A Most Important Family Bond

What it means to be a grandparent in the 21st century.
Violet Fraser

Grandparents matter. Those who are physically available are best, but even when they're far away or long dead, the importance of grandparents filters into children's lives through a mishmash of memories and myths. My maternal grandmother is entirely mythical to me because she died in childbirth when my mother was a teenager. But her raising of my mother, and the grief of its premature ending, shaped my mom and, through her, me.

Just being a grandparent makes you important to children, but being a beloved grandparent is something that must be earned. I hope I shall be remembered as warmly as my mother is remembered by my kids. While they were growing up, we shared a three-family, three-generation household, and all of us, including our grandchildren, who have heard so much about her, regret that we didn't manage to make it four.

Just as memories of grandparents vary, so do the realities of grandparent-parent-child relationships. The myth of family fragmentation, for instance, says that we don't have extended families anymore. And while it's true that families have changed more rapidly in the last 20 years than ever before -- and are still changing -- grandparents are also living longer, more active lives, and it's only a minority who have pulled up stakes and retired to Florida. In many parts of many states, perhaps especially in cities, at least one grandparent lives close enough to see at least one family of grandchildren as often as every week.

People say it's their age that makes grandparents special to children: the calm and lack of rushing that come from being retired and elderly, the stories and games from another era. That may be true for some grandchildren, but many of today's grandparents (including me!) are not yet retired and are no less stressed or rushed than their grown-up children. As for elderly, the youngest grandmother I know is 38 years old and could easily be her grandchildren's mother. Far from being a source of old stories, she's a whiz on the Internet.

I know from experience (four times over so far) as well as observation just how close, even magical, relationships between grandkids and grandparents can be, but I have a different take on the reason. From a child's perspective, I think what's uniquely important about a grandparent is that he or she is an adult who knows you (since forever), loves you, and can take care of you and who also loves and is loved by your parents. That's the safest and most comfortable feeling in the world. If Mom were ill, Gran would come not just to take care of you but to take care of Mom. If Grandpa offers an indulgence that's forbidden at home, it's naughty enough to be fun. No wonder 3- to 6-year-olds are so keen on learning the ramifications of family relationships and so fascinated by grandparents' stories and by photographs of their parents as little kids.

If the children trust a grandmother because they know that she loves and cares for them and for their mother, and the mother trusts the grandmother because she knows she loves the children and herself, that grandparent can be a steadying fourth leg whenever the three-legged family is feeling wobbly. She doesn't have to be retired and looking for something to fill her days to be there for her grandchildren, whether it be as a confidant, a haven, or a treat.

However busy Grandma and Grandpa may be, they are extra people your children love and welcome and who might find time to attend a school function or step in for a weekend when both parents are out of town. Even if grandparents can't provide routine daycare for your baby, they are your best bet during every kind of emergency. And during those times when you're out of your mind with worry about your child's behavior and everyone else is bored to death with your going on about it, it's the grandparents who will ask and listen -- and manage to be on your side without being against your child.


1 Comment

  1. I have read way too many of these posts about grand parents. Some are very useful & have good advise. None I have found cover the grand parents that cannot afford and/or due too health can't travel to see their grand children, nor can we afford all the modern day tech stuff. I among many I personally know are in this position and have to bare the hurt. Many times made worse by the grand children's parents. None of the articles bring up the point that if a grand parent is in that position the parents attitude and commitment can & do make a difference. This has become a very serious problem for us seniors on limited, fixed income. I never knew any of my grand parents but my parents told me about them, let us know that they loved us but due too circumstances were unable to visit or be there. They were Grandma/Grandpa & their 1st name. We were taught to love & respect them. It was a great treat when we got cards for our birthdays etc. It was appreciated that they thought enough of us to send them. But my parents understood and encouraged the relationship. Not like today when a parent resents you because you can't be there to take part in the family. Or they go so far as to go visit a grand parent in the same state as you but don't even bother to call or give you the opportunity to try & meet up with them. Yes it is a true blessing to be able to be with your grand children & the lucky ones that can. Not everyone has the resources to do so. Yet the ones that can see them on a regular basis get the favored treatment. It makes me very upset that most everything is put on the grand parent when in fact it takes the parents to also commit & make the relationship work. So what is wrong with all these articles????

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