What I discovered by talking to Grandkids.
By George H. Schofield, Ph.D.
National Grandparents’ Day is September 9 this year, a propitious time to ask an important question: What do grandkids today really want from their grandparents?
In recent weeks I interviewed a wide variety kids, ages 7 to 17. Several were suspicious at first. Many had never had their opinion solicited before. “You really want to know what I think about grandparenting? Why?” My honest answer in each case was: “Yes, I do, because I have 7 grandchildren (ages 15 months to 13 years) and want to explore how to be an effective grandparent today.”
The world is so different in so many ways from my own youth. How can we experience so much change and still imagine grandparenting can stay the same as it used to be? Let’s admit it. We don’t know for sure what our grandchildren’s world will look like. Kids will use technologies for purposes and to ends we can’t imagine. It’s already happening. Connecting through technologies can be as important as face to face contact in creating and sustaining relationships, doing schoolwork, enjoying recreation, and in how kids stay connected to everyone including us. And this just touches the surface.
The modern experience and definition of family is changing whether we like it or not. Children who don’t get what they need early – including healthy role models, math, language, reading, and social skills - are likely to spend their entire adulthood trying to catch up and failing. Having a college degree is no longer a guaranty of a first job or extended employment. The world of work may never guaranty long-term jobs or lifetime employment again. Being highly networked and entrepreneurial is already a requirement. These are just a few of our grandkids’ realities.
In the midst of this evolving “New Normal” there are important opportunities for active, engaged, modern grandparenting.
The kids I interviewed were articulate and insightful. Many had never had their serious opinion asked of them before. What they said surprised me. I expected a list of Do’s and Don’ts from them. What I discovered instead was a request for much greater grandparent thoughtfulness about how much is not enough, how much is too much, and how much is just right.
Here is what the grandkids I interviewed said they would like from their grandparents:
• Abandon the notion that there is one final list of Do’s and Don’ts for all grandparents. Be really present with me situation by situation. Make good decisions in your own life. I’m going to learn from you. Be smart. I’m going to grow up into a greater person. You should be leading the way in your own life.
• Decide what kind of a grandparent you want to be and stick to it. Make it clear to me and my folks. It’s OK if you don’t want to spend a lot of time with me. It’s OK if you do. It’s OK if you prefer my company when I’m little. It’s OK if you prefer my company when I’m older. What isn’t OK is confusing, unpredictable, mixed-message grandparenting. Especially when you expect me and our relationship to be a small mirror of you and a validation of your own life success.
• Build a great relationship with my parents with agreed upon rules about communication and secrets. Grandparenting is really a triangle: me, you, my folks. Stay close but create some reasonable boundaries. Limit your complaining about other family members. As soon as you start to dominate or compete I’m the one stuck in the middle.
• Support my right to take some risks. Will one mistake really ruin my life? Telling me what not to do without providing smarter alternatives won’t work. It didn’t for you when you were my age either.
• Tell me truthfully about 1. your own life experiences and 2. what you learned from them. If I’m to learn from you I’ll need both 1 and 2. Be honest with me.
• Spend enough time with me alone. Help me explore my interests. Discover some new ones with me. Share your own. Do stuff with me I don’t do with anyone else. Let’s have some small and large adventures. I want some lifetime memories of our experiences together that will make me smile years from now.
• Tell me you love me and mean it. You don’t have to approve of all my behaviors or choices – and you can let me know it – in order to love me in a constant, dependable way. Kindness and fairness I can depend upon are essential.
• Deal with the “New Normal” in the world. Learn and experience enough about it to make good choices about which parts are for you and which are not. Talk to me about it. It’s where I’m going and I would hate to leave you totally behind.
• Allow me to teach you sometimes.
The interviews with these grandkids really inspired me. It’s easy to forget how insightful and kids really can be. And how wise. I’m going to do more interviews with them. Stay tuned.
Grandparenting, as we know it in our lifetimes, is a relatively recent phenomenon. There are now 65 million grandparents in the U.S. The majority of us are between ages 45 and 64. We’re still working full time and are still young. Whether we’re still working or retired, we’re leading busy, active lives. 10% of American households are headed by a grandparent with at least one grandchild living with them.
Obviously, the role of grandparent has evolved from primarily passing along survival knowledge. Why would grandparenting stop evolving now in such a changing world?
We grandparents are going to live longer than previous generations lived. Many of us will need more money to do that and sustain a reasonable quality of life. We may start new careers, go back to school, divorce after many years, find new partners (or not), in many cases challenge what we thought we knew for sure. We’ll reinvent lives with renewed meaning, ambition, exploration, contentment, accomplishment, success and loss. What’s really meaningful will change over time for many of us.
There is an important opportunity here for high quality connection to grandkids, a connection that can affect our quality of life and theirs for a very long time.
In recent weeks I interviewed a wide variety of grandparents, ages 42 to 94. One grandmother had just returned from visiting her grandson in prison. One grandfather had just seen his granddaughter at Harvard. Several had grandkids living far away. Some lived close to their grandkids. Several had wonderful relationships with the grandkids’ parents. Some did not. Many of the grandparents I interviewed loved it. Several were ambivalent at best about it. Grandparents today are definitely a diverse bunch of people.
What the grandparents I interviewed said surprised me. I expected a list of Do’s and Don’ts from them. What I found instead was a request for grandkids to pay attention in all interactions to how much is not enough, how much is too much, and how much is just right.Here is what the grandparents said they would like from their Grandkids:
• Understand that in many ways you and I are on similar paths. Unlike your parents who are working very hard to keep everything together each day, I’m more like you because I have the opportunity and obligation to craft who I’m going to be in the future and what I’m going to want my life to be like. You and I have a lot more in common than you realize. We’re both moving forward without knowing the next destination for sure.
• Remember I’m your grandparent, not your parent (unless I am in a custodial position).
· Treat me courteously, reliably, and kindly. When I send you something or reach out to you, respond to me. Don’t just take.
· Think of me as an astute, competent adult, not an “old person”.
· Figure out over time the kind of person you want to be, what you want to do with your life, and have the courage to do it. Think. Talk to me about it as life goes along.
· Understand I will, situationally, say “Yes” or “No” to you and stick to it. This is part of my adulthood and being a good grandparent.
• I want and will work at having a great relationship with your parents, one with agreed upon rules for communication and secrets. Don’t play us off against each other. Grandparenting is really a triangle: me, you, and your folks. Stay close but understand I will have some reasonable boundaries. Be careful to keep our confidences.
• Tell me truthfully about 1. your own life experiences and 2. What you learned from them. If I’m to help you I’ll need both 1 and 2. Be honest with me.
• Spend enough time with just me. Help me explore my interests. Discover some new ones with me. Share your own. Do stuff with me I don’t do with anyone else. Let’s have some small and large adventures. I want some lifetime memories of our experiences together that will make me smile years from now.
• Tell me you love me and mean it. You don’t have to approve of all my behaviors or choices – and you can let me know it – to love me in a constant, dependable way. Kindness and fairness I can depend upon are essential. • Deal with the “Old Normal” in the world. Some of it is here to stay in my generation and is of value. Through me learn and experience enough about the old normal to understand why I may have certain reactions that may seem old fashioned but are also really smart. Talk to me about them. I’m interested in our developing a deep appreciation of each other.
· Let me teach you sometimes.