How Grandmothers Saved the World


Grandmom should be more than a holiday hug and a monthly Facetime. Professor Kathleen Stassen Berger believes the matriarchs are responsible for the survival of our species and have an important role to play today, although they often find themselves on the sidelines of the modern family. In Grandmothering: Building Strong Ties With Every Generation, Berger shows how to tap the wisdom of grandparents without usurping mom and dad. We asked her to explain some of her ideas.

How did grandmothers save the species?

They stopped starvation, diseases and accidents that killed most children before age 5, many in the first days of life. Of course, many babies still died, but over the millennia a small difference led to billions of people alive today.

In the past, species, including earlier hominids, became extinct because reproduction failed, climate change destroyed food, and natural disasters devastated communities. When homo sapiens started living long enough to be grandparents, the population increased. Grandmothers delivered babies, found food for nursing mothers and toddlers, knew what herbs would help the sick, and kept older children from wandering into jungles, off cliffs or far from home.

One telling statistic: Our closest surviving primate relatives are chimpanzees (99 percent of the same genes). They are on the endangered species list; about 150,000 are alive today. Homo sapiens numbers almost 8 billion, 50,000 times the chimps.

Why do you say grandmothers are being given short shrift these days?

Our national emphasis on the nuclear family has led to ignoring the grandparents. Families function best when parents are not the only, exclusive caregivers, yet the current emphasis on intensive parenting undercuts grandmother help.

What’s the best way for a parent to get grandparents more involved?

Give clear requests and guidelines. Grandparents sometime overstep, sometimes stay distant, without knowing what parents really want.

What’s the best way for grandparents to be more involved?

Support the parents and follow their guidelines. Don’t grab all the joy of caregiving — holding the infant, giving presents to the older children. Figure out what is really helpful — perhaps buying groceries, folding laundry, and picking children up from school.

Where is the line between being helpful and meddling?

It depends on the family relationships, but the line is not where most grandparents imagine. Best to stay quiet or ask, “What do you think?” Never give a comment that might be taken as criticism.

I know a grandmother who, when she heard her granddaughter in the background during a phone call, asked “Aren’t the children asleep yet.” The mother slammed down the phone.

Should grandmothers be expected to babysit?

Ideally, every grandmother babysits sometimes and is not the full-time caregiver. Specifics depend on what the parents need. Expectations need to be discussed, because assumptions are often wildly off.

What’s your best advice for a grandparent of a:

  • Infant – Talk, sing, and laugh with the baby. Spend hours at it, often.
  • Toddler – Help them explore safely, by keeping hazards away. Then take them to a park where they can be safe and happy.
  • Tween – Listen to them, read with them, and encourage them. Also listen to the parents.
  • Teen – Again, listen and communicate via texts, videos, anyway that works. Be wary of giving advice or criticism, but share stories of past experiences that taught you something. Respect teen opinions about current issues, such as climate change (one grandmother quit using cellophane because of her grandson) and social prejudice (accept friends of various sexualities, ethnicities, religions etc.).

Overall, every parent and grandchild benefits from support and love from someone who is able to put aside personal complaints. For many reasons, grandmothers are ideally suited for that role.

Kathleen Stassen Berger 
is a professor of Human Development at the City University of New York, and author of Grandmothering: Building Strong Ties with Every Generation as well as two top college textbooks on the subject. Learn more at


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