Analysis of “Ethnic and Racial Differences in Well-Being Among Custodial and Co-Parenting Families”


This article provides a critical analysis of a study by authors Goodman and Silverstein. The study being reviewed is one which observes the reasons why grandmothers choose to assume or aid in the care of grandchildren, compares how grandmothers respond to different family circumstances and relationship stressors by race/ethnicity, and examines racial and ethnic differences in the emotional well-being of custodial and coparenting grandmothers.


The issue being explored in this article is the well-being of grandmothers who raise or are helping to raise grandchildren. The study compares African-American, Latina, and White grandmothers who either assume full care (custodial) or are helping their children to care for (coparenting) their grandchildren. The sample for this cross-sectional study included 1,051 grandmothers who were primary caregivers. These numbers were split into categories of custodial or coparenting families on the basis of the child’s current place of residence. Coparenting families, consisted of 113 African American, 195 Latina and 167 White families. Custodial was defined as the parents being absent from the household, which “denotes physical custody rather than legal custody” (1610). Of the custodial families, 245 of them were African American, 155 were Latina, and 176 were White. Forty-one percent of the custodial grandmothers did not have legal arrangements, meaning they had less formal arrangements in regards to caring for their grandchildren. Others included in this study had adopted, were legal guardians or were foster parents through the child welfare system.

Sixty-three percent of respondents were recruited to participate in the study through written notices sent to the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), which provides education to about half of Los Angeles County students. Twenty-four percent learned of the study through the media, and 13% were recruited through community organizations. Two-hundred and twenty-three schools were sent notices about the study, as well as McDonald’s gift certificates as incentives for people to participate. White and African American grandparent-headed families were overrepresented for the geographical area. This research was done between January 1998 and January 2001, by The Survey and Research Center of the University of California, Los Angeles. Twelve trained interviewers were matched with respondents for language and ethnicity, and they conducted 1-hour structured interviews to gather the information.


Various measures evaluated the stressful circumstances dealing with caregiving. One factor that was explored was the reasons why grandmothers took on the role as primary caregiver for their grandchildren. Explanations included parental substance-related issues, such as drug and alcohol abuse, child neglect, legal trouble, and mental and emotional problems. The most common reason was financial assistance, as related to the parent’s economic situation which motivated grandmothers to become primary caregivers. Another factor impacting stress was the closeness of the relationship between the grandmother and her grandchild and the grandmother and the child’s parent. Assessment was taken on the quality of the grandparent-grandchild relationship, accounting for affection, understanding, getting along together, and communication in each relationship. Conflict, disagreement and tension were also assessed. Child’s behavior problems were also included under another 10-item measure and rated on a 5-point scale from 1 (rarely or never) to 5 (most or all of the time).

The grandmother’s psychological well-being was assessed using three established scales. To measure mood, researchers used “The Positive and Negative Affect Scale” (1611). This consisted of a 20-item list of adjectives rated on a 5-point scale: 1 (very slightly or not at all) and 5 (extremely). They were used to describe how a study participant felt over a period of a few weeks. “Interested” and “proud” are examples of the positive adjectives, with “distressed” and “hostile” being representative of negative adjectives. To ensure consistency across racial and ethnic groups, structural equation modeling was used. Four items were deleted due to inconsistency between Latina and White grandmothers, bringing the measurement down to 16-items. “Coefficient alpha for this reduced model was .81 for positive affect and .86 for negative effect” (1611). Life satisfaction was also determined by asking the grandmothers about the quality of life, rating five items on a 7-point scale from 1 (strongly agree) to 7 (strongly disagree). There was a coefficient alpha of .84 (1611). According to structural equation modeling, this measure was consistent across Latina, African American and White groups of grandmothers. Depression was also measured as a facet of mental health. The “Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale” is a well-known 20-item measurement with response options ranging from 0 (rarely or none of the time) to 3 (most or all of the time) (1612). “Coefficient alpha was .89 for this sample” (1612).

Key Findings

A key finding of the study was that custodial African American grandmothers had similar levels of life satisfaction to custodial Latina and White grandmothers. The main difference in custodial arrangements between African American and other families was that African American grandmothers were emotionally closer to grandchildren than Latina and White grandmothers. This is mostly due to the “active, quasiparental style of grandparenting that includes discipline and guidance” (1622). The study posits that the active style of grandparenting may rise out of a tradition of surrogacy dating back to slavery.

The study confirmed the hypothesis that “Latina grandmothers would have higher well-being in coparenting families compared with African American and White grandmothers” (1622). This finding suggests that Latina grandmothers take pride in assisting children in rearing the grandchildren. Assisting parents in caretaking is a valued and traditional role of grandparents in Hispanic families, and thus Latina grandmothers usually “coparent their grandchildren under more routine and possibly less stressful circumstances than do Whites or African Americans” (1622).

The prediction that Caucasian grandmothers would have higher stress levels than Latina and African Americans proved true especially in custodial arrangements. This may have been due to the fact that white grandmothers are more likely to take on grandchildren whose parents are drug abusers or emotionally disturbed. This finding confirms the belief that white families favor parental independence and rely on grandmothers for childcare only in dire circumstances. White grandmothers are more likely to “maintain a companionable or remote style of grandparenting” (1623) unless their assistance is absolutely necessary.

Implications for Future Research

Hopefully, this study will allow better assistance and understanding for families in which grandmothers assist in caretaking or are the sole caretaker. Understanding of the circumstances which lead to grandparents assisting in or taking over childcare may lead to reforms in current welfare laws, and increase the availability of services to grandmother caretakers.

White grandmothers often become caretakers in place of children who are drug abusers or emotionally or mentally incapacitated. This leads to high levels of stress, and lower well being. Recognizing the stressful and often tragic circumstances in which Caucasian grandmothers take custody of their grandchildren is an important step. With such understanding, better counseling services can be provided to custodial and coparenting families. Support services would greatly aid in restoring the fraught and often broken relationships of grandmothers and grandchildren.

Financial assistance is a pressing need among many Latina and African American grandmothers. These families tend to have much lower incomes, and therefore may find child care services unaffordable. In such a case, custodial or coparenting arrangements are a financial necessity. Sadly, even when grandparents step in to take care of grandchildren, there is often much financial hardship. Changes in welfare could further support these families struggling to stay out of poverty by increasing “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families grants for children, exemptions for all caregiving grandmothers from work requirements and time limits, and ending of the lifetime denial

of assistance to those with drug-related felony convictions.” (1623).


The methodology used included structured 1-hour interviews with trained interviewers. The sample was recruited in Los Angeles County by using the incentive of McDonald’s gift certificates. In the interviews, grandmothers were asked various questions to determine the effects of being in a caregiving or custodial role for their grandchildren. Different scales were used to assess their physical health, the stressful circumstances surrounding caregiving, life satisfaction, and psychological well-being.

We thought the sample was questionable because it was not randomly selected. There was also an oversampling of White and African-American grandparent-headed families in the Los Angeles County Area (1610). And because gift certificates were used as an incentive, it would be difficult to a socioeconomically diverse sample to respond. Most likely, people with lower incomes would be better inclined to take the time to participate in the survey.

In terms of the positive elements of the methodology used, the measurements seemed adequate because they were nationally recognized surveys, scales, and indexes. The study also used trained interviewers and interpreters which was important for the reliability of the findings. Furthermore, we thought that the time period of the study, three years, signified that the authors were dedicated to their research.

The authors could have improved their study by using a random sample. They could have further extended the period of time the study and gone to more places rather than only one county in order to get a better representation of grandmothers raising grandchildren nationwide. It is also difficult to measure cultural values, traditions, and styles of grandparenting. Perhaps it would have been better if the authors had taken a deeper look at each culture separately so that they could make more detailed comparisons of the ethnic/racial differences.

There was no theory stated in the article, but given the methodology and findings, I felt that the conclusions of study were not justified. The study seemed to leave readers asking more questions rather than giving them answers on the topic of racial/ethnic differences in well-being of grandmothers raising grandchildren. Because research was done in only one geographical location, the study does not seem reliable enough to make such broad-based conclusions.


Goodman, Catherine Chase and Merril Silverstein. 2006. “Grandmothers Raising Grandchildren: Ethnic and Racial Differences in Well-Being Among Custodial and Coparenting Families.” Journal of Family Issues 27 11 (November): 1605-1626.