Somebody (I think it was Gore Vidal, but I hate to give him the credit) once said that children and grandparents get along so well because they share a common enemy.
You don’t need to buy that in order to see that relations between alternate generations are ordinarily smoother than those between parents and offspring. This shouldn’t be a mystery. Pampering kids is far easier when you’re not responsible for their care and discipline, and kids naturally like to be pampered.
When I was growing up, for instance, my mother and father forbade all pets except tropical fish. When a friend gave me a pair of white mice, I was forced to give them right back. The ostensible reason was that my little brothers would have abused any crawling or creeping thing by treating it like an animated version of a stuffed toy. I think it was really that our parents, with three boys to clean up after, didn’t need any more beasts messing up the house and yard.
Fair enough, I say, now that I have a household of my own. Except that my son wasn’t even two months old when my parents started telling me to buy him a puppy. This, even though our apartment is smaller than many American rec rooms. Sooner or later my mother and father will get their way, even if they have to buy the puppy themselves and keep it around for our son’s visits.
Forget the anecdotal evidence, though. Science has proved that grandparents are good for a lot more than pets. Recent studies of families in 18th- and 19th-century Germany, 20th-century Africa and contemporary India all show that a child’s chances of dying are significantly lower with a grandmother present.
Why this should be so is not clear. One researcher suggests that grandmothers could make a life-or-death difference “by encouraging family cohesion or stifling extreme sibling rivalry.” Does that mean that grandmother-less brothers and sisters are more likely to kill each other?
In any case, the catch is that kids derive this benefit only from their maternal grandmothers. Having dad’s mom around is not only no help — it seems it can even be fatal. Both the German study and another of a Japanese village over two centuries showed that children were far more likely to die with a paternal grandmother around than they were with no grandmother at all.
Darwinian theory offers one possible explanation, based on the uncertainty of paternity. As one news report puts it: “The maternal grandmother is the only grandparent who can be sure she is really related to her grandchildren.” Whereas the father’s mother is less likely to feel affection for her possibly spurious grandchildren, and thus less likely to help nurture them.
As far as it goes, that makes a certain cold-blooded sense, but doesn’t tell us why a woman would actively harm a kid who might, after all, be her kin. The German researchers propose a solution that could test the faith of the most committed evolutionist. Surveillance by a suspicious mother-in-law, they suggest, might be so stressful for a wife during pregnancy as to weaken her fetus, lowering its chances of surviving long past birth. (Though as the Economist points out, there can be little point in worrying that an already-pregnant wife will cuckold your son.)
That relations with in-laws can be tense is of course not news. More surprising to me is research showing that children prefer maternal grandmothers over the paternal kind by a factor of four to one. Do the kids sense grandma’s skepticism of their paternity?
I’m just glad that all these calculations ignore the influence of grandfathers, which I hope means that such influence is negligible. In which case, I look forward to reaching that status myself. After years of bearing the moral burden of fatherhood, it will be awfully nice to retire.