How old were you when you realized that your parents weren’t the omnipotent beings you thought they were? I was about midway through second grade, and on a family visit to grandma and grandpa’s several hours’ drive from where we lived. Most of the time I still lived in that bubble that surrounds the luckiest of us when we’re very young – the one that kept us happily insulated from the stressors our parents faced each and every day: finances, work responsibilities, school schedules, and the countless little (and sometimes big) crises that invariably punctuate family life. But the walls of that bubble were starting to let more and more in as I got a little older. It’s not just that we were facing more challenges as a family; I was starting to get the glimmer of an understanding of how tough a job it was to be a parent, and how much emotional support mom and dad needed – especially when my brothers and I were very young.
So there were mom and dad, sitting at grandma and grandpa’s tiny kitchen table, drinking coffee and getting the quiet but earnest advice about handling four young boys, a household and…well, you get the picture. For the first time, I’d got a glimmer of how much my grandparents were involved in the family. Sure, we kids knew and loved them as the nice older people who showered unconditional affection on us when we visited several times a year. But they were far more than just the folks who fed us heaps of amazing Polish cooking until we could barely get up from the dinner table, told wonderful stories about growing up in the 1920s, handed out the best Christmas presents, and then sent us on our way. Aside from the few, but valuable hours we spent together, they were a continuous background presence in our family, propping up mom and dad when they were at their lowest and most uncertain, and felt like they were stumbling as the caregivers and educators they wanted to be.
We know how critical it is for the healthy development of young children that they begin their lives with the benefit of stable, secure environments and loving, supportive relationships with adults. Yet, we are sometimes less attuned to the needs of the parents who are responsible for providing those experiences. The Internet may have put huge reservoirs of practical information at our disposal, but there is only so much these kinds of tools can do to offset the enormous mental, emotional and physical demands involved in raising young children. Even the most resilient, resourceful parents will struggle at times with their own limitations in meeting the needs of their kids, which is why grandparents have traditionally played an essential role not only as providers of knowledge, but of insight and emotional support for their adult children.
The need for those supports remains constant, but the roles of parents and grandparents are changing rapidly. Although the extended family seems to be making something of a comeback after several decades of apparent fragmentation, many families face ever larger obstacles in maintaining strong intergenerational bonds. The time and attention that grandparents once could give to their families have been eaten away by the fact that increasing numbers of older Americans are obligated to work beyond the traditional age of retirement. Grandparents struggle to maintain a work-life balance that previous generations did not need to negotiate in their later years. Family mobility has made it more and more common that grandparents are separated from their children and grandchildren by significant geographical distances. All in all, the chats at the kitchen table, or the family jaunts to the park with the grandkids just aren’t as feasible as they once were.
Sunday, September 7 is Grandparents Day. It’s worth taking a little time not only to celebrate the important role grandparents play directly in children’s lives, but to reflect on what’s changed in the landscape of the modern family, and how we can find ways to accommodate those changes so parents can still benefit from the experience and insight of the previous generation. Now that I’ve made the transition to parenthood myself, the quiet chats at grandma and grandpa’s kitchen table have given way to Skype accounts and social media – different venue, same function. Like our own parents before us, we need sources of wisdom and understanding to help us fulfill our role as educators and caregivers for our youngest children. We also need to recognize how vulnerable we are to being overwhelmed by our responsibilities. Being mindful about keeping grandparents involved in that work can be crucial in how well we rise to the challenge. With any luck, our own children will have a good example to work from by the time they become parents themselves.
Mike Medwick, Senior Communications Associate