When Mary LaCava’s first grandchild went off to college, she tucked a twenty dollar bill into an envelope and, using old hotel stationery, sent it off with a short note. “I figured she could use it,” she recalled. She continued the practice every week.
That was twenty years, and twelve grandchildren ago. This graduation season marks the end of the Nanagrams, as her youngest finishes college. LaCava didn’t miss a grandchild or a week.
The now- 92-year-old Massachusetts woman found it tough going during the period when three of her grandkids were in college at once. But she stuck with it, even as she traded in her old stationery for special Nanagram notes.
Some kids saved their money, others spent it. Nana continued her letters, always staying in touch. “They say, you start something, you finish it,” she explains. Her grandkids are delighted that she stuck with them.
Want to instantly drop five points in the eyes of your children or their spouses/partners/co-parents? Just use this simple phrase for immediate results.
They may not stop asking you to babysit or attend family functions, but they will do it with gritted teeth. Nothing like a disparaging comparison between the imperfect world of competing demands that parents struggle through every day, and the all-sunshine-all-the-time vision that you remember so well. Oh, and did I mention the wise and immutable rules that governed your life as a young person?
Here are a few corollaries for you to excise if In my day is not your cup of tea. When I was growing up, in my family, when I was young, offer the same easy deification of a dead time.
Maybe you had a good upbringing, maybe not. But it happened at a very specific time, in a very specific environment. Use comparisons sparingly. In my day, we never ever laid it on too thick.
As parents, we try so hard not to play favorites. Or, if we do, we do our best to hide our little indiscretions. But even when we are being fair, sometimes our kids will still complain that the other person is getting the piece of cake that has the most frosting, or is somehow getting the bigger slice of the pie.
Oh, you thought this would all go away just because your kids were grown up? You hoped that holiday time would be a pure delight, when old hurts flew away on the wings of little doves?
If the holiday is at your house: Who gets the better room? Who chooses the favorite meal? Or, if you are celebrating at the home of your delightful offspring: Whose house are you going to? How long are you staying? And the spooling out of it all, expressed or implied: Which grandchildren do you really love better?
My mother-in-law, at 98, musters her remaining mental capacities to address the sibling rivalry of her gray-haired children. She insists, as if no one had heard this script before, on doling out equal pieces of the (in her case theoretical) pie.
My friend whose children are only showing the first signs of gray has decided to make her own stand this holiday season. After years of bickering among her offspring about how many nights Grandma spends with each one, she has decided that this year, she will just put her feet up on her own footstool and stay happily at home.
You’ve got to hand it to academics; they have a way of expressing the most basic concept in the most baroque way.
Take a recent study out of Brigham Young University. It looks at what happens when grandparents who don’t live with their grandkids are close to them, either emotionally or financially, or both. (In this study, the kids are between the ages of 10 and 14.) This closeness is called affectual solidarity. And, as we old farts could have predicted, the kids who are close to their grandparents are better off than the kids who are not. The lucky kids have what is called lower levels of emotional distress and higher levels of pro-social behavior: i.e. they are happier and they do better in school.
“This high quality emotional tie is an important microsystem influence.” Well, sure it is. By the way, this microsystem influence is important regardless of income, but seems to have more of an impact in single parent households. Uh huh. The beleaguered single parent is more likely to be stretched thin.
So here is yet another reason to keep your grandparent skills sharp and available when you are thinking about the good that you can do as you move towards, or settle firmly, into, your years of decline.
Of course, further study is needed.
Sure, we know how much good we do for our grandchildren. But it’s nice to have a study from Brigham Young University that lays it all out. For fifth graders who had grandparents living near by, those who were close to them had improved social skills, like kindness and compassion, and were more engaged in school. Grandparents who helped their offspring financially, especially single parent families, were able to make a real difference in their grandchildren’s lives.
But what struck me was something that the study’s author said in explaining the results: “Grandparents are like the National Guard,” according to Jeremy Yorgason. “if there is a problem, they come in and help out.”
This makes intuitive sense. We have the special training, the experience, the tools. All we are lacking is the camo suits. We are activated in a state of emergency. We keep the peace and restore order. We represent central authority. And when it is over, we get to go home.
This just in from an Australian study reported in the journal Menopause: Since everyone knows that keeping mentally alert and socially engaged are plus factors in staving off dementia, a team of scientists decided to look at whether or not caring for grandchildren made a difference in the health of post-menopausal women. After all, they reasoned, that caretaking was something that lots of p.m. women do. Why not factor it in?
The good news is that women who care for their grandchildren one day a week had better cognition and less dementia. The bad news is that women who care for their grandchildren five days or more a week did significantly worse on the test that measures working memory and mental processing speed.
The researchers thought that this might be linked to the fact that the women who were clocking the heavy caretaking hours felt that their children were more demanding of them. (No kidding!) Maybe the family tension contributed to the negative part of the equation.
Is this like the finding that drinking a glass of red wine is good for your health? More study needed, obviously.
There is a certain category of song that somehow slipped my mind all the time that I was a parent, but has bubbled up through my grandmother brain. These are tunes that I learned as a child. At the time, they were laughably out-of-date. Now they are quaint. We are probably talking 1920s and ‘30s. They send the kids into peals of laughter every time.
One of the best is Go On Home; Your Mother’s Calling:
Go on home; your mother’s calling
Your father got stuck in the garbage can.
Go on home; your mother’s calling
They’ve come to collect your old man.
A second verse involves the dad getting stuck in the wash machine (they can’t get the laundry out clean.)
This song invites — no, demands — that everyone add their own ridiculous verse. I notice that my additions involve rhyming, as well as some relation between the place where the father gets stuck and what happens afterwards. For the smaller kids, just thinking up any new verse is giggles enough.
Oddly, this song has become a favorite part of the good night routine. You would think that the kids would want the reassurance of a soft lullaby, with protestations of love, or at least the quiet tone that helps you drift off to sleep. But maybe the funny bone must be tickled one last time before it, too, can settle in to rest.
What does it mean that you can buy a t-shirt, a onesie, a tote bag, a bib; even a house decal that announces, “What happens at Grandma’s stays at Grandma’s?”
OK; beyond the fact that we can now take a phrase and print it on pretty much anything that can hold still. (It will therefore not be stamped on an actual baby’s bottom.)
Call it bonding, call it a little harmless passive aggression toward the new ogres, the parents — the attitude is something like, I have put in my time as a disciplinarian, and now, dammit, grandmas just want to have fuu’uuu’un!
Obviously, this approach does not work with toddlers, who cannot be trusted to keep a secret. It’s most appealing for the primary school set, who can appreciate the thrill of a rule broken, and who are not yet involved with prohibitions concerning things like porn or drugs. The unauthorized dessert, the late bedtime, the movie with the wrong rating: what, after all, is the harm?
This end run around the parents may also be related to the fact that we, the disciplinarians of yore, are likely at a time in our lives when options are more likely to be closing down than opening up. So kicking up our heels can feel great. Our grandkids become our partners in family-friendly vice. Just a little bit like Vegas, baby.
The argument that post-menopausal women help to produce more offspring has been around for long time. But a study of 18th and 19th century Finnish and Canadian farm families (stable populations with excellent record-keeping) puts numbers behind this aren’t we helpful idea.
Women whose mothers were alive began having children 2.4 years earlier than women whose mothers had died. (Was this because their mothers were nagging them about getting married? The records don’t say.)
Both men and women who had a post-reproductive mother living with them, produced more children and experienced fewer childhood mortalities. Interestingly, this difference in childhood mortality connected to Grandma’s presence only kicks in after the age of two, which implies that, for the first two years, a child is the responsibility of its mother.
It also helps more if Grandma is relatively young. “Grandchild survival to adulthood is enhanced by 12% when grandmothers are under 60 at their birth, but by only 3% when grandmothers are over this age.”
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.