I grew up with my paternal grandparents maybe 20 minutes away by car. I spent hours and hours with them. Imagining. Pretending. Climbing the huge, ancient grapefruit tree. They sent me to vacation Bible school at their church, and I made a “Trust in the Lord” plaque out of shellacked kidney beans.
I grew up with my maternal grandparents maybe 35 minutes away by car. I spent hours and hours with them. Imagining. Pretending. Taking years off my life breathing their secondhand cigarette smoke. (To this day, I think fondly of my grandpa whenever I smell a Zippo lighter and hear the “kuh-clank” of it opening.) They took me to Disneyland, Mexico and the Phoenix Zoo.
I grew up with present, active grandparents. They knew me. Loved me. Protected me. I was in the sixth grade when my dad’s dad died. A freshman in college when my mom’s mom died. Then my namesake grandpa died. Finally, at 95, my paternal grandmother died. I was 32.
Only 20 years later, and I feel like my childhood is an artifact, exhumed from an archaeological dig.
My children know their grandparents, and are blessed at that. But not the way I knew mine.
My kids’ grandparents are four to six hours away by car. They see the elders maybe two to six times each year. But none of my three boys will remember hours and days of staying with them. Instead, they will remember visiting them. Nice, but not the same.
And my kids might already be a minority! A swelling number of American kids are barely cognizant of some nice little ol’ lady who lives in Philadelphia. Birthday cards and Christmas presents come from her. Occasionally the kids are herded to the phone for an awkward conversation with this veritable stranger. And that’s it.
I’m a professional public speaker. In the past couple of years, the most requested presentation is called “The Top Five Cultural Devolutions of the Past 100 Years in America.” I mean by that things we’ve radically changed and normalized that have cost us dearly in the equation of what it means to be human.
No. 2 on my list is the casual subordination or even discarding of the power and importance of grandparent relationships as it regards the rearing of whole, healthy children.
Grandparents are Big Medicine. Huge. In hunter/gatherer societies, or later agricultural societies, the elders did the bulk of child care and child rearing. Younger, more able-bodied parents worked every waking hour just to squeeze out a living. While Mom and Dad worked, Grandma and Grandpa were primarily responsible for passing along the legacy of the family “story,” the traditions, the values, the religion.
Four factors are chiefly responsible for this devolution:
1. Our culture is ageist and deathaphobic. We keep “old” and “dying” as far away from us as possible. We normalize the idea that “it’s a hardship” if an aging parent lives with you, or even very close to you. The elders have bought into the idea, too; most middle class people think in terms of “not being a burden on my children.” Translation: Have enough money when you’re old to be able to afford assisted living.
It’s ridiculous. Lucky children have whole, authentic lives. That means they see people get really old. They see them weaken. They see them die. This is not a bad thing. It’s a venerable thing. Why do I even have to type that?
2. Our culture idolizes The Individual and The Nuclear Family is The Individual’s natural extension. Tons of modern parents have no more precious driving ethos than “butt out … mind your own business,” and this includes you, grandparents!
Ladies and gentlemen, that’s not merely arrogant. It’s insane.
3. Then there’s the idol of “Mobility In Service to Vocation & Money-Making.” We go wherever the primo job beckons, even if it means putting 2,000 miles between ourselves and our kids’ grandparents.
4. Divorce rates have skyrocketed in the past century, and divorce often complicates already geographically challenged relationships. Often the “bad blood” of divorce estranges grandparents from grandkids. In the past 20 years, grandparent visitation rights have made some headway in the courts. But several times each year a weeping grandma or grandpa will be in my office telling their broken-hearted story of how the death or divorce of their son/daughter has left them with no access to their grandchildren.
Faithful parents make a priority out of fostering, promoting and facilitating rich and present relationships between the children and the elders. When we dismiss the elders, and worse, normalize their subordination or absence from our children’s lives, the tribe is made smaller, weaker, and poorer.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.