Grandmother Know-It-All?

Today’s grandmothers know much more than their own grandmothers did.

Posted Feb 11, 2020 | Reviewed by Daniel Lyons M.A.

Today’s grandmothers know much more than their own grandmothers did.  But because they know more, they say less. 

How could that be?  First, think about what they know, compared to grandmothers previously.

It is not than grandmothers know more about child care.  Grandmothers must have always known quite a lot about keeping children healthy; otherwise, they wouldn’t be grandmothers.  

Every mother weathers caregiving crises – perhaps a ruby red diaper rash, a midnight fever spike, a lost Winter coat, torn pants, mean playmates, disobedient teenagers. Mothers react, sometimes impulsively, sometimes asking friends, fathers, pediatricians, the Internet. Experience teaches: I was much more relaxed with my fourth child than my first.

Every mother learns from experience. But today’s grandmothers know much more about the rest of life. Their grandmothers grew up when life was tough for women, especially mothers. They stuck to domestic life, they knew that “a man’s work is sun to sun but a woman’s work is never done.”

Think of the words. Women were housewives (married to the house?) and homebodies (their body belonged at home?). 

Fathers gave away their daughters to a young man who asked for her hand, but men stayed away from domestic life. A mantra often repeated, especially by men, was that to make a woman happy, she had to be “barefoot and pregnant, in the kitchen.” The same was expressed in every language: Germans had Kinder, Küche, and Kirche. (Kirche means church, where woman found solace in Our Lady of Sorrows). 

After raising their many children, women mourned their empty nest (because their fledglings had flown the coop?). They were happy to tell the next generation how to raise their grandchildren; that was what they knew, and their children had many children, born when they were young. They usually listened; their mothers usually advised. 

Much of this is not as true today, thanks to inventions of the past few decades. Pregnancy is often chosen, not a given, appliances, fabrics, frozen or take-out food, early education (first grade is no longer first), now let mothers leave home with boots and shoes.  

Does that make grandmothers quicker to give dogmatic, opinionated, arrogant advice? No! It's actually the opposite: grandmothers today know more, so they advise less. Grandmothers once were matriarchs, which means female rulers who laid down the law. Now they are part of the support staff. Why is that?

There are many reasons, but a major one is education.  Grandmothers today are much better educated than grandmothers were a generation ago. This is true at every level, from high school graduation to professional degrees. 

Consider the data on college. 

In the first half of the 20th century, few 18-year-old women enrolled in college. Instead, they married and had children. In the United States, as recently as 1950, for every 100 male college students, there were only 25 women. 

Although every decade since 1950 has seen rising numbers of women in college, the biggest leap was in the 1970s. The male/female ratio reached equity (1:1) by 1980. Now, for every 100 male college students, there are 130 women. 

 CC0 1.0
Is your grandmother in this photo?
Source: "Students throwing mortar boards in open field at daytime" by: CC0 1.0

I experienced that shift. When my oldest uncle heard I was going to college, he said I was going to get my "MRS." degree, not a B.A. He was not alone: women were still called “co-eds,” as if they were add-ons, not the main group. Many prestigious colleges (Harvard, Yale) were only for men; that is one reason I attended Stanford.

What do people learn in college? Not primarily facts and skills. They learn to listen, to ask questions, to ponder. 

That was the conclusion of a famous study. William Perry interviewed many college students as they progressed from their first classes to graduation. His interviewees were all male, reflecting the sexism of the era, but his study was published in 1981, (reprinted in 1999), exactly when the current grandmothers flooded the colleges. 

The results: college students advance in their thinking through nine levels of complexity over the four years, moving from a simplistic either/or dualism (right or wrong, success or failure) to a relativism that recognizes a multiplicity of perspectives. Hundreds of other studies (reviewed by Pascarella & Terenzini) show the same progression.  

In the beginning, Perry’s students thought that, if they studied hard, read every word, they would learn the right answers to the difficult questions of life. By mid college, they were frustrated, as they realized that their professors, their reading, and their fellow students had many uncertainties, disagreements, alternate ideas. That led to an unsettling relativism: if everything might be true, then perhaps nothing is. By their senior year, they understood that they needed to make a commitment to some values and ideas, while knowing that their ideas might change. 

College teaches people to listen, to understand that they do not know it all. They appreciate that people, from other places, backgrounds, ages, and sexualities, have moral, political, or religious values and practices that may also be valid.   

This is an especially important lesson for today’s grandmothers, in part because the parents of the grandchildren are older (average age at first birth now about 27, it was 21), more educated, and more diverse. Every child, and every parent, needs someone who will listen to them without authoritarian judgment: ideally today’s grandmothers – educated as well as wise — do that.

Note how recent the grandmother shift is. If a grandmother is 80, (she probably didn't attend college) she may think she knows everything about children; if she is 50 (she probably attended college), she knows she might not. Some of our cultural myths, such as opinionated, out-of-touch, grandmothers, need to take shift because grandmothers have shifted.  

The eternal values remain, of course. Grandmothers always want their grandchildren to be happy, healthy, and successful. But today’s grandmothers, ideally, keep more of their comments to themselves. They are wise enough to know that their main job is to listen.