Religious Grandparents More Involved With Grandchildren, New Study Reveals

August 25, 1998

CHAPEL HILL - Grandparents with strong ties to organized religion develop and maintain stronger relationships with their grandchildren than do grandparents with few or no religious affiliations, a new study shows.

The research, conducted by faculty at Pennsylvania State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, measured "religiousness" by the number of times subjects attended church, led services, taught Sunday school, attended religion classes, prayed and listened to religious broadcasts.

"Our data don't tell us what it is about religious observance that motivates grandparents to be involved with their grandchildren," said Dr. Valarie King, assistant professor of sociology at Penn State. "They do indicate, however, that religious grandparents are in general more involved with all types of family and social ties, and this may be one explanation for their greater involvement with their grandchildren."

King presented the findings Sunday (Aug. 23) at the American Sociological Association annual meeting in San Francisco. Her co-author was Dr. Glen H. Elder Jr., Howard W. Odom professor of sociology at UNC-CH.

The new study was the first to examine in detail possible links between religious observance and grandparent involvement with young children, the researchers said. Earlier studies have shown regular churchgoers enjoy better health and greater happiness than people who don't attend church. Earlier work also has demonstrated that religious parents and their children maintain better relationships than others.

"Most children today grow up surrounded by contact with active grandparents, but not all grandparents are actively involved," King said. "Little is known about what motivates them to become involved in their grandchildren's lives."

For the study, Elder and Dr. Rand D. Conger, professor of sociology and psychology at Iowa State University, collected information in 1994 through interviews with more than 500 white families in rural Iowa. Grandparents ranged in age from 51 to 92. About a fifth of grandchildren came from households headed by a single mother. Most subjects were Protestant, either Lutherans or Methodists.

"Involvement" was measured by frequency of contacts, quality of relationships, participation in various activities together, friendship and mentoring, teaching, discussing personal problems, care during illnesses and conflict levels.

"The number of grandparents raising their own grandchildren is growing rapidly, especially in inner cities where girls may be too young to raise children by themselves," Elder said. "In many cases, grandparents provide an important safety net for children and help them make the transition to adulthood by offering support and encouragement."

While the study involved only white Midwesterners, the researchers said they believed the findings would be similar for grandparents and grandchildren from other backgrounds. The study is part of a larger investigation of events shaping the grandparenting role.

The National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Bureau of Maternal and Child Health and the MacArthur Foundation are among sponsors of the research.

By David Williamson
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Note: During the meeting, Elder and King can be reached at the Hilton Towers hotel in San Francisco at (415) 771-1400. Thereafter, Elder's number is (919) 966-6660 and King's is (814) 863-8716.
Contact: David Williamson, (919) 962-8596 (w) or 732-2991 (h).
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University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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