grandmaPhoto: Austin Institute


“It takes a village to raise a child,” or so goes the saying popularized by then first lady Hillary Clinton in her 1996 book[1]. For many children, extended families are a major part of the “village” that raises the child.  As marriage rates decline in the United States, out of wedlock birth soars, and divorce rates remain high (although they have decreased slightly in recent decades), extended families have often stepped in to fill the gaps where stably married or even stably coupled parents are absent and two parents are not available to share childcare duties.  Sometimes circumstances make living with extended family necessary.

Data from the New Family Structures Study (NFSS), a nationally representative survey of nearly 3,000 young adults ages 18-39 reveals that 13 percent of these adults spent at least part of their childhoods living with grandparents or other relatives like aunts or uncles.

Among extended family members, grandparents were the most likely to have lived with and presumably cared for the respondents when they were children.  10 percent of respondents said they lived with grandparents and 6 percent said they had lived with other relatives. Relatively few had lived with both.

While grandparents may have been primary caregivers for parts of the child’s life, the data shows that few such arrangements lasted for most or all of childhood. In fact, less than half of those who ever lived with grandparents (4.4 percent of the population) report being with a grandmother or grandfather for 5 years or longer.  Thus the majority of respondents who lived with grandparents as children were doing so in temporary arrangements, although a significant minority lived with grandparents on a longer-term basis.

graphGraph: Austin Institute

Children in disadvantaged economic or social circumstances were more likely to live with grandparents than their peers. Those whose mothers obtained a bachelors degree or more were substantially less likely to spend part of their childhood living with grandparents than were those whose mothers had less education. (results were similar for biological fathers education).

Black respondents were the most likely to live with grandparents, about 5 times as likely to have spent time living with grandparents as were white respondents. 25 percent of black respondents had lived with grandparents compared to 5 percent of whites, perhaps a consequence of persistent wage gaps, substantially higher rates of out of wedlock births to black mothers, and disproportionate incarceration rates for black adults, conditions that often necessitate support from extended family members.

The majority (61 percent) of those who lived with grandparents say that they lived with both their grandfather and their grandmother at some point.  Yet of those who did not live with both grandparents, a staggering 92 percent report living exclusively with a grandmother, never with a grandfather.  Why the difference?

We can’t be sure.  Women on average have longer life expectancies by about 5 years, so it may be that when parents need help, grandfathers are less likely to be alive, or are reaching the end of life and need care themselves.  However this difference in involvement exclusively by one grandparent seems unlikely to be explained exclusively by differences in life expectancy between men and women. Many are becoming grandparents in their 50’s, well before most develop end of life health conditions that make childcare difficult. Are courts less likely to grant temporary custody to single grandfathers than they are single grandmothers?  Or are parents simply less likely to ask grandfathers to help?  Do the preferences of grandfathers explain this difference?  It’s hard to know the exact reason,   but we can be sure that outside of a child’s biological parents, grandmothers are the most likely to live with and probably to help raise the nation’s children.

[1] Although the saying was popularized by Clinton’s book, it has been attributed to various sources including African proverbs.  Meanwhile others have attributed the quote to Toni Morrison in the July 1981 issue of Essence Magazine.

This article was first published by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture and is reproduced here with permission. The Austin Institute is a US research institute that aims to be a resource for academic research on questions of family, sexuality, social structures and human relationships.