Gran used to be a four-letter word

In the 1930s and 1940s grandparents were thought to exert a ‘pernicious’ influence on their progeny

Granny O’Grimm: Are grandparents naughty or nice? Photograph: Irish Film Board/PA Wire

The warmth and affection which young people have for their grandparents has always struck me as a positive thing in the world – but it was not always so.

Articles in psychological journals in the US in the 1930s and 1940s complained of dictatorial and interfering grandparents. One doctor wrote of the “malignant influence of grandmothers” in this regard.

“Every paediatrician who conceives that the proper upbringing of the children who are committed to his care is a part of his task, will have made this discovery: grandmothers exert an extraordinarily pernicious influence on their grandchildren,” he wrote.

In another article a social worker complained that “the presence of grandparents in the home has caused delinquency in a considerable number of instances”.


The author Clifford A Strauss, who worked in the Juvenile Court in Toledo Ohio, believed interference in childrearing by the father's mother was especially damaging, as the children were exposed to rows between the mother and the mother-in-law. When a grandparent interferes with the raising of the child, he writes, "he or she should be removed from the home".

Acknowledging that the problem of what to do about old people when they can no longer take care of themselves "is not new", he adds helpfully that, "In certain primitive tribes this was solved by murder, the old folks, when useless, being killed by their own children. With the Eskimos, old people are often left alone on the ice to freeze and starve to death while the young people move their camp to a further site."

Go with the floe
For some reason, I find the image of the young people making themselves scarce while grandma and grandpa freeze to death on an ice floe terribly funny, largely because I have a suspicion that it never happened, whatever Clifford may say. It helps, I guess, that I am not a grandparent myself. Anyway, thanks for the tip Clifford and I bet you kept that article to yourself when your kids grew up and you got old.

(These articles appeared in the Ameri can Journal of Orthopsychiatry which deals with the prevention of mental and behavioural disorders in children).

By the 1960s, attitudes had begun to soften and grandparents themselves were adopting a less authoritarian, more playful role. Today grandparents are seen as having a nurturing and helpful influence.

If you were a conspiracy theorist you might suggest that society began to like grandparents because it needed them to help with the kids as mothers went out to work. Fortunately we are not conspiracy theorists here and so we need not entertain this thought.

Mind you, one Polish child complained to researchers in the early 1990s that the grandmother was “always running about, grumbling, nagging and shouting”. It’s not all sweetness and light. And maybe the grandmother wished she could be off having fun instead of having to mind the kids after hers were reared.

Today, grandmothers tend to be more involved with the grandchildren than grandfathers. Maternal grandmothers are particularly involved. Interestingly, when parents split up and the custodial parent (usually the mother) moves in with a new partner, the step-grandfather tends to be more involved with the “new” grandchildren than the step-grandmother.

In these situations too, the original paternal grandparents can be denied access to their grandchildren and this, naturally, is devastating. Because they never stop hoping for contact they never achieve emotional closure on the situation.

Grandparents can apply to the Irish courts for access in these situations. Treoir ( has a good booklet on grandparenting where the parents are not married to each other called 'Being there for them'.

If you'd like to know more about the research into grandparenting you can download an article by Prof Peter Smith, University of London, in The Psychologist (2005).

Padraig O'Morain (pomorain@yahoo. com) is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book Light Mind – Mindfulness for Daily Living is published by Veritas.