Pick up any book for young children that include a reference to or visual of a grandparent, and you’re likely to see a sight unfamiliar to most youth of this generation. The days of the truly elderly grandma, who dons her apron all day and ricks the day away in quiet acceptance of old age are long gone. Many of today’s kids, tweens and teens have grandparents who struggle with the name “grandma” or “grandpa,” opting for sassier monikers to describe their relationship to their children’s children. Many Millennials and their younger counterparts know “grands” as folks who are fully engaged in work or their personal passions or travel. Many see their grandparents running or walking races, staying socially active and fully participating in life. In fact, for some youth, grandparents seem to have a much younger outlook on life than their own parents!
But when we think about the role that grandparents play in youth’s lives, we still tend to think of them as transmitters of tales from the past, or conveyors of fairly conventional life wisdom. It seems as though the kind of influence we attribute to grandparents hasn’t caught up with the way they really live and look at the world right now. Last week, we heard this story on NPR’s Story Corps (collected by Story Corps, an independent nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives) and it reminded us of the way grandparents are and have been reframing their role from authoritative elder to trusted confidant. This tale, told by an adult grandson, describes his grandmother as his partner in crime – someone who would go on adventures with him, not simply warn him of their dangers or wait to hear his recap. He suggests that he didn’t always know where he fit in with the world – he felt like an outsider – and somehow it was his grandmother who (an outsider herself) made him feel like he “fit.”
Like this grandmother, today’s grandparents are sometimes more prepared to play than parent. In a world dominated by devices, they sometimes surprise and delight by bringing offline activities to their offspring’s homes. They are increasingly aware that their value doesn’t come from advising parents about the proper way to do things, but rather providing a break – for parents and for kids – from their daily routines. And for brands and retailers, grandparents represent not only a link to the past, but sometimes, the most forward thinking consumers in the lives of youth.