Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Grandparents And Farming: Relationships With Children Matter

July 30, 2007

The expression, "When a daughter marries, you gain a son. When a son marries, you've lost him," works the opposite in farm country. The daughter-in-law and the grandchildren are brought into the orbit of the paternal grandparents and makes this close relationship possible.

Normally, the favored status of the maternal grandparents is due to the role of women as "kin-keepers." They keep family ties strong, more so with their own family.

Paternal grandparents. The special role of paternal grandparents in the lives of their grandchildren was highlighted in research by Valerie King and Glen Elder Jr. and their colleagues at the Iowa Youth and Families Project, Iowa State University. Their research findings, though somewhat dated, are still valid. King and Elder interviewed and gave questionnaires to 1181 grandparents, their adult children and grandchildren from 398 Iowa families to see the quality of their relationships, the frequency of contact, farm and non-farm status, proximity and joint activities.

Here are some of their observations:Farm children have significantly better relationships and have more contact with their paternal grandparents than other grandchildren in society. This is because sons farm with their fathers and land is usually passed down the male line.

The interdependency between farm families as they work together creates opportunities for closeness. Even in retirement or with off-farm jobs, grandfathers still assist with farm work - grandmothers with food, childcare and errands. Grandchildren are brought into the work cycle on the farm as helpers. In this work role, they have contact with their grandparents. Grandparents become same sex role models for their grandchildren and teach them skills and moral perspectives.

Proximity is important in close grandparent-grandchild relationships. Contact makes relationships possible through family rituals, celebrations and gatherings on a frequent basis. Rural grandparents play a larger role in their grandchildren's lives compared to grandparents in non-farm communities.

Divorce disrupts these ties - especially when the mother has custody. Contact with the maternal parents increases while contact with the paternal grandparents decreases. The conflictual nature of the divorce can play a role as does the increased distances. The reduced contact is an acute source of pain for paternal grandparents who built special relationships with their grandchildren.

Relationship with adult children plays a key role. King and Elder found that the quality of the relationship between parents and grandparents has a major influence on whether grandparents and grandchildren have a close relationship. If adult children see their parents as warm and supportive, then there are more joint activities and closeness between the grandparents and grandchildren. The same is true for the maternal grandparents when they live close by.

Grandparents show support and warmth by giving concern and understanding and by showing appreciation and love. They help out with important tasks and problems. They listen carefully to their adult children’s point of view.

Tension between families. If the grandparents are seen as demanding, controlling, negative, rejecting and harsh by the parents, it takes a toll on the grandparent/grandchild relationships. Demanding and controlling paternal grandparents are big turnoffs. This relates to the father/son working relationship on the farm and the way management decisions are handled. Autocratic grandfathers with tempers may strain their relationships with their farming sons.

With maternal grandparents, it is negativity - conflict, tension, or criticism that is the turnoff. Daughters tend to avoid unpleasant contacts with their mothers when there is turmoil in that relationship.

Grandchildren and grandparents may still have contact. The harm to the relationship comes from grandchildren learning to see their grandparents through their parent's eyes - through stories and conversations.

The blame game. Relationships between adult children and their fathers is not as unconditional as with their mothers. If a son is unhappy with his parents, this undermines the quality of the paternal grandparent/grandchild relationship. If a mother doesn't get along with her parents, the damage to the grandparenting relationship isn't as pronounced.

If there is trouble in the farming partnership or the work relationship between father and son, then the amount of contact and the quality of grandparent/grandchild relationships suffer. Sometimes mothers and sons clash as her needs might be subservient to the father/son bond. Occasionally the relationship problems might lie between the daughter-in-law and either one of her husband’s parents.

The grandparents are not always at fault. Sometimes the son or daughter-in-law may be difficult, raspy or supersensitive.

Most paternal grandparents like to believe that it is the unhappy daughter-in-law that is holding the grandchildren "hostage" because of the tension between families. In fact, a daughter-in-law doesn't usually detract from the grandparent/grandchild relationship unless her husband is equally as unhappy. A daughter-in-law can be upset at the way her husband is being treated in the family business or by the way she and/or her husband is excluded from key decisions.

There is usually some fault on both sides. There isn’t enough communication, resolution of conflict or apologies made and forgiveness given. Some problems linger and linger because nobody takes the initiative to reach out and find out what is the matter.

It can be wonderful. For an idyllic farm family to function fully, with generations cooperating and enjoying their relationships, the father/son relationship needs to be positive and respectful. As King and Elder discovered - and so many grandparents and grandchildren who share a farming heritage can attest -grandparent/grandchild relationships on a farm can be wonderful.