Plenty of studies have found that when grandparents spend time with their grandchildren, their physical health tends to benefit.
But what about the physical health of the grandchildren?
A team of Scottish researchers decided to look into that question, and their answer is likely to rekindle some lively family discussions about grandparents overindulging their grandkids. For, after reviewing 56 studies from 18 countries (including the United States), the researchers concluded that, overall, grandparents adversely influence their grandchildren’s long-term health, primarily by “spoiling” them with high-calorie treats and sedentary TV time.
Specifically, the study found that grandparents who provide informal child care to their grandchildren have a negative impact on the children’s weight, diet, physical activity levels and use of tobacco.
“Currently grandparents are not the focus of public health messaging targeted at parents, and in light of the evidence from this study, perhaps this is something that needs to change given the prominent role grandparents play in the lives of children,” said Stephanie Chambers, the study’s lead and a research fellow at the University of Glasgow, in a released statement.
The study was published this week in the journal PLOS One.
A major influence
As background information in the study points out, many lifestyle patterns — especially diet and physical activity — are established in childhood. Those patterns are, of course, greatly influenced by parents and other important people in the child’s life.
Many grandparents play a major role in their grandchildren’s lives. Indeed, in the United States, about a quarter of preschool children are regularly cared for by their grandparents.
For their review, Chambers and her colleagues searched for studies that contained data about the potential influence of grandparents on children’s weight, diet, physical activity, tobacco exposure, alcohol consumption and sun exposure — all factors associated with a higher risk of cancer later in life. They excluded any study in which grandparents were the child’s primary caregivers or in which the child had a serious illness.
The search revealed no study on sun exposure, and only one on alcohol consumption, so the review’s findings focus on the other four factors.
The evidence was strongest for grandparents having an adverse impact on their grandchildren’s weight, but there was also significant evidence that they have a negative effect on the children’s diet as well.
The evidence regarding physical activity was slightly less conclusive. The studies suggested, however, that less active grandparents tended to have less active grandchildren.
In regard to tobacco, there was plenty of evidence that grandparents often serve as a source of secondhand smoke as well as a role model for unhealthful tobacco habits. Of the 16 studies that looked at tobacco, nine showed an adverse impact. In only one study were children less likely to smoke if they lived with a grandparent.
The studies in the review often reported that parents and grandparents had divergent views on appropriate eating behavior. “This included the type of food provided, for example, high sugar or fat foods, or providing too much food,” Chambers and her colleagues write. “Parents reported feeling frustrated and undermined, and described these practices as ‘spoiling’ grandchildren.”
Grandparents in the studies acknowledged that they used unhealthy food to help control their grandchildren’s behavior, to reward them for achievements and to create a stronger bond with them.
The studies did find that grandparents often serve as a source of support for parents in the buying, preparing and cooking of food. Yet, “while the preparation of meals from scratch with fresh ingredients could be seen as a positive, this was undermined by the role grandparents could play in overfeeding children or feeding less healthy foods,” the researchers write.
Limitations and implications
As Chambers and her colleagues point out, the reviewed studies varied in quality, so their findings need to be interpreted with caution. Also, the studies (and the review) did not take into account the well-documented positive contributions that grandparents often make to their grandchildren’s social and emotional development.
Still, these findings should give all indulgent grandparents pause. The findings also underscore the need for families to have clear expectations of how everyone can contribute to helping its youngest members develop healthy habits.
“From the studies we looked at, it appears that parents often find it difficult to discuss the issues of passive smoking and over-treating grandchildren,” said Chambers.
“Given that many parents now rely on grandparents for care, the mixed messages about health that children might be getting is perhaps an important discussion that needs to be had,” she added.
FMI: You can read the study in full on the PLOS One website.