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What is this thing called grandparenting? : the social, economic and political influences on the role in New Zealand : a thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at Social Work and Social Policy, School of Health and Social Sciences, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand
In 2003 Statistics New Zealand was describing grandparenting as an ‘emerging field’. There
exists very little academic material on the subject in New Zealand although there is a prolific
literature from the US and increasing interest from Britain and other countries in the West. This
research study sets out to explore the nature of grandparenting in New Zealand, past and
present, reviewing the social, economic and political influences on the role as it is today.
From a review of the international literature three distinct models of grandparenting were
identified for enquiry. They are:
• The full-time care grandparent with parental responsibilities.
• The grandparent providing regular supplementary care to assist parent/s to fulfil the
parenting needs of their children (e.g. when parents are in work).
• The grandparent with a role characterized as voluntary and varied, outside parent type
Choosing an interpretive approach, I used a case study method of research. Eighteen
grandparents were interviewed, some from each model. Additionally six grandparents, two
from each model, kept a diary of their grandparenting activity over three months. Grandparents
were purposefully selected to represent wide variability.
From grandparents in all three grandparenting models there is evidence of a strong emotional
commitment to adult children’s families. From past relationship with grandparents, or less often
from observing their parents grandparenting their children, the grandparents have learnt a model
of grandparenting which is carried into the present. There it is typically expressed in a variety
of nurturing and protective behaviours. In this manner grandparents have the potential to
provide continuity, stability and a sense of belonging at the micro-social level of the family, and
in doing so, at the macro-level, to the broader fabric of society.
When, from social and/or economic circumstance grandparents are parenting grandchildren,
they are likely to suffer a deteriorating quality of life, with health and finances especially
affected. Grandparents who are providing regular, supplementary care of grandchildren also
sometimes experience these effects. Social policies sensitive to both the micro- and macrosocial
value of grandparents are needed to address their vulnerabilities.