Bridging the Generation Gap

Filed under: Family,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Ronda @ 7:16 am December 19, 2013

I said we were going to do it anyway. My mother was silent. But when my son put up a tearful fight in her presence, she protested again.

“It’s cruel,” she said. “I can’t stand it.” And when, a few weeks later, he was ill and would not drink, sure enough, the first thing she lobbied for was to go back to the bottle. Unsure of myself this time around, I capitulated. My mother took the bottle to him. And even though it turned out that he didn’t want it anymore, she considered it a victory for grandmotherly compassion.

“Look,” my mom said some time afterward, “I’m the grandmother. You put him in my hands, and I’m not going to listen to any ‘expert.’ I’m going to give him a bottle and anything else he wants. When he’s with you, you’ll do it your way.”

Grandmother love. As frustrated as I sometimes am with such debates, I still consider myself a winner in these situations. As a single parent, I want and need my mother to be very involved. Even her disagreements about how I am doing things make me feel secure about her support. After all, how can you lose if your mother loves your son that much?

Grandparent Love
But this is not how the books tell grandparents to behave. Grandparents are advised to play by the parent’s rules. They are reminded that they are not the ones in charge. When they forget, they approach the line that can make grandparenting so touchy at times.

“I know that nobody loves my beautiful boy the way I and my husband do– except my parents,” my friend Paula confided to me. “I welcome my mother’s advice. I need it. But I also rail against being put into the child’s position again. And I want to reserve the right to reject what she says.”

Some call grandparent love the purest love there is. It is a love that is just there — unconditional and instinctive, a deep well for the newest arrival to the family to imbibe. But dealing with the parents of that precious child is not quite as instinctive. It all goes back to the dynamics between parent and child. All the old issues of control vs. autonomy, your way vs. my way and your values vs. my values are dredged up.

They arise as you venture out for a walk together or when you hover over an ailing child. Should he wear a hat or shouldn’t he? Is she watching too much television? What’s the harm in a cookie? And the one everyone knows: Isn’t he ready to be toilet trained yet? Every parenting book I’ve read on this subject notes that grandparents will insist — as does my mother — that their grandchild is ready earlier than you think. And all the books say: “Ignore grandparents on this topic.”

“My best advice to new grandparents is not to be intrusive or too pushy,” said Evelyn Siegel, a grandmother of 12 in Fort Worth, Texas, who is on excellent terms with her four sons and daughters-in-law. “Some of the things I see parents allow their children to do these days make me shudder,” she said. “But I’m never critical in any way. Times are different.”

Respect is critical. Grandparents need to recognize the difference between helpful advice and annoying intrusions. And parents need to understand that intense love and unshakeable support often come with unsolicited opinions. Every family, of course, has its own parameters. What one finds comforting or amusing, another sees as a problem.

Bridging the Generation Gap
“Being a grandparent is, first and foremost, a relationship or a series of relationships with your grandchildren, children, spouse and in-laws,” said Dr. Ruth Westheimer in her book “Grandparenthood.” “It has a lot in common with your other relationships. In grandparenting, as in any relationship, the keys to success are communication, honesty, supportiveness, generosity of spirit, openness and patience.”

Successfully negotiating the relationships with the grown-ups is key to being a good grandparent — one who can nurture a child in a unique way that supports and enhances the role of the parents. Arthur Kornhaber, a psychiatrist, author and grandfather who started the Foundation for Grandparenting 30 years ago to raise consciousness about the importance of grandparents for all the generations said: “Sit down and make some rules about the important things, like nutrition and safety. But try not to make a fuss about the little things. If the child [is] happy, a little diversity in the ways he’s brought up is fine.”

Grandparents are just too important. “Parents should realize that they are the linchpin of a grandparent’s relationship with the grandchild,” Kornhaber said, and should facilitate it. He calls the grandparent/grandchild relationship a “spiritual bond.” Studies have shown, he notes, that even grown children consider it to have been essential in their lives. “Kids who are close to grandparents are different from those who aren’t,” he explained, “because they feel that unconditional love. Mom and Dad can be tired, concerned about work, finances and the like. But the child looks into their grandparent’s eyes and sees ecstatic adoration. Basically, if you breathe, you’re OK. That kind of love is incredibly empowering.”

Besides the pride and joy of it all, the birth of a first grandchild is a momentous event in the life of a family. It changes all of its the members, affecting forever both their sense of themselves and their priorities. It also shifts the dynamics between members. That can afford an opportunity for individual growth and can lead to a deeper understanding between the generations. Handled sensitively, this transforming occasion can heal past grievances and revive parent/child relations that have deteriorated. It may give a grown child a chance to draw on her parents’ experience (now called wisdom) and to develop a new appreciation both of her own upbringing and a parent’s, any parent’s, fallibility. For a grandparent, this is the chance to love again without restraint or the need to discipline. It’s also a chance to transmit a legacy, to share the family heritage and to repair previous damage. Everyone will benefit.

Evolving Relationships
Like other relationships, the grandparent relationship will evolve. As children grow from babies to toddlers to young people with full lives of their own, grandparents will need to focus more and more on establishing a rich one-on-one relationship with the grandchild — no matter where they live. This is not something to be passive about. Until the grandchild is able to take partial responsibility for maintaining the relationship, it is up to the adult to keep it vibrant and relevant.

That has not been a problem for Evelyn Siegel, whose grandchildren — ranging from age 7 to 21 — all live nearby. Spending time with them keeps her and her husband young, Siegel says. She makes sure to go to their soccer games and dance recitals. Her grandchildren visit her individually and in groups, and for extended periods during the summer. They help in her art gallery. She plans brunches and special excursions they go on together. And when they have a birthday, she sets aside a day to take them shopping and enjoy the day. “We have a good time,” Siegel said.

Today, grandparenting comes in many different styles. As Westheimer puts it, “The grandparent role is open, dynamic and flexible. ? We can each of us reinvent grandparenting in our own image for our own family.” She cites in her book a classic 1960s study by Berniece Neugarten and Karol Weinstein of five basic styles: fun-seeking, formal, distant, reservoirs of family wisdom and surrogate parents. But that was then. With baby boomers entering their 50s in droves, more and more of them are becoming grandparents and redefining that role.

Aging looks and feels different these days. Grandparents are no longer depicted knitting in rocking chairs, baking cookies and telling stories about the way it used to be — although these are all perfectly fine prototypical grandparent activities. As a result, children have different expectations, too. Consider the children’s classic “Pat the Bunny” written by Dorothy Kunhardt in 1940. Her daughter Edith has now added new books to the series in the spirit of the original — but with a contemporary spin.

So don’t worry too much about an overzealous grandparent. The grandparent relationship is a wonderful gift on all sides — from the parent to the grandparent, and from the grandparent to the parent and grandchild. Relish it wherever you are in the family constellation.

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