Keeping Grandparents Relevant

Grandparents are powerful parenting partners, but this requires a plan.

Posted Dec 06, 2013

Having worked with over 5000 families during the past 20 years, I have noticed some patterns in effective parenting. In particular, I have studied families with multiple children who all became caring, contributing and self-reliant adults.  

The parenting styles for each vary widely, but I have found at least one critical commonality: these exemplar families cultivate parenting partners. These partners are teachers, coaches, mentors, summer camp directors and other adults who love their children and share their goals with them.  After all, children get tired of hearing the same messages from their parents, so independent reinforcement from other respected role models becomes especially important in shaping their children. 

These exemplar parents seem to approach parenting as a particularly daunting task and are incredibly appreciative of the other adults that help them. 

Of all the potential partners, one group stands out as especially important: their parents (their children’s grandparents). The grandparents are deeply invested in the children and typically share their children’s parenting goals.  

I, however, have noticed a decrease in the number of grandparents that are active partners in raising their grandchildren.  Some of this is the result of geography—parents and grandparents live farther away than they did several generations before.  But much of it is cultural.

The De-Veneration of Elders 

In most societies, age was associated with experience and wisdom.  An individual who have lived a long life became a respected and venerated elder whose advice was solicited and valued.  

This is rarely the case today for several reasons. 

First, we have a society that worships youth. This requires little additional comment that is not evident by looking at the cover of magazines and watching commercials. Ads promise “youthful” skin, hair and energy.  The implied message is that age brings not wisdom, but decay. 

Second, popular entertainment has created the “myth of the idiot adult.” If you spend time watching the shows targeted at tweens, you will see a familiar pattern. Adults and parents are portrayed as fools and buffoons. Every clever idea or snappy one-liner springs from the lips of a 10-14 year-old. Often the tweens are the only solution to whatever mess the incompetent adults have created. This formula is part of the success of these shows—their audience wants to see characters like them be smart, resourceful and successful. I have no problem with that.  I, however, struggle with repeated images of adult incompetence—they effectively “de-venerate” adults.

Third, the rapid growth of technology has created a meritocracy based on technological expertise. The business news features 20-somethings that are new billionaires more than seasoned managers. At the personal level, young people compare their skills using different technologies, from video games to social media to phone apps. Being an early adopter creates status; new is better. Simply look at the ad campaign for the newest Samsung phone that mocks the iPhone as being the phone of parents and old people. This is the technological kiss of death. This focus on tech skills and newness exacerbates the de-veneration of grandparents.  

These cultural trends all reduce the respect and appreciation of older adults. 

Re-Venerating the Grandparent 

If parents want to make grandparents more effective partners, they will need to re-establish the grandparents as worthy of respect and full of wisdom. Since mainstream culture is pulling in the opposite direction, this effort to “re-venerate” the elders needs to be conscious and intentional. 

The first step begins with the parents. 

Parents should share stories about the grandparents.  In my family, we talk about my father’s efforts to deal with desegregation issues in our city and how he accepted fruit as payment for legal services rendered to poor clients.  We share newspaper articles about my mother’s volunteer successes. We tell our children about my wife’s father's military service and her mother bringing recycling to Rochester, New York. The stories deliver a consistent message to our children: your grandparents are accomplished people that have lived great lives and they can share powerful insights.  

When done correctly, the parent reframes the idea of aging from decay to wisdom. 

At this point, I suggest that grandparents create experiences that give them a “home field advantage.” The experience is most effective when the grandparent is comfortable and the grandchild slightly uncomfortable. In my mother’s case, she took each grandchild to New York when they turned 8. Suddenly, her unfamiliarity with the newest iPhone app seemed less important because she was the only person that knew what subway stop to get off on. 

Her trips were effective for several reasons:

  • They were one-on-one with the grandchild, thus sending a message that she values them as individuals.
  • They were intimidating but exciting for each of the grandchildren, thus making it memorable.
  • She managed to exhibit competencies that each grandchild lacked (how to hail a cab, navigating an airport, appreciating art), thus making her seem more capable and knowledgeable.
  • The activities highlighted her values of family, culture, adventure and conversation.

These experiences do not need to be as elaborate as long trips to far-away cities. A sporting event or a camping trip could also work as long as it includes the characteristics mentioned above (one-on-one, unfamiliar, featuring grandparent competence and sharing values). 

This is not the only plan to make grandparents more relevant in their grandchildren’s lives, but it is an effective one and worth doing. After all, we parents need all the help we can get in raising our children.