Looking after grandchildren: the motivation, pattern, and the impact of intergenerational engagements on grandparents in rural China
Across the world, grandparents are increasingly becoming the primary caregivers of their grandchildren. China is no exception. The rapid growth of an ageing population, large scale rural–urban internal labour migration, and the large population of left-behind elders and children in rural China have made grandparenting in this area unprecedentedly prevalent. In 2016, there were 9.02 million left-behind children (whose parents were both internal migrants) in rural China, and nearly 90 percent of them were cared for by grandparents. Despite the prevalence of grandparenting in rural China, research on this topic is limited. It particularly lacks qualitative studies from grandparents’ perspectives. Under these circumstances, this study aims to address this gap through a detailed qualitative study based on 38 in-depth interviews with grandparents from three different villages in rural China and ten interviews with key informants. The study explores the motivation for, patterns in, and impact of grandparenting on grandparents with themes captured from interview data and discusses the operation and function of grandparenting in the large “society-family-individual” system. The study argues that the prevalent grandparenting in rural China is deliberately led by the state and driven by an economic-growth orientation. This feature distinguishes today’s grandparenting in rural China from the traditional Chinese grandparent–grandchild relationship and grandparenting in many Western countries. Grandparenting is profoundly influenced by and also has profound effects on the “society-family-individual” system. In this mutual impact process, it also demonstrates heterogeneity, as some grandfamilies and grandparents are more deeply influenced by modernity and the economic-growth orientation. This heterogeneity has an influence on both the grandparenting style and the grandparents' experience. In general, grandparenting benefits the functioning and development of society as a whole, but it has more profound and long-term negative effects on grandparents' subjective well-being. All in all, the study provides detailed pictures of rural grandparents’ daily lives and grandparenting experiences. However, it is not restricted to the scope of individuals and families. Instead, it examines grandparenting from its causes to its impacts, discussing its operation and function in the more extensive “society-family-individual” system. It emphasises the relationship between grandparenting and the transformation of the entire system, as well as the mutual feedback between grandparenting and the society. By doing so, the study adds a comprehensive description and explanation of why and how grandparenting occurs, provides a tool to categorise and better study grandparents, offers an answer to the contentious question of grandparenting’s impacts, and discusses grandparenting in the bigger picture to show grandparents’ struggles and contributions.