I was lucky; I lived close to both sets of my grandparents. My mom’s parents lived in Brooklyn, an hour subway ride away, and my dad’s parents lived in Washington Heights, the very northern part of Manhattan, about 40 minutes on the A train. And they played a big part in my life growing up. Each one of my grandparents taught me something special, something important, in fact much of what I know and hold dear I learned from these four people.
I wanted my three kids to have this experience too, even though they live across the country from their grandparents. In this age of email, Facebook and FaceTime or Skype, keeping in touch isn’t hard, even if you live across country. And we did take advantage of these new means of communication. But we also made spending time with grandparents in person a priority. And our parents did too, attending graduations and visiting us.
I know from personal experience what grandparents can mean in a kid’s life. It turns out that research backs that up. Studies show that “children find unique acceptance in their relationships with grandparents, which benefits them emotionally and mentally… Sometimes they’re playmates for their grandchildren. They’re very often role models and mentors for younger generations. They are also historians — teaching values, instilling ethnic heritage, and passing on family traditions.” And research also suggests that “early involvement with grandparents helps to foster enduring family bonds and may provide a model of intergenerational relations that grandchildren can later emulate.”
In “Why Grandparents are VIPs”, Susan V. Bosak, points out many benefits to grandchildren from relationships with their grandparents. One benefit she mentions particularly resonated with me. Grandparents make grandchildren feel special, even spoiling them at times. I vividly remember snuggling up to my Grandma Helen in her bed after my sister and I slept over at my grandparent’s house. She would paint our fingernails red (just like hers) much to my mom’s horror. We were five and six. She also let us eat Pop-Tarts and other forbidden foods. Somehow we knew that these were special “Grandma’s House” activities and did not expect them to happen at home. But it drove my mom crazy—until she became a grandma herself and let my kids watch cartoons while eating Cocoa Puffs.
But the major thing both my grandparents gave me and my parents give to my kids, is unconditional love and undivided attention. I especially felt this from my Grandma Anna. Her smile wrapped me in her love. She made me feel special by really listening to what I said and encouraging me to find what I loved to do, not what others wanted me to do. Her impact on me was so great that I named my daughter after her.
My mother-in-law got down on the floor to play whatever game each child wanted to play and was a smiling and happy participant in building legos, dressing up dolls or playing board games. My mom allowed big messes to happen in the name of experimentation. Whether it was painting, playing with clay or building a science experiment, she was a willing and encouraging participant with way more tolerance for chaos than I could have had. As a full time mom, I was grateful for the break and loved sitting back reading a book and watching.
Grandparents can introduce their grandchildren to new activities and ideas, and are often very patient and effective teachers. Knowledge, skills, and attitudes children pick up from grandparents tend to stick with them through life. My Grandpa Chaim taught me how to play gin rummy and how to win and lose graciously. I still love the game and have long Rummy 500 contests with my youngest son. My Grandpa Chaim always stood up for the underdog, yet never ever raised his voice in anger. He is still my hero of how to be kind and compassionate yet never waiver from what you believe or think is right.
And my kids love crossword puzzles, silly puns and eating Sachertorte because these are some of the activities that their Pa, my dad, shares with them when they are together. And they all have an intense love of history and politics and an obsession with pirates from their other grandfather, Old Bear.
The opportunity for traditions, family history, skills, and values to be exchanged across three generations of family members is another benefit of relationships between grandparents and grandchildren. Through stories told at family vacations or around the dinner table when grandparents visited, my children have learned from both of my parents and my husband’s father, that, even if you live through the trauma of war or through poverty, you can overcome through hard work and the love and support of a strong intergenerational family. But not everything that is shared is serious. There are also silly family traditions that get passed down and become part of the connection we share across generations.
Along with history and traditions, we also learn about relationships. My dad’s father, Grandpa Emanuel, thought my Grandma Helen walked on water (I agreed) and he showed his love in many ways. He held my Grandma’s hand under the dinner table – wow. Despite working a long day, he did the food shopping and the dishes every night to help her, not a common practice in the early 1960s. He had a big impact on my ideas about a good marriage.
As I mentioned, I was lucky, I lived near my grandparents growing up. My two grandmothers attended my wedding and were part of my life until I was in my early 30s. And I’ve watched the relationship between my kids and their grandparents blossom, even across the miles. There is great value to these relationships. But if grandparents are not around or the relationship is not good, aunts and uncles or other adult mentors can and do serve a similar role and have a similar impact. Much has been written about the role of adult mentors beyond parents and their impact on children. .
But if grandparents are around in your life or in the life of your children, take time to deepen the bond through time spent together and story telling—celebrate them this year on September 10.
Take the time to learn about grandparents!
If your your your kids’ grandparents are still around, take the time to learn more about them and even write the stories down. Often the first step in saving family stories is learning them, and that means asking questions. Get 5 to get you started.