In case you thought that grandparenting was about posing for photos with adorable toddlers, that is just the beginning. The really good news is that, if you live long enough, and stay reasonably close, those young charmers can grow up to be an actual help to you, and vice versa.
A new study from Boston College shows that having a close relationship with our adult grandkids can have a measurable effect — “fewer symptoms of depression for both generations,” according to Assistant Professor of Sociology Sara Moorman.
The grandparents who benefit most are those who are able to both give and receive help. The grandparents who fared worst only received help. That might be because they were in the worst shape, but we all know people who are ailing or are down and out, but are still able to give — advice, companionship; maybe just act as a touchstone for values or ideals (What would Grandma say?)
For the young adults, the rewards can be considerable — love, advice, a sense of continuity; a confirmation of their place in the world.
And let’s not forget, on both sides, fun and adventure. Each generation gets a guided tour to an exotic world.
It starts as advice to the mother-of-the-groom: wear beige and keep your mouth shut.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if you have a tendency to spew unsolicited opinions and pronouncements, and if beige is your color. Lesson one: this is not your wedding.
It continues as a grandmotherly truth universally acknowledged: Do not give guidance of any kind. Butt out. Say nothing. Hold your tongue. Lesson two: this is not your baby; not your family.
But could anything so uni-dimensional tell the whole story?
Let’s assume that, after all these years, you have some modicum of self knowledge, an ability to read a situation, modulate your behavior. You might just notice that, although this is not your nuclear family, it is your extended family. And the poor beleaguered new parents (and hopefully they become somewhat less-beleagured as time goes on) are wolfing down mommy blogs, parenting books, and parenting get-togethers both in person and online. They are looking for advice. They are aching to commiserate. They are hungry for ideas, inspiration….on subjects which you know only too well.
If you are a controlling person who does not get along with your children, go back to the part of this column that talks about wearing beige and saying nothing. Stop there. But if you have some distance, if you have some control of your actions, remember that you have the perspective and the memory that is not available to parents who are in the thick of it.
Luckily you are available to them. But only in limited doses. Just because you can open your mouth does not mean that you should not shut it as well.
There’s a Senegalese proverb: “The grandmother’s heart is the school where one prepares for life.”
But what if westernization has made that heart less available to young people, especially girls?
The standard practice for health and development workers looking to change unproductive traditional behaviors, like female genital mutilation, teenage pregnancy, and forced marriage, is to focus on the younger generation, which distances them from their tribal culture.
But in Senegal, The Grandmother Project has taken the opposite tack. It might seem counter-intuitive to enlist village grandmothers, the people responsible for FMB/C (female genital mutilation and cutting) but this approach has been very successful in a series of programs.
They begin by helping all members of the community to talk together about what has gone right, and then to decide what practices they want to end. When grandmothers understand the long term effects of some traditional practices, it is they who become the agents of real change. They use their storytelling, dancing, and singing to teach their lessons and reclaim their legacy — strong, nurturing communities.
One local teacher put it this way: “Culture for a people is like water for a plant.”