Reviving the Role of Grandparents

One of the interesting stories told by Justice Clarence in his best-selling memoir, My Grandfather’s Son, was the relationship between his son, Jamal, and his great grandfather.  As a child, Justice Thomas, in the absence of his father, was raised by his paternal grandfather who was, by all accounts, a strict disciplinarian.  However, the relationship between the Justice’s own son and his great grandfather was loving, doting and kind. He spoiled his great grandson to no end, which greatly perplexed the Justice.  When he questioned his grandfather about this, his grandfather replied unhesitatingly, “Jamal is not my responsibility.”  Justice Thomas’s relationship with his grandfather provides an interesting insight into the role that grandparents play in the lives of children today.

While parents have traditionally held the responsibility for the well-being, education and sustenance of their children, grandparents have a more advisory role.  In corporations, which can be thought of as families, executives have day-to-day responsibility for management and making the tough decisions. Their boards of directors, wizened veterans of business, can be thought of as grandparents, who do not have the responsibility of running the company, but provide valuable direction and counsel to the corporation.  Grandparents, like boards of directors, generally don’t get involved in the daily affairs of the corporation.

The benefits of wisdom and cultural continuity provided by grandparents cannot be overestimated. While corporate board members do not actually go out and make money for the company, their role is nonetheless considered to be so key to the success of the company that entire industries are dedicated to evaluating the quality of corporate boards. Prominent citizens whose expertise is completely unrelated to that of the company are widely sought for their wisdom and knowledge of business culture in general. Similarly, grandparents play a role in keeping the heritage of families and communities in tact. In addition, rather than relegating retired executives to the dregs of society, sitting on boards keeps them engaged and gives them a sense of contribution.  Grandparents, often past their working years, yearn to be needed by society, and often feel pushed out of the way by the younger, more energetic generation.  But healthy families and communities incorporate the role of grandparent as an essential part of the social fabric. They are revered, listened to, and made to feel important.

Unfortunately, in many cases in today’s society, the role of Grandparents has evolved into that of a surrogate parent. Whether because of necessity (single parent homes and homes with two working parents are at an all-time high) or desire (many grandparents today worry that their children aren’t parenting properly), more grandparents than ever before are losing their role as mentor, friend, supporter, and spoiler and becoming more like a parent — a disciplinarian, decision-maker, and even a bread-winner. Although some opine, and I agree, that in the absence of a parent a grandparent is the best alternative, I believe that without traditional grandparent involvement, kids suffer.

Because the family unit is more stressed than ever before, and because people are more transient than at any time in history, the role of Grandparents, and the extended family in general for that matter, has been changed, lessened, and in some cases eliminated all-together. I personally know many families who live thousands of miles away from their nearest relative. This means that the children grow up with fewer adult influences in their lives. So, instead of hearing four or five or ten adult voices, they hear one, two, or maybe three. Thus, they are only exposed to one set of ideas, views, and styles. They come to know adults as authoritative, stressed, busy, and mean. When grandparents are involved however, kids experience an entirely different child-adult relationship.

Grandparents must adapt to today’s realities in order to remain influential in the lives of their grandchildren. They can and must utilize technology if they want to stay involved in their grandchildren’s lives. Creating a bedtime story pod cast, emailing a photograph slideshow, taping a video, or even sending an email, text-message, or  a message from Myspace can reduce the distance between a thousand-mile-away relationship. The traditional letter or phone call can only go so far with kids today. Grandparents these days must utilize all the options, and take advantage of every available opportunity to develop relationships with their grandchildren.

But, no matter the technology that helps connect us, there is nothing more important than spending real, hard time with kids. Grandparents near and far, must revive the role they are meant for — doter, spoiler, friend, supporter, and lover of their grandchildren.