• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Grandma - A Danger to Your Child’s Health

It is official - your grandma is a risk to your child’s health. You may regard your grandparents as the perfect solution to your child-care problems. But watch out! Research shows that those indulgent old dears ceaselessly feed your kids with treats and unwittingly turn them into obese children. This is the conclusion drawn by a University of Helsinki report published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology. The research, based on a study of 9000 UK families found that one out of three children aged three who were cared for by their grandparents were obese. Antti Tankskanen, the author of the report has little doubt that the impact of Grandma on the nutritional status of her grandchild may be no longer beneficial.

The transformation of Grandma into a health risk to children in her care is a regular theme promoted by so-called parenting experts and researchers. So a report published three years ago in The International Journal of Obesity reported that the risk of child obesity was 34 per cent higher if their grandparents cared for them full time. The research team based at the University College in London argued that grandparents caring for children should be provided with information about diet and exercise.

Why am I not surprised by the current tendency to regard grandparents as incompetent meddlers whose out-dated prejudices about child-rearing needs to be subordinated the latest insights of professional experts? Because increasingly the experience, customs and insights of previous generation of parents is castigated as far too old-fashioned for our modern times. Time and again mothers and fathers are told that they must not bring up their kids the same way as their parents or grandparents did. From this perspective, grandparents offer a negative model of child-rearing - a moral contrast to 21st century progressive parenting.

The professionalization of parenting is continually justified on the grounds that in our complex and rapidly changing world the insights of the so-called parenting expert is more valuable than the experience and intuition of mothers and fathers. In recent decades the distrust of parental competence has become a regular feature of discussion on family life. The assumption that parents lack the moral and intellectual resources to deal with the existential challenges facing their children is a fundamental assumption of the outlook of parenting professionals and policy makers. Such sentiments directed at parents have acquired an even more sceptical orientation towards the competence of grandparents. However, these sentiments are rarely expressed explicitly since until now it is the parent who mainly charged with the duties of child-rearing.

The one area where professional intervention feels empowered to communicate its disdain for parental competence is in the domain of health. So the unapologetic headline ‘Parents ignorant on five - a day’ published by BBC News is OK because children’s health is allegedly at risk. That is why the imperative of targeting incompetent grandparents frequently opt for the language of medicalization.

The ridiculing of grandma represents an important reversal of the historical pattern where she was perceived as the personificiation of adult wisdom. Grandparents were often seen as a very special people because they are able to provide an alternative source of care and love to the child. They are someone special that children can run to when communication with their parents becomes difficult. That’s one reason why we need to cultivate respect towards grandparents instead of devaluing the crucial role that they play in the lives of their grandchildren. They offer children the link to their wider family and community and often play a role in reinforcing young people’s existential security.

And if on occasion they turn out to be far too liberal with their dispensation of sweets - so be it.

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