You & Your Children's Children
WHAT ROLE DO GRANDPARENTS PLAY?
Blue skies are the eyes of my children's children; The golden wheat their hair, blowing in the wind...
From "Marching," as sung by Laurie Neustadt, COTA, folk singer
By Tom Kerr
In the 20th century, the typical American household has shrunk in dimension. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and other extended relatives, even when present in a child's life, are no longer part of the family core--that is, Mom, Dad and kids.
Arthur Kornhaber, MD, who has practiced in both physical medicine and psychiatry, says the nuclear family is not a good thing and may play a factor in family dysfunction. He firmly believes in the old "it takes a village to raise a child" adage--that every generation of the family plays a significant role in a little one's upbringing, and the grandparent-grandchild relationship is especially vital.
"It's important for young people to have a support system in place, and the idea of the nuclear family is not healthy," Dr. Kornhaber told ADVANCE. "The reason we have grandparents, aunts and uncles is that kids need a lot of people to raise them. It's a normal and natural thing that children see a whole bunch of people playing important parts in their lives."
Dr. Kornhaber, now living in California, is the former director of child and adolescent psychiatry at St. Alban's Academy in New England, a national health care organization that aids children and families. He has been studying the nature of the relationship among grandparents, parents and children since the early 1970s and has written and lectured nationally and internationally on the subject, appearing regularly on NBC's The Today Show. In 1980, he established the Foundation for Grandparenting, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the importance of grandparents and grandparenting activities for the betterment of grandchildren, families and society.
Having been in contact with tens of thousands of grandparents over the years, Dr. Kornhaber says that many feel unappreciated and left out of the daily lives of their grandchildren.
"The grandparent is second in emotional power only to the parents," he adds. "Children are very hardwired to receive grandparents within their own spirits. To me the grandparent-child relationship is the purest form of love. It's an unconditional love, and children see that in the grandparents' eyes."
In Dr. Kornhaber's eyes, the "grand" part of grandma or grandpa shouldn't mean older, but take on the true definition of the word, that is, "large and impressive in size, scope, or extent; magnificent."
"In the last 20 years I have done numerous studies on the importance of grandparenting, involving hundreds of grandparents and grandchildren," he said. "The foremost thing that I discovered is that grandparent involvement in the raising of a child is a natural occurrence. The bond is much deeper than even I had anticipated, reaching beyond the biological, psychological and social boundaries that modern science uses to explain such things. In all of human history a family's multigenerational influence has always been present. This idea that controlling parents should not be involved in a couple's raising of a family has only been around in the last 50 to 60 years."
And the role of being an involved grandparent starts even before the child is born. Dr. Kornhaber says that grandparenting actually begins when Mom and Dad "garden" their own children's relationships.
"Obviously, your future son-or-daughter-in-law will be the parent of your grandchildren-to-be," Dr. Kornhaber writes in his book, Grandparent Power! (written with Sondra Forsyth, Crown Publishing, 1994). "That means that the fate of your grandparenthood lies at least partly in that person's hands. Your children and children-in-law are the linchpins of the relationship between yourself and your grandchild, and they play a critical role in fostering--or hindering--that relationship."
If the mother and father like their soon-to-be in law, there should be little problem in establishing a strong bond. However, if the relationship between parents and their child's significant other is shaky, it will require some effort. Dr. Kornhaber suggests that parents learn to choose their battles carefully with the new couple, offer to have a series of family meetings to establish ways in which the individuals hope to interact, include the in-law-to-be in family rituals and traditions and establish a one-on-one relationship with that person.
"I truly believe in the family conference," he says. "People should sit down once in a while and talk about how they can improve their relationships. I urge the grandparents or future grandparents to take responsibility and tell their child and spouse that they want to be involved in their grandchild's life, according to the couple's needs. My tip is to go out to lunch, a neutral place, and take the lead in this discussion, but not be critical or judgmental."
When the couple begins their family, the future grandparents should be positive influences in the couple's lives, offering assistance and encouragement when needed. When the time comes for delivery, Dr. Kornhaber says that the grandparents should be there when the child is born. Bonding with the baby from the beginning is a great way to build a strong three-generational family.
"Lots of grandparents say that this experience is a high point in their lives," he said. "I have delivered babies when I was a family doctor and encouraged family members to be there because it's such a powerful, spiritual moment that belies description. In the past, it usually was the grandmother who delivered the kids or at least helped. We are all wired for this kind of stuff. Because of modesty and comfort level, the mother may request that the future grandparents stay out of the delivery room while she is giving birth. But the grandparents can still be at the hospital and ready to offer help if needed."
Once the child is born, Dr. Kornhaber says it's important for grandparents to develop a one-on-one relationship with their new granddaughter/son as soon as possible.
"It's very important to establish that bond early and strengthen it as the years go on," he said. "The vital connection blossoms fully when the child has the grandparent's undivided attention in an unhurried and relaxed atmosphere. This is when the child "absorbs" the grandparent--heart and soul.
"It is also important that the grandparent spend quality time with his or her grandchildren because it allows the parents to spend precious time alone together," Dr. Kornhaber added. "Many grandparents complain that they do not get enough time with their grandchildren, but in reality, the parents simply won't ask them to because they feel they are burdening the grandparents. That's why I ask grandparents to take the initiative and offer to give the parents a break."
Another important role in grandparenting is being a part of the grandchild's life, even if the parents separate or divorce. This means keeping up-to-date with the child's day-to-day happenings, even if it means becoming computer literate and sending e-mail.
"Grandparents should go to the child's school for certain events, take the child to the doctor or dentist, take the child to the playground and invite his or her friends over to play," he said. "If the grandchild lives far away, the grandparent should call the child regularly or use e-mail. You don't have to be present every day to be an everyday presence, but the grandparent should try to live in the same world the grandchild lives in. It helps them relate better."
Speaking of roles, what kind of role models should grandparents be for their grandchildren? How is the grandparent role unique from that of the parent?
"The way the child relates to his grandparents is the way he is going to relate to his own parents when he grows up," he said. "The grandparent is the child's role model for the older generation. Grandparents should exhibit their wisdom and experience in a loving and caring way. Often, grandparents also extend religion to their grandchildren. The middle generation simply sees the child's grandparent as his older parent, but the youngest generation feels the spirit of the oldest generation. Kids feel that old is good, and every wrinkle has an interesting story."
One of the most vital roles of the grandparent is to set the vision for the family and be there when needed.
"(Grandparents) should show their child and grandchild that family is important," Dr. Kornhaber writes. "Help whenever possible. If conflicts arise, try to call a family conference to set things straight. It is important for your grandchild to see you acting to resolve conflicts and not shying away from difficult issues.
"Children expect grandparents and parents to be different...and that's good. But the child also needs to see that grandparents--as functioning adults--can bring harmony to the family, along with tolerance, flexibility, forgiveness and understanding. After all they are the 'parent's parents.'"
As more baby boomers become grandmas or grandpas, Dr. Kornhaber feels this generation will succeed in their new role.
"They are used to getting involved, so discovering this new role will give them new meaning and usefulness in their lives as they face old age," he said. "And with people living longer, we are also seeing more great grandparents and that just adds to the wonderful family support for the child."
For more information on The Foundation for Grandparenting, contact 108 Farnham Rd., Ojai, CA 93023 or www.grandparenting.org; firstname.lastname@example.org (email).
Tom Kerr is ADVANCE associate editor.