Everywhere on earth, grandparents love their grandkids, but their role in family life varies dramatically across cultures.
A recent scholarly book, Grandparents in Cultural Context, uses proverbs about grandparents and grandparenting to illustrate some of these differences.
Each saying is a “window” into how a particular society believes grandparents and their families should think, feel, and act toward one another, according to the book’s editors, David Shwalb of Southern Utah University and Ziarat Hossain of the University of New Mexico.
Here are a few examples.
“The parents to raise, the grandparents to spoil.”
In Mexico, except in cases where parents have migrated abroad for work or are otherwise unavailable, “grandparents do not usually discipline, set limits, or do the hard work of educating children; grandparents tend to spend more pleasant time with children, providing love and affection without the responsibility for raising them,” write Judith Gibbons of St. Louis University and Regina Fanjul de Marsicovetere of the University of the Valley of Guatemala.
Still, many Mexican elders live with or near their children and grandchildren and see them often. In general, “grandparents are recognized as integral members of the family,” write Gibbons and de Marsicovetere.
“The parents educate and the grandparents do the opposite.”
Unlike parents, grandparents in Brazil don’t tend to pressure kids to excel in school, write scholars Cristina Dias, Rosa Azambuja, Elaine Rabinovich, and Ana Cecilia Bastos, who are all based at universities in Brazil. Rather, “contemporary grandparents are often their grandchildren’s confidantes and companions.”
However, “[t]his proverb may not apply to all contemporary grandparents, because many of them are in charge of their grandchildren.” For example, when a baby is born to a teen mother, her own mother typically assumes responsibility for the child.
“The grandmother is twice a mother.”
“[A] grandmother is more than a mother because she is the mother of her own child and the mother of her child’s children,” write Dias, Azambuja, Rabinovich, and Bastos. “Therefore, a grandmother plays the role of mother in two ways.”
“Even your grandma wouldn’t know whether it will rain or snow.”
Grandmas are wise, but even they don’t know everything, according to this proverb, which is used “for situations when an outcome or a result is uncertain or unpredictable,” writes Jennifer Utrata of the University of Puget Sound.
In Russia, contemporary grandmothers tend to play a pivotal role in family life, providing stability to their children and grandchildren in the face of social and economic tumult. By contrast, grandfathers are often absent due to divorce, alcoholism, or premature death, according to Utrata. Partly because of the high rate of alcoholism among men, Russia has one of the world’s largest gender gaps in life expectancy; a Russian woman can expect to live 12 years longer than a Russian man.
“Grandchildren’s arrival and departure are both pleasing.”
Often, Japanese grandparents find their grandkids “pleasurable yet exhausting,” write Jun Nakazawa of Chiba University in Japan, Jung-Hwan Hyun of Seoul Theological University, Pei-Chun Ko of the National University of Singapore, and Shwalb. “Many modern Japanese grandparents want to maintain only a moderate level of contact with their grandchildren.”
Even when grandparents assist with childcare, “their support is often partial and temporary” because they expect and trust the middle generation to do the job, write Nakazawa, Hyun, Ko, and Shwalb. However, many grandparents gift money to their grandchildren for educational expenses; since 2013, such gifts have been tax-exempt.
“The badly behaved child pulls the grandfather’s beard.”
Though Korean children are taught to be respectful toward their elders, they sometimes aren’t. The proverb is a reminder that “discipline and polite behavior are important at a young age,” say Nakazawa, Hyun, Ko, and Shwalb.
“An oldster at home is a treasure to your own.”
In the past, live-in grandparents in China were considered “precious resources” who deserved respect, support, and serenity in return for the sacrifices they made earlier in their lives, write Nakazawa, Hyun, Ko, and Shwalb.
Increasingly, however, grandparents are becoming the primary caregivers of their grandchildren as parents migrate faraway in search of lucrative jobs. While they can still expect financial support from their adult children, they are expected to raise their grandchildren in return.
“More precious than our children are the children of our children.”
In Egypt and throughout the Middle East, many grandparents live in three-generation households with their kids and grandkids and cherish their grandkids passionately, write Mahmoud Emam of Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, Yasser Abdelazim of Assiut University in Egypt, and Mogeda El-Keshky of King Abdul-Aziz University in Saudi Arabia.
And thanks to a dramatic rise in life expectancy throughout the region, grandparenting careers tend to last much longer than they did in the past. Many people in the Arab world become grandparents in their 40s and survive into their 70s and 80s, by which time their grandchildren are middle-aged.
“Foster them and they will also foster you.”
“Family care is a fundamental value in sub-Saharan African communities,” write Magen Mhaka-Mutepfa of the University of Sydney, Elias Mpofu of the University of Johannesburg, and Ami Moore and Stan Ingman, both of the University of North Texas. “[M]ost grandparents are willing to participate in caregiver roles and hope to be provided for in the future.”
Both the AIDS crisis and the many violent conflicts that have gripped the region have intensified the importance of grandparental caregiving. There are about 12 million AIDS orphans in sub-Saharan Africa, about half of whom are being raised by grandparents. In most countries, these grandparents receive little or no government assistance.
“What the elders see while sitting, the young ones standing on their toes won’t see.”
Because of all the knowledge they have accrued, elders can easily perceive things that younger people can’t, no matter how hard they try, according to this proverb.
Traditionally, elders in Africa have been fully integrated into both their families and their communities, allowing them to “share wisdom that they accumulated from their life experiences” and “offer mature judgements,” write Monde Makiwane and Ntombizonke Gumede of the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa and Mzolisi Makiwane of the Department of Education of South Africa.
However, now that many younger Africans attend school, the wisdom of elders is increasingly called into question.
“Ask those who are ahead about a buffalo.”
In Africa, “younger people, especially grandchildren, rely on grandparents for guidance,” just as they did in the days when families hunted buffalo for a living, write Makiwane, Gumede, and Makiwane.