandchildren, compared to 3.9 per cent in the non-aboriginal community.

Economics plays a role in aboriginal communities where incomes are lower and housing is scarce, but there’s much more to it, said Anishinaabe grandmother Debbie Ense.

“I don’t think it has to do that much with money,” Ense said.

Ense’s four grandchildren and one great-grandchild by marriage don’t live with her in M’Chigeeng on Manitoulin Island, but they’re in and out of her house most days — walking in without a knock or a phone call in advance, treating their grandma’s house as if it was their own.

“When we have some non-natives come to visit, they’re in awe,” said Ense. “For them they (the grandchildren) have to give a call and then knock. There’s a big difference right there — how close you are to your family, or how you set limits I guess.”

Nor would Ense hesitate to correct her grandchildren when their behaviour veers a little off course. But she does it through their parents.

“I would address my son or daughter if something is wrong,” she said.

The communication goes both ways, with Ense’s son and daughter frequently asking their mother’s opinion about the behaviour and progress of their children.

Ense first became a grandmother at a relatively youthful 43. She didn’t see it as a sign of old age, or as an unwelcome limitation on her freedom. For the devout Catholic and member of Sault Ste. Marie’s Diocesan Order of Service, children are a gift whenever they come and wherever they come from.

“I want to be the first place they (my children) go to ask for somebody to watch their kids,” she said. “Which I am.”

When Ense takes a vacation, she will often take her grandchildren along with her. She is also sometimes invited along on her children’s vacations.

The story is similar for many immigrants. More than one in five (21 per cent) of recent immigrant grandparents lived with their grandchildren in 2011. The Vanier Institute cites research that explains the extended families as “a financial coping strategy.”

While economics plays a role, it’s not the whole story, said Luz Mustacho, a 64-year-old Filipina grandmother of five. Many Filipino immigrants will sponsor their parents under Canada’s family reunification program. But it’s not just cheap day care, said Mustacho. In a family-first culture, grandparents are more than a strategy.

Mustacho doesn’t live with her grandchildren. But she has been intimately involved in raising her three granddaughters — the oldest of whom is now 23. Her two more recent grandsons are not with her every day, but she’s still involved — picking them up from day care, visiting on weekends.

Mustacho works for the City of Toronto co-ordinating recreation programs at a community centre. There she sees that not all grandparents are quite so happy to be taking care of their grandchildren.

“Some grandparents take it happily. Some might be resenting doing that,” she said.

It can be exhausting to spend all day with young children. Having raised your own children and then raise the grandchildren can seem like a pattern you can’t escape.

For Johnson, it’s a pattern she enjoys.

Still working full time at Catholic Family Services of Toronto, Johnson lives separately from her grandchildren but looks for every opportunity to help out.

“A lot of people say, ‘Mary, you do too much,’ ” she said. “I feel sorry for parents working full time.”

At the same time, Johnson is aware of the limits of her role. She does not discipline her grandchildren.

“I do not want bad words with my daughter-in-law,” she said.

“Parenting is just an awful lot of hard work,” points out St. Jerome’s University sociologist David Seljak. It’s a benefit for both parents and growing children to have more adults involved, he said.

In Seljak’s view, “the single family dwelling is a bad mistake.” Since the Second World War, North American society has held the nuclear family up as an ideal or even a norm that many people have been unable to attain and many more simply don’t want,.

After a career spent studying family formation and structure, Seljak himself looks forward to the grandparent role. This, however, will depend on his children’s co-operation.

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