When your grandmother is your mentor: New study reveals positive associations in young adults
The Mentoring Relationship with the Closest Grandparent and Identity Processes Among Emerging Adult Grandchildren in Poland: The Role of Perceived Grandparents’ Perspective Taking
Michałek-Kwiecień, J. The Mentoring Relationship with the Closest Grandparent and Identity Processes Among Emerging Adult Grandchildren in Poland: The Role of Perceived Grandparents’ Perspective Taking. J Adult Dev (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10804-022-09429-0
The aim of the current study was to examine the mentoring relationship with the closest grandparent, considering perceived grandparent’s perspective taking, and identity processes among Polish emerging adult grandchildren. A total of 424 emerging adults (41.3% male) aged 18–25 completed self-assessment measures. The structural equation modeling analysis revealed positive associations between perception of mentoring relationships with the closest grandparent (mostly grandmother), their perspective taking, and emerging adults’ identity synthesis. The results indicated no significant gender differences in the hypothesized model. To sum up, relationships with grandparents may be perceived as important in promoting coherent identity development among emerging adults.
According to Erikson (1968), identity formation is a primary developmental task during adolescence. Importantly, a coherent sense of self is necessary to live an agentic, self-directed, and purposeful life (Erikson, 1968). At present, particularly in industrialized societies, in which young people have many opportunities to test various ideals, values, or goals and establish their personal identities, the process of identity development is prolonged into early adulthood, during the period of so-called emerging adulthood (Arnett, 2000). Therefore, both adolescents and emerging adults must deal with conflicts between identity synthesis, which refer to the integration of different aspects of identity into a consistent sense of self across different situations and times, and identity confusion, which represents a fragmented sense of self that does not support lasting commitments or clear life directions (Erikson, 1968; Zong et al., 2019). Identity synthesis and identity confusion are negatively correlated, but as these processes are not complete opposites of one another, they can coexist within a single person (Schwartz et al., 2009). In addition, it is expected for identity synthesis to increase and identity confusion to decrease during the transition to adulthood (Bogaerts et al., 2021). Overall, as a coherent sense of identity is beneficial for emerging adults’ adjustment and is associated with less maladaptive outcomes (Brinthaupt & Scheier, 2021; Erikson, 1968; Schwartz et al., 2013; Zong et al., 2019), many studies have focused on exploring the predictors or correlates of identity development (e.g.Crocetti et al., 2012, 2017; Lannegrand-Willems & Bosma, 2006).
The theoretical and empirical framework of identity development emphasizes the role played by important social relationships in identity formation (Beyers & Goossens, 2008; Erikson, 1968; Trost et al., 2020), i.e., relationships with family, friends, or professors (Azmitia et al., 2013). In this context, the role of interaction with parents in the sense of identity developed by adolescents and emerging adults has been well documented. In general, positive relationships with parents support the development of a more integrated, coherent sense of identity among young people, whereas distant or conflicted family relationships are linked with a more confused sense of identity (Beyers & Goossens, 2008; Bosma & Kunnen, 2001; Jackson et al., 1990; Luyckx et al., 2007; Michałek-Kwiecień & Kaźmierczak, 2020; Schwartz et al., 2005; Trost et al., 2020). However, far less is known regarding the roles played by other relevant family members, such as grandparents, in identity development.
Emerging adults’ relationships with their grandparents are vital due to the increasing lifespans seen in many cultures (Boon et al., 2008; Geurts et al., 2009; Gruijters, 2017), thus, causing the lives of grandchildren and their grandparents to overlap for a longer period of time (Geurts et al., 2009). Therefore, interest in intergenerational relationships among emerging adults and their grandparents has been increasing in recent years (Geurts et al., 2009; Michałek-Kwiecień, 2020; Scharf, 2016). Moreover, previous research focused on grandparent–grandchild relationships has identified culture as an important factor shaping these intergenerational relationships (Hayslip et al., 2019). Therefore, knowledge of the relevant cultural context is required to understand the function and meaning of the interaction between grandparent and grandchild in full. More specifically, cultural background can explain the manner in which each party is perceived by the other and the ways in which this relationship can affect each of them (Hayslip et al., 2019, Mansson & Sigurðardóttir, 2019). For example, the constructs of individualism and collectivism that are used to describe culture can be applied to the study of grandparent–grandchild relationships to compare cultures that are considered to be more individualistic, e.g., American culture, with those that are considered to be more collectivistic, e.g., Hispanic culture. These cultures differ, among other ways, in terms of the cultural value known as familism, which promotes the maintenance of strong family ties or causes the family to be viewed as the primary source of both instrumental and emotional support (Hayslip et al., 2019). Thus, the construct of familism can explain the ways in which intergenerational relationships are established as well as the cultural differences that emerge in the experience of grandparent–grandchild relationships (Silverstein & Chen, 1999).
In this context, Polish culture has been described as traditional and as promoting values related to family, such as close interpersonal relationships, nonutilitarian, nonpragmatic approaches to daily activities, low levels of trust in state authorities, and the high status of women and femininity (Boski, 2006; Dryjanska, 2021). For example, some studies have indicated that the importance of grandchildren’s filial piety with respect to their ancestors, which is mostly reported in Asia, can also be seen in Poland and in Israel (for a scoping review, see Duflos & Giraudeau, 2022). Simultaneously, other cross-cultural research has shown that American grandchildren receive more grandparental affection than Danish, Icelandic, and Polish grandchildren (Mansson & Sigurðardóttir, 2019). Some results have also indicated that both American and European grandchildren feel closer to grandparents who provide them with emotional support. However, American grandchildren report more emotional closeness to their grandparents when they live in intact families, whereas European grandchildren report more emotional closeness when they live in separated families (for a scoping review, see Duflos & Giraudeau, 2022).
To investigate grandparent–grandchild relationships across many cultures, it is worth noting that contemporary family patterns have undergone many sociocultural changes that put a strain on traditional cultural values, intergenerational relationships, and the ways in which they influence each generations’ perceptions of the role of grandparents. Overall, particularly in Western societies, family and interpersonal relations are more often based on choice, negation, or personal freedom. Therefore, the grandparent–grandchild relationship can be linked more closely with emotional closeness or companionship rather than obligation (Kemp, 2005).
Cultural contexts and sociocultural changes can be a challenge with respect to the task of exploring grandparent–grandchild relationships; however, some universal characteristics of these relationships can be found across different cultural backgrounds. Thus, considering the meaning of young adult grandchildren’s interactions with their grandparents, these relationships are perceived to be important and valuable (Brown & Roodin, 2002). However, in this context, the determinants of the quality of intergenerational relationships are critical. One of most important factors related to grandparent–grandchild relationship quality is age. On the one hand, the role of grandparents changes as grandchildren age, e.g., grandparents provide direct care for young grandchildren, whereas they can serve as an emotionally supportive mentor for older grandchildren (Dunifon & Bajracharya, 2012). As grandchildren transition to adulthood and gain independence from their parents, they acquire the freedom to reestablish a relationship with their grandparents on their own terms (Boon & Shaw, 2007). Previous studies have suggested that such grandchildren may engage in less frequent contact with their grandparents, but they nevertheless emphasize that these intergenerational relationships are important to them (Taylor et al., 2005). On the other hand, with respect to grandparent age, older grandparents may have more time to invest in their grandchildren; however, grandchildren’s relationships with older grandparents could simultaneously be influenced by the grandparents’ health problems or changes in their physical, cognitive and psychological functioning (Boon & Shaw, 2007). Other important factors associated with grandparent–grandchild relationship quality, which are mostly sociodemographic, include the grandparent’s lineage, the grandparent’s and grandchild’s gender, and the frequency of contact or distance between the grandparent’s and grandchild’s places of residence (Davey et al., 2009; MaloneBeach et al., 2018; Monserud, 2008; Taylor et al., 2005).
In general, grandparents serve as a connection between the past, present, and future (Brown & Roodin, 2002), and they can share their beliefs, values, knowledge and skills (Kornhaber, 1996; Rostowska, 2019; Taylor et al., 2005; Weber & Absher, 2003). More specifically, regardless of the cultural context in question, grandparents can play various roles in their grandchildren’s lives (Hayslip et al., 2003; Kornhaber, 1996); among other such roles, grandparents can be natural mentors, i.e., close and caring nonparental adults who serve as a source of support and guidance for grandchildren (Billingsley et al., 2021), and this role could be crucial to grandchildren’s identity formation (Billingsley et al., 2021; Rhodes, 2005). For example, according to the conceptualization of mentoring developed by Rhodes (2005), close and enduring mentoring relationships affect youths’ positive outcomes (e.g., psychological or academic outcomes) via social/emotional, cognitive, and identity development. In particular, mentees’ positive identity formation can be affected by mentors who serve as role models and advocates. Moreover, according to this conceptual model, empathy (Rhodes, 2005; Rhodes et al., 2006), which supports the development of such a meaningful relationship, is an important component of effective youth mentoring relationships.
However, empathy is not a one-dimensional construct. Many definitions of empathy have been proposed in the literature, but in general, some of these definitions have highlighted the affective dimension or attempts to understand the other person’s emotions, which is sometimes called empathic concern, whereas other definitions have focused more on the cognitive aspects of this construct and emphasized perspective taking, also known as PT (Cuff et al., 2016; Davis, 2004; Spencer et al., 2020). Although little empirical work has explored the specific dimensions of empathy that may contribute to the quality and longevity of mentoring relationships (Spencer et al., 2020; Turban & Lee, 2007), recent empirical studies have underlined the role played by PT in this context (Spencer et al., 2020; Vostal et al., 2021).
More specifically, considering the mentoring relationship, PT can be understood to refer to active efforts on the part of mentors to understand situations from the mentee’s point of view (Spencer et al., 2020). Mentors’ openness to understanding youths’ experiences creates opportunities for the mentors to recognize not only the youths’ needs but also to highlight his or her positive assets and strengths and could make these factors more evident to the mentee (Spencer et al., 2020). In research conducted by Spencer et al. (2020), mentors who had difficulty adopting the mentee’s perspective reported problems with respect to establishing meaningful connections with their mentees; moreover, they tended to become less satisfied with the mentoring relationship over time. As PT is critical from the mentor’s perspective, it may be important to examine the ways in which the mentor’s cognitive empathy and mentoring relationships are perceived by the mentee and the manner in which such perceptions of this relationship are linked to the mentee’s identity formation, particularly in the context of the grandparent–grandchild relationship.
The Present Study
The role played by grandparents in their grandchildren’s lives, particularly during childhood and adolescence, is well documented (Sadruddin et al., 2019). Far less is known regarding the role played by grandparents during their grandchildren’s transitions to adulthood. Although the need for autonomy and separateness has increased among emerging adults, relations with their families, including their grandparents, are perceived as an important source of support with respect to dealing with challenges related to the transition to adulthood (Arnett, 2000; Scharf, 2016). Emerging adult grandchildren who must make choices and deal with ambiguity in their adult lives can perceive their grandparents as adult role models and sources of wisdom or family history. In this context, grandparents may also help their grandchildren develop a value system, feel connected to a kinship network, or merely offer unconditional acceptance (Boon et al., 2008; Geurts et al., 2009; Rostowska, 2019); accordingly, they can help their grandchildren consolidate their sense of self (Schwartz, 2007).
Therefore, the relationships between grandparents and emerging adult grandchildren are vital but relatively underexplored areas of research, particularly in the context of grandchildren’s identity formation. Although a theoretical and empirical framework has suggested that mentoring may play a crucial role in identity formation, to the author’s knowledge, few if any studies explore the role of grandparents as mentors by considering their individual characteristics, i.e., PT (Spencer et al., 2020). Therefore, the aim of the current study was to examine the ways in which emerging adults’ perceptions of their relationships with their grandparents are linked to their personal identities. In particular, the author focused on the perspectives of grandchildren and sought to examine their perceptions of their closest grandparent’s expressions of PT and mentoring and the way in which these characteristics are associated with identity synthesis and identity confusion among emerging adults. As the establishment of a mature identity contributes to positive functioning and may help protect against maladaptive outcomes (Schwartz, 2007), it seems to be important to explore the familial correlates of personal identity among emerging adults. Taking the role of grandparenting into account, in line with recent studies, the role played by the individual’s relationship with the closest grandparent was investigated (see Attar-Schwartz et al., 2009; Boon & Brussoni, 1996; Michałek-Kwiecień, 2020).
Based on previous research, the following research hypotheses were formulated. Since women reported higher scores than men with respect to self-assessed empathic concern and perspective taking (Davis, 1980; O’Brien et al., 2013) and taking into account research results regarding the perceptions of grandparental empathy by grandchildren (the measure of these perceptions includes both perspective taking and empathic concern) (Michałek-Kwiecień, 2020), which have suggested that grandmothers scored higher than grandfathers with respect to, in the current study, it is expected that perceived PT in higher for grandmothers than for grandfathers (Hypothesis 1). As previous studies have emphasized the role played by PT in mentoring relationships in general (Spencer et al., 2020; Vostal et al., 2021), it is expected that the perceived perspective taking of the closest grandparent is positively correlated with the mentoring relationship (including by sharing wisdom and experience and serving as a source of guidance or a source of family history) (Hypothesis 2). Moreover, as recent studies have suggested that the perceived empathy of close family members (i.e., parents) is associated with personal identity (Crocetti et al., 2016; Michałek-Kwiecień & Kaźmierczak, 2020) and in line with the assumption that empathy (Rhodes, 2005; Rhodes et al., 2006) supports the development of a meaningful relationship and represents an important component of effective youth mentoring relationships, the following two hypotheses are formulated: identity synthesis and identity confusion can be predicted by perceptions of the grandparent’s role as a mentor and the grandparent’s perspective taking (Hypothesis 3), and the links between perceived grandparental perspective taking and identity synthesis and confusion are mediated by the mentoring relationship with the closest grandparent (Hypothesis 4). Finally, based on empathy research, as previous studies have suggested that due to social and cultural influences, females’ empathy is more expected and valued than that of males’ (Lennon & Eisenberg, 1987) and that grandparental empathy can be a stronger predictor of grandparent’s influence among grandmother–granddaughter dyads than among other gender configurations (Min et al., 2012), it is assumed that the grandchildren’s gender serves as a moderator in the model under study (Hypothesis 5). In particular, it is assumed that the roles of grandparents’ PT and mentoring are stronger for granddaughters than for grandsons (Crocetti et al., 2016; Michałek-Kwiecień, 2020; Michałek-Kwiecień & Kaźmierczak, 2020).
Participants and Procedure
The full sample consisted of 424 Polish emerging adults between the ages 18 of 25 (n = 247, 58.25% female; n = 175, 41.27% male; n = 2, .47% diverse). Seventy-five participants had one living grandparent (21.7%), 99 had two living grandparents (28.6%), 99 had three living grandparents (28.6%), and 73 had four living grandparents (21.1%). As the aim of the study was to analyze current grandparent–grandchild relationships, 76 participants who identified a grandparent who was no longer living as the closest grandparent were excluded from further analysis. Moreover, as the grandchild’s gender was included in the hypothesis, the final sample included 346 participants who identified a living grandparent as the closest grandparent (59.2% female, and 40.8% male). The mean age of the participants was 21.55 (SD = 1.86).
The study was conducted in accordance with the principles of the Declaration of Helsinki. The questionnaires were distributed among emerging adults using the snowball method, i.e., the online questionnaires were distributed to university students via online surveys by the author using the author’s research network. In addition, participants were asked to send a link to their colleagues between the ages of 18 and 25 (who were not necessarily students). The participants were informed about the general aim of the study, which was to explore the role of the grandparent–grandchild relationship from the perspective of emerging adults and provided informed consent prior to their participation. They completed a series of measures via an online platform. They remained anonymous throughout the study.
Identity synthesis and identity confusion were assessed using the identity subscale of the Erikson Psychosocial Stage Inventory (Rosenthal et al., 1981). The original English version of this measure was translated into Polish and subsequently back-translated by a team consisting of a native speaker and two psychologists who were fluent in English. No significant differences between the original and Polish versions were reported. The subscale consists of 12 items scored on a 5-point Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree). Six items assess identity synthesis (e.g., ‘I’ve got a clear idea of what I want to be’), and another six items assess identity confusion (e.g., ‘I don’t really feel involved’). The EPSI identity subscale originally measured global identity resolution, but the results obtained by Schwartz et al. (2009) suggested a bifactor solution for this scale as a better fit to the data, particularly with respect to emerging adult samples. Thus, in the current study, the bifactor model was employed. In the present study, the Cronbach’s alpha coefficients were .77 for identity synthesis and .83 for identity confusion.
The Closest Grandparent
Based on previous research examining the relationship with the closest grandparent, emerging adult grandchildren were asked to choose their closest grandparent and to refer to that grandparent while completing the questionnaire (e.g.Attar-Schwartz, 2015; Profe & Wild, 2017). They were not required to identify a living grandparent as the closest grandparent; the participants could complete the measures based on memories of their closest grandparent during his or her life (Boon & Brussoni, 1996).
Perceived Grandparents’ PT
Five items drawn from a measure of other-oriented empathy (Kaźmierczak, 2008, 2013) were used in this study. These items include adjectival participles that describe PT, the definition of which originates from the Interpersonal Reactivity Index developed by Davis (1980). This scale was originally developed to assess perceptions of partners’ empathy in the context of romantic relationships; however, with modified instructions, it has also successfully been used to examine perceptions of other persons with whom an individual is close, e.g., parents (Michałek-Kwiecień & Kaźmierczak, 2020) or grandparents (Michałek-Kwiecień, 2020). Thus, in the present study, the grandchildren indicated on a 5-point Likert scale the degree to which each term described their closest grandparent (e.g., ‘interested in my opinion on a given topic’). The higher the score on this measure was, the higher the grandchild’s perception of the grandparent’s PT. The Cronbach’s alpha coefficient in this study was .84.
Mentoring Relationship with the Closest Grandparent
Four items were used to measure perceptions of mentoring relationships with grandparents based on items that were originally developed to investigate the mentoring relationship from the grandparent’s perspective (e.g., ‘How often is your grandparent a voice of wisdom and experience for you’?) (Elder & Conger, 2000). The items were translated into Polish and subsequently back-translated. All items were rated on a scale ranging from 1 (never) to 3 (often). The Cronbach’s alpha coefficient for this measure was .81.
Several sociodemographic characteristics may have affected the tested associations among variables, such as the grandchildren’s and grandparents’ age, gender, lineage (i.e., maternal vs. paternal relationship to the grandchild), or the grandchildren’s family-of-origin structure (which was categorized into two types: 0 = family including both parents, 1 = other, e.g., with a stepparent, single parent, etc.).
In the first step, missing values (0.1% of responses) were imputed by means of all observations. Two identified outliers in the identity synthesis score (> ± 3.29 SD from the mean) were replaced with the next smallest or highest score (Aguinis et al., 2013; Tabachnick & Fidell, 1996). Subsequently, descriptive statistics and bivariate correlations were calculated. Chi-square tests were used with respect to categorical characteristics of the closest grandparent. In the following step, structural equation modeling (SEM) analysis with maximum likelihood (ML) estimation was conducted to examine the hypothesized model (Tabachnick & Fidell, 1996). The indicators used to assess model fit were chi-square (χ2), root mean square error of approximation (RMSEA < .06), and the comparative fit index (CFI ≥ .95) (Hu & Bentler, 1999). In addition, the hypothesized mediation model for all participants was tested using bootstrapping estimation of the direct and indirect effects with 90% confidence intervals (CIs) (Preacher & Hayes, 2008). Finally, multigroup SEM was conducted to compare the tested model by gender (Tabachnick & Fidell, 1996). The statistical analyses were conducted using IBM SPSS 26 and IBM AMOS 27 software.
The Closest Grandparent’s Characteristics
The maternal grandmother was chosen as the closest grandparent by 200 grandchildren (57.8%), followed by the paternal grandmother (24.3%, n = 84), maternal grandfather (11.8%, n = 41), and paternal grandfather (6.1%, n = 21). The age of the closest living grandparent ranged from 55 to 99 years (M = 74.64; SD = 7.52). The maternal grandmother was identified as the closest grandparent more frequently than other grandparents (χ2 = (3, N = 346) = 222.53, p < .001). The association between the grandchild’s gender and the closest grandparent’s gender and ancestry was also significant (χ2 = (3, N = 346) = 8.13, p < .05); in particular, both granddaughters and grandsons chose maternal grandparents (mostly grandmothers) more frequently, and if the grandfather was chosen, he was chosen more frequently by grandsons.
Descriptive Statistics and Bivariate Correlations
In the subsequent stage, descriptive statistics were calculated (Table 1), and bivariate relationships were found among the studied variables (Table 2). The grandparent’s gender was not significantly correlated with the grandchildren’s perception of grandparents’ PT; thus, Hypothesis 1 was not confirmed. The perception of grandparent mentoring was positively associated with perceived grandparents’ PT (Hypothesis 2 was, thus, confirmed). Both perceived grandparents’ mentoring and PT were related to identity processes, i.e., positively to identity synthesis, and negatively to identity confusion (Hypothesis 3 was, thus, confirmed).
Moreover, grandparents’ age was negatively correlated with grandchildren’s perception of grandparents’ PT, but the correlation coefficient in this context was low (r = − .13). The grandchildren’s gender and the structure of the grandchildren’s families of origin were not significantly associated with identity processes, perceptions of grandparents’ PT, or the mentoring relationship. However, grandchildren’s age was positively related to identity synthesis and negatively related to identity confusion. Hence, given the assumptions and significant correlations, in the tested model, grandchildren’s age was included as a control variable of identity synthesis and identity confusion.
Perceptions of Grandparents’ PT, Mentoring Relationships, and Grandchildren’s Identity Processes
SEM was used to determine whether the perceptions of grandparents’ PT and mentoring were associated with grandchildren’s identity synthesis and identity confusion, controlling for grandchildren’s age with respect to identity processes (Fig. 1). The model fit the data well, n = 346, χ2 = 2.08, df = 2, p = .35, CFI = 1.00, RMSEA = .011, 90% CI [.000; .108]. In general, perceived grandparents’ PT was significantly associated with mentoring relationships with grandparents (β = .61, p < .001) and tended to be positively related to grandchildren’s identity synthesis (β = .12, p < .10) and negatively related to identity confusion (β = − .12, p < .10). The perception of mentoring relationships with grandparents was significantly related only to identity synthesis (β = .21, p < .001). The results of the associations between the grandchild’s age and identity process were consistent with the results of the bivariate correlation analysis.
In the following stage, bootstrapping estimation of the direct and indirect effects with 90% CIs was used to examine the hypothesized mediation models for all grandchildren (Preacher & Hayes, 2008). The findings indicated that the perception of the mentoring relationship with the closest grandparent partially mediated only the association between perceived grandparents’ PT and the grandchild’s identity synthesis (β = .13, 90% CI [.066, .196], p < .001 for an indirect effect, and β = .12, 90% CI [.017, .213], p = .051 for a direct effect). Thus, Hypothesis 4 was partially confirmed.
Finally, the multigroup model was estimated to determine whether grandchildren’s gender moderated the tested associations between perceived grandparents’ PT, mentoring relationships with grandparents, and grandchildren’s identity processes. The results indicated no significant differences in the models between granddaughters and grandsons (Δχ2 = 12.009, Δdf = 8, p for Δχ2 = .151); therefore, the relations presented above were similar across females and males, and so Hypothesis 5 was not confirmed.
Grandparent–grandchild relationships seem to be important within the family system for both generations (Brown & Roodin, 2002; Rostowska, 2019) and to have a specific impact on individual growth (Uruk et al., 2007). However, recent research has focused mostly on the associations between grandparents’ investment or emotional closeness and grandparents’ and grandchildren’s psychological or health outcomes, mostly in the context of children and adolescents (for review articles, see Pulgaron et al., 2016; Sadruddin et al., 2019). With respect to the perspectives of emerging adult grandchildren, one previous study reported that such grandchildren had many expectations of their grandparents, including that the grandparents would teach them values, be a friend to them, or serve as an authority figure or merely a mentor (MaloneBeach et al., 2018). In this respect, grandchildren’s relationships with their grandparents can be an important source of support in dealing with many ongoing challenges related to the transition to adulthood, including personal identity formation (Arnett, 2000; Scharf, 2016).
Thus, the current study aimed to investigate the associations between young adult grandchildren’s perceptions of their mentoring relationship with their closest grandparent and the associated identity processes, taking into account perceived grandparents’ PT. This study is relevant today due to the fact that the current likelihood for an emerging adult to have at least one living grandparent is higher than at any time in history (Cherlin & Seltzer, 2014). When attempting to understand the role played by grandparents in the lives of emerging adults, issues such as emotional closeness or communication have been addressed (Duflos et al., 2022), but very little is known regarding the mentoring aspect of this relationship and its association with the identity formation of emerging adult grandchildren. Therefore, to the author’s knowledge, this study is the first attempt to explore the mentoring aspect of these intergenerational relationships with respect to identity synthesis and identity confusion among emerging adult grandchildren.
In general, consistent with the findings of other studies, maternal grandmothers were most frequently indicated as the closest grandparent by both granddaughters and grandsons (Davey et al., 2009; Dubas, 2001; Michałek-Kwiecień, 2020). These findings confirm the role played by grandmothers in the family system, which can be explained from different theoretical perspectives, e.g., traditional kinkeeper theories of family relations that emphasize women’s responsibility for holding the family together or evolutionary analyses that highlight females’ reproductive investment (MaloneBeach et al., 2018). Interestingly, the perception of grandparent mentoring or PT was generally not associated with the grandparent’s or grandchild’s age or gender, and only weak negative correlations were observed between grandparents’ age and perceived PT. This result suggests that the lower PT observed in older grandparents could be explained by intergenerational age gaps (Sun, 2016) or influenced by grandparents’ health and changes in their physical, cognitive and psychological functioning (Boon & Shaw, 2007). In addition, although previous studies have indicated gender differences in empathy—i.e., adult grandchildren perceived their grandmothers to be more empathic than their grandfathers (e.g., Michałek-Kwiecień, 2020)—the lack of gender differences found by the current study may be related to the nature of the tested dimension of empathy, i.e., cognitive rather than emotional. In line with the findings of recent studies, no gender differences were observed among grandchildren with respect to identity synthesis and identity confusion, whereas grandchildren’s age was positively related to identity synthesis and negatively related to identity confusion. In general, during the transition to adulthood, taking into account the process of regular development, individuals usually experience an increasing sense of identity synthesis and a decreasing sense of identity confusion. However, in future research with a longitudinal design, it would be worth investigating the differential developmental trajectories associated with identity synthesis and confusion (Bogaerts et al., 2021).
With respect to the posited associations among perceived cognitive empathy in grandparents, mentoring relationships, and emerging adult grandchildren’s identity processes, as expected, both grandparent mentoring and PT were positively related to identity processes, positively related to identity synthesis, and negatively related to identity confusion. However, according to the hypothesized model, perceived grandparents’ PT was significantly associated only with mentoring relationships with grandparents, whereas the perception of mentoring relationships with the closest grandparent was significantly related only to identity synthesis. Moreover, the perception of grandparents’ mentoring partially mediated the association between grandparents’ PT and the grandchild’s identity synthesis. These findings highlight the positive meaning of this intergenerational relationship. Grandparents, as mentors, can teach grandchildren how to view themselves based on the former’s role as an adviser, a voice of wisdom and experience, or merely a source of family traditions, stories, and history (Baldwin et al., 2020; Elder & Conger, 2000). The important factor in this context is that this role does not depend on grandchildren’s gender, likely because it is not deeply rooted in the emotional aspect of this relationship (Michałek-Kwiecień, 2020). In addition, the expectation for grandparents (mostly grandmothers) to serve as mentors were universal for both grandsons and granddaughters (MaloneBeach et al., 2018).
However, taking cultural backgrounds into account, in a previous study of ethnically diverse students, activities associated with to mentoring, such as sharing stories and family photos or instructing grandchildren about family traditions, were reported as typical by grandchildren; however, some significant ethnic differences were found in this context, particularly among African-American grandchildren, who were more likely to share culture with their grandparents (Wiscott & Kopera-Frye, 2000). Thus, the current study emphasizes the role of grandparental mentoring relationships in the development of personal identity by emerging adult grandchildren, which had not been tested before and can simultaneously serve as a starting point to examine the model across different cultural backgrounds.
Therefore, the importance of the subjectively experienced mentoring relationship with the closest grandparent as well as perceived grandparental PT in the context of grandchildren’s development of personal identity cannot be ignored, as the current study has confirmed. These findings add to our existing knowledge concerning mentoring relationships with grandparents among emerging adult grandchildren and highlight the significance of this aspect of the relationship for grandchildren’s identity synthesis. Instead of causing them to turn away from family, emerging adults’ identity formation can be fostered by the establishment of mentoring relationships with their grandparents. In particular, grandparents can be encouraged to share family stories and memories with their emerging adult grandchildren. Exploring and discussing family memories could also represent opportunities for grandparents to give advice to their grandchildren. This aspect of the relationship with their grandparents can help emerging adult grandchildren answer the question ‘Who am I?’ Therefore, these results could be applied successfully in the context of intergenerational programs for both grandparents and their grandchildren during the latter’s transition to adulthood. Practitioners working with grandparents and grandchildren can focus on the mentoring aspects of their relationship with respect to strengthening families and promoting positive psychological outcomes among emerging adult grandchildren (Stelle et al., 2010). Even though this study investigated the perspective of grandchildren, positive outcomes could also be expected for grandparents; however, further exploration is needed to verify this possibility (Rhodes et al., 2006). Taking cultural differences into account, interventions should acknowledge the complexity of these intergenerational relationships to meet both individual and family needs in an appropriate way (Stelle et al., 2010).
Overall, the results of this study demonstrate that relationships with grandparents are tied to the identities of emerging adult grandchildren. In particular, the meaning of mentoring relationships with grandparents (mostly grandmothers) for grandchildren’s identity is relatively positive. These findings contribute significantly to the literature and can improve our understanding of the ways in which mentoring relationships with grandparents are related to the personal identities of emerging adult grandchildren. Overall, grandparental mentoring may be a strategy for increasing the success of identity development among emerging adults.
The present findings should be interpreted in light of certain limitations of this study. First, all data were self-reported, and the study employed a correlational design; thus, conclusions regarding the directions of the relationships, thus, identified cannot be drawn. As such, longitudinal and dyadic perspectives are necessary to improve our understanding of the mentoring relationship between grandparents and their grandchildren, particularly in terms of the perceived similarities between grandparent and grandchild. Second, since grandmothers were chosen most frequently as the closest grandparent, future studies could also investigate whether there are any differences in this mentoring relationship with regard to the perceptions of all living grandparents. Third, as the majority of participants came from intact families (and since the grandchildren’s family of origin was not significantly associated with identity processes, perceptions of grandparents’ PT, or the mentoring relationship), it would be worth testing this model among representative samples of emerging adults from other types of families. In this context, as mentoring relationships with parents were not assessed, it would also be important to examine the possibility of a moderating effect according to which grandparents’ mentoring compensates for the low quality of mentoring relationships with parents. Thus, in general, it could be valuable to increase the size and heterogeneity of the sample referenced by this study, which could improve the generalizability of its findings. Finally, taking into account cultural differences, cross-cultural studies could shed more light on the mentoring aspects of relationships with grandparents and their role in the identity development of their grandchildren.
Identity is created through the individual’s interactions with the social environment (Erikson, 1968); thus, relationships with one’s grandparents can be viewed in the context of some form of social feedback (Xiang et al., 2022). The current study improves our understanding of the ways in which grandparents may function as mentors in emerging adults’ lives and provides novel evidence to suggest that this intergenerational relationship is related to grandchildren’s identity, taking into account perceived grandparents’ PT. As grandmothers were more often identified as the closest grandparent, the role played by people’s relations with their grandmothers should be highlighted. In general, relationships with one’s grandparents may be perceived as important with respect to promoting mature identity development (Buchanan & McConnell, 2017). It is to be hoped that this study will lead to more research and applied work to investigate intergenerational relationships and identity formation in young people.