The Malta Independent 17 July 2024, Wednesday
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Underestimated grandparents

Mark Said Sunday, 23 June 2024, 07:55 Last update: about 25 days ago

I, personally, never had the privilege of experiencing the company and presence of grandparents from both my maternal and paternal sides. Yet, now that I have started to foray into the life of a grandparent, I have come to appreciate even more the modern role and input of grandparents into the lives of not only their immediate offspring but also, and more intensively, of their children’s offspring. Grandparents in this sense have long been on the rise. This is due to the fact that, unlike perhaps what used to happen in the past, children are being born to younger parents while senior citizens are thankfully living longer lives.

Today, more than ever, what children need most are the essentials that grandparents provide in abundance and that the majority of working mothers and fathers cannot provide enough of. They give unconditional love, kindness, patience, humour, comfort, lessons in life, and, most importantly, goodies. It is, therefore, time to examine and recognise the origins of and justifications for this important change in the modern evolution of the family concept, the psychological assumptions underlying this revolution (e.g., the role of grandparents in child development), the accompanying problems in judicial determinations of whether visitation is in a child's best interest, and both intended and unintended consequences for family functioning arising from this radical change.

Grandparents live longer and are generally better educated and healthier than previous generations. Some become grandparents when they are relatively young and in the workforce, while others, because of the later age of their parents at the birth of their first child, may be retired or approaching retirement.

The grandparent role changes over time as grandchildren grow, other grandchildren are born, family members marry, separate, remarry, and move away, and grandparents grow old and sometimes frail. When the first child is born, the parents have to adjust to their new roles as parents, to a changed relationship with each other, and to meet the needs of the new baby. Grandparents, on the other hand, appear to have less adjustment to make because it is of a different nature and less dramatic.

Being both a parent and a grandparent can lead to some ambiguity at times. In the beginning, the parent role may be the dominant one as they watch the inexperienced parents (their child and partner) trying to cope. Nevertheless, the feelings that grandparents have for their own child and those, however loving, that they have for a grandchild are usually appreciably different. Grandparents often worry more about their own children than their grandchildren, for whom they generally feel less responsible.

Secure attachment to parents is seen as vital for children's emotional development, but less attention is given to attachment relationships with other significant family members. However, there are advantages for children in having attachments to a number of significant adults, especially grandparents.

Contact with grandparents can be mutually satisfying for both generations. Grandparents are usually not so caught up with the daily routines and issues of living with the grandchildren and have more time to listen, observe, and attend to small things than busy parents. Grandparents can reflect on and pass on to their grandchildren cultural knowledge as well as family and community traditions. Positive relationships with grandchildren are not only satisfying for the grandparents but also offer opportunities for emotional integration rather than self-absorption in their later life development.

Where the relationship between parents and grandparents is difficult or tenuous, it may not be easy for grandparents to have an ongoing, close, and loving relationship with the grandchildren. This is where the law is lacking.

How much, if at all, are grandparents endowed with legal rights and responsibilities with regard to access, care, custodial rights, and maintenance? Our Civil Code contains no express provision granting such a right to seek access, but it does impose upon grandparents an obligation to provide for the maintenance and education of the children when the parents defaulted or lacked sufficient means.

Once the legislator indirectly recognises the participation of the grandparents in the lives of their grandchildren, they should have at least a specific and express right laid down by law to maintain regular contact with their grandchildren as long as such contact does not in any manner harm the superior interests of the grandchild. EU legislation has interpreted the right to family life in its widest sense and allows courts to examine whether it is in the children’s best interest to continue to have a relationship with their grandparents.

Indeed, there is a particular EU Regulation, 2201/2003, which is known as the Brussels Iia, that provides for the right of access to a child and which the European court broadly interpreted as encompassing, in particular, the right to take a child to a place other than that child’s habitual residence for a limited period of time. Maltese law does not contemplate access rights for grandparents, and therefore, the interpretation given to the Regulation should prevail by legislating to specifically lay down such rights.

Over and above all this, the law should also expressly provide procedural remedies available to grandparents in certain situations. As it is, the law presumes that parents will act in their child’s best interests. Sometimes, when a child’s emotional and physical needs are not being met by the parents, grandparent visitation would help meet those needs. A grandparent should be able to obtain court-ordered visitation rights if he or she can prove to a court that the parents are not acting in the child’s best interests, that the grandparent has an ongoing personal relationship with the child, and that visitation is in the child’s best interests. An ongoing personal relationship could be defined as a relationship with substantial continuity for at least one year through interaction, companionship, interplay, and mutuality.

Something magical happens when parents turn into grandparents. They become a little bit parent, a little bit teacher, and a little bit best friend. Without a doubt, they become some of the world’s best educators and should be duly recognised for this and much more!

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