This is Your Brain on Grandchildren
“This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs.” If you’re old enough to be a grandparent, you probably remember this anti-drug commercial from 1987. We won’t talk about the past and whether you inhaled or not. We’ll move on to the AARP version. “This is your brain. This is your brain on grandkids.”
Being a grandparent changes our life. It rocks our world, but did you know it might actually change your brain? Recent research studied the brains of fifty grandmothers to understand the close emotional bond grandmothers share with their grandchildren. The results showed that while the grandmothers had a feeling of cognitive empathy with their adult children, their brain activity showed a strong emotional empathy with their grandchildren. If their grandchild is happy, they feel joy. If their grandchild is sad, the grandmother feels sad. Did we really need research to tell us that?
Why are grandmothers so much more emotionally empathetic towards their grandchildren than their adult children? I’ll pose some educated guesses since (about 30 years ago) I did write my Master’s thesis on grandparenting. In an ideal situation, grandparents are freed from the physical, mental, financial, and emotional responsibilities of caregiving. We get the fun part. We play, we teach, and we indulge our grandchildren.
My five-year-old grandson and I were playing Connect Four a few weeks ago, and I was slightly altering the outcome of the games, allowing him to win. I never let our kids win. I’m almost embarrassed to think about how cutthroat I was playing Candyland and Checkers with my kids. Sorry, kids. Because of my previous killer instincts, my husband was surprised by my indulgence with our grandson. As I explained to him, my role with our kids was totally different. I was preparing them for the world. With my grandkids, that’s not my job. I’m their pal, their playmate, and their friend. As a grandparent, I get the easy job with all of the perks and none of the negative aspects.
Sometimes I wonder if my adult children are maybe a little jealous of how crazy I am about the grandkids. I love my children, but there is a carefree, pure joy we take in our grandchildren. I hate to be morbid, but could it partly be because we know our time with them is limited? There may be a subconscious desire to make a positive impact in a short time. Maybe they won’t have concrete memories of us, but hopefully, we will have planted seeds of love they retain deep within forever.
Grandparents and grandchildren share a bond that is unlike a parent and child. We’re the soft place to land, a place where the answer is usually yes. The grandparents’ house is where they come to bake cookies, to do messy science experiments, to stay up a little later than usual, and, most importantly, be the focus of all the attention. Grandparents believe their grandchildren are perfect and aren’t afraid to tell them. We love them irrationally and unconditionally in a way that is unimaginable until you are a grandparent. The grandchildren reap the benefits from being loved so deeply, but so do the grandparents.
I could have saved the researchers at Emory some money and told them how emotionally connected a grandmother is to their grandchildren. Can an MRI explain it, or is there some mystical bond that science can’t clarify? This is my brain “on grandkids,” and I love every minute of this kind of high!