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There's no one quite like Grandma

Research into studies of child well-being shows grandmothers are much more important than fathers during the early years

Despite the focus of much family policy on fathers, it is maternal grandmothers that have a significantly greater impact on the well-being of children. 

photo of grandmother with grandchild on beachThis was the major conclusion of a review of 45 studies of families around the world which found that a child is more likely to survive and flourish if the mother has help from a relative, but that relatives differ in whether they are consistently beneficial to children or not. Maternal grandmothers have the biggest effect on child survival while fathers have surprisingly little impact. 

The extended period of childhood dependency and short interbirth intervals mean that human mothers have to care for several dependent children simultaneously. Most evolutionary anthropologists now agree that this is too much of an energetic burden for mothers to manage alone and that they must enlist help from other relatives to help with raising children. Which kin help most is the subject of much debate.  

This paper, by Rebecca Sear of LSE and Ruth Mace of UCL, reviews the evidence for whether the presence of kin affects child survival rates, in order to infer whether mothers do receive help in raising offspring and who provides this help. It analyses 45 studies from a variety of contemporary and historical populations across a wide geographical range, in both developing and developed nations.  

It finds that in almost all studies, the presence of at least one relative improves the survival rates of children if the mother dies, but that relatives differ in whether they are consistently beneficial to children or not. 

Maternal grandmothers improve child survival rates in the majority of studies, as do elder siblings, though the latter observation is based on rather few studies. Paternal grandmothers show somewhat more variation in their effects on child survival, with only half the populations studied showing an effect. Fathers have surprisingly little effect on child survival, with only a third of studies showing any beneficial effects.

In their paper, titled Who keeps children alive?, Dr Rebecca Sear of LSE's Social Policy department and Professor Ruth Mace from UCL, suggest that fertility has declined to such low levels in certain parts of the world because of changes in kin networks.  

As countries modernise, kin networks break down and association with non-relatives becomes more common. This reduces both the practical support available to mothers in raising children and affects reproductive norms. 

It concludes that a consistency across studies is that at least one relative is beneficial in almost all populations, suggesting that we are evolved to raise children as an extended family enterprise. Maternal grandmothers tend to improve child survival, as do elder sibling 'helpers-at-the-nest'. Paternal grandmothers are frequently beneficial, but show rather more variation than maternal grandmothers in their effects on child survival. Fathers' contributions to child survival appear to be surprising small. This review has also highlighted that kin interactions are not always beneficial, and that the presence of certain kin may occasionally be harmful for a   child 

Despite the focus of much family policy on fathers, this research suggests that the importance of the father, and the role that fathers actually play in their children's lives, needs much more careful study. 

 

Useful links

Who keeps children alive? A review of the effects of kin on child survival |[PDF] by Rebecca Sear and Ruth Mace is published in the journal Evolution and human behaviour. 

Department of Social Policy|

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