Any grandparent will say that their job is to spoil their grandkids, but a new study is warning that overindulgence and bad role modelling can have a negative effect on children, increasing their long-term cancer risk factors.
Researchers from the University of Glasgow reviewed 56 studies from 18 countries that looked at the effect of grandparents who are part-time caregivers to their grandchildren. They found that grandparents are adversely influencing their grandchildren when it comes to diet, physical activity and exposing them to tobacco smoke.
“The studies that we were looking at were suggesting that where grandparents were providing care, those grandchildren were more likely to be overweight, and we know that if children are overweight in childhood, then they’re more likely to be overweight in adulthood,” study author Stephanie Chambers told Global News, stressing that lifelong eating habits are established in childhood.
“If grandparents are giving children foods that are high sugar, high in fat, very calorific, we know that those kinds of foods aren’t conducive to positive long-term health outcomes,” said Chambers. “We know that if people gain too much weight throughout their life, that is a cancer risk factor.”
And when it came to smoking, it was about role modelling bad behaviour or exposing them to second-hand smoke from a young age.
“As children are seeing other adults in their family smoking, they’re more likely to see that as normal behaviour and might then take it up. With smoking being addictive, there are potential lifelong problems there,” said Chambers.
Chambers said her research was motivated by the question of whether the messages of healthy nutrition and lifestyle that are directed at parents are being trickled down to extended family members.
She noticed that many of the studies she analyzed mentioned the tensions between parents and grandparents that may have differing views on enforcing limits on children.
“It’s important to support families to have these really sensitive and sometimes difficult conversations so that it’s not about blame and really about what’s best for the child and how to achieve good, healthy habits,” she said.
How to approach the topic with grandparents
B.C.-based parenting expert Jillian Roberts says these sensitive conversations can be broached with tactics used in any sort of conflict management: sandwiching a meaty request between two compliments (known as the “hamburger method”) and using “I” statements.
“So, instead of saying: ‘Dad, you annoy me when you smoke in front of Johnny!’ Try for example: ‘Dad, I really love how you want to spend time with Johnny. I would greatly appreciate it if you did not smoke when you are around him. It is not healthy for him and given how much he looks up to you, I don’t want him to get any ideas that smoking is OK. You are such an important role model to him. These times that you spend together are so special for him,’” said Roberts.
Family therapist and parenting expert Alyson Schafer suggests using this study as a jumping off point to get into a deeper conversation. “That way, you’re using a third party to share the information where you can say, ‘Wow, that concerns me, I think we should talk about some of our family practices,’” said Schafer.
She reminds parents to reinforce and remind grandparents that you know that their intentions are good.
“We all love these children and we all want them to be happy and healthy, but lo and behold, there’s this quiet impact that maybe hasn’t been on our radar before. So with new information, maybe we need to take some new approaches,” said Schafer.
Healthy alternatives to ‘spoiling’ kids
One thing Chambers emphasizes is the study shouldn’t be misinterpreted as suggesting grandparents should spend less time with their grandchildren.
“We wouldn’t advise grandparents spend less time with their grandchildren. We know that there can be really positive emotional benefits there for children’s wellbeing and for grandparents too,” said Chambers. “It’s about how that time is spent so that it can be as positive as possible.”
Experts say a healthy alternative to plying children with treats and screen time is one-on-one time.
“I would encourage grandparents to understand that what is needed is their ‘presence’ rather than showering their grandchildren with ‘presents,’” said Roberts. “I can’t emphasize enough how important real one-on-one time with grandparents is for today’s children. Instead of suggesting an ice-cream cone, try going to the beach or park or public library. What children need are opportunities to be active and engaged.”