UF study: Grandparents celebrated instead of reviled in children's lit

December 19, 2001

GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- The golden years have entered a golden age in children's books, which now overwhelmingly portray grandparents as upbeat, independent and wise, a University of Florida study shows.

Just a generation ago, old people were depicted as grumpy, sometimes doddering and almost always as if their advancing age was something to ignore or avoid.

Not today. Of 64 children's books randomly selected from the Books in Print Index and published since 1985, only three presented grandparents negatively, said Robert Beland, a professor in UF's department of recreation, parks and tourism. In all the books, at least one grandparent was actively involved with grandchildren, he said.

"Not only did the books depict the grandparent in a positive manner, but in some of them the character was the hero or heroine of the story," said Beland, who did the study with UF sociologist Terry Mills, a researcher with UF's Institute on Aging. "They solved family problems, they fixed things and they inspired the family, especially grandchildren."

Grandparents in the stories were active, involved in camping, fishing and even motorcycling, Beland said. Those still in the workforce represented an interesting array of occupations that included tugboat captain and jukebox repairman, he said.

Mills, Beland's co-researcher, believes grandparents are getting more attention because medical advances have meant more people live to be grandparents. In 1900, the average life expectancy was about 49 years; today, the largest growing segment of the older adult population is people 85 and older, he said.

"As people live longer, the prospect of shared intergenerational relationships over longer periods of time is greater than any other time in history," Mills said. "Today you can be a grandparent for 50 or 60 years, particularly if you consider teen pregnancies."

The results of the UF study, published in the July issue of Journal of Family Issues, contrast markedly with a 1970s study by Edward Ansello of hundreds of children's books, in which only a few had any older adult characters at all, Beland said. Of these, the vast majority presented a negative image of someone who was sick, infirm or just plain looked old, he said.

Children may be getting to know grandparents in books because they are spending more time with them in real life, Beland said. "A generation is starting to benefit from contact with grandparents," he said. "In my own family, my parents had no knowledge of their grandparents. I had some knowledge, my children had more."

Perhaps illustrating this trend, 53 percent of the authors and illustrators in the study dedicated the book either to their grandparents or grandchildren, he said.

The positive stories they were inspired to create include one about a grandmother helping a young girl overcome her fear of thunderstorms by redirecting her attention to baking a "thundercake." In another, a tailor satisfies both his granddaughter's desire for a purple coat and her mother's insistence it be navy by making a reversible coat of both colors, he said.

Some of the characters defied a different set of elderly stereotypes, Beland said. In "My Grandma Has Black Hair," Sylvia hates to be called Granny or anything like it, drives a Volkswagen Beetle, doesn't sew or cook well and has a rude parrot for a pet, he said.

"Such portrayals are important because children exposed to this type of literature have a better chance of accepting old age and grandparenting than prior generations," he said. "They see that older adulthood is not sitting in a rocking chair wasting away."

In 90 percent of the books, grandparents were pictured as happy, in more than half (56 percent) they were independent and able to take care of themselves and in 47 percent they were wise, Beland said.

Less than a quarter of the books (23 percent) depicted grandparents with disabilities, yet for the most part, the disability had no bearing on the character's positive image, he said.

In "Gramma's Walk," for instance, one of Donnie's favorite activities is to take an imaginary walk with his grandmother, who uses a wheelchair and also is a good storyteller. After she describes walking barefoot on the warm sand, building a sand castle and smelling the salty breeze, Donnie hugs her and says, "You're the best walker in the whole world."

There has been an explosion in the number of books during the last two decades exploring this family relationship, Beland said. Fewer children's books in the '70s spotlighted grandparents, and those that did contained little variation in plot or ethnic diversity, he said.

As active baby boomers age, young people will have more opportunities to get to know grandparents on a normal basis instead of set apart in retirement communities, Mills said. "People think of grandparents as being old people, but many grandparents are really middle-aged people," he said. "The average age of somebody becoming a grandparent is 47."

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University of Florida

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