The Grandparent Effect: Superb New Resource for Families

Posted on March 16, 2015 at 3:51 pm

I am a huge fan of Olivia Gentile’s new website, The Grandparent Effect, a warm, wise, and highly informative resource for parents, grandparents, and caregivers. As she explains,

Grandparents are healthier, wealthier, and longer-lived than ever before.

What does this mean for us all?

On this site, I consider the growing importance of grandparents to their children and grandchildren.

I hope to entertain you.

And I hope to turn everything you thought you knew about grandparents upside down.

The site features all kinds of guidance and commentary, including the best picture books about grandparents and grandchildren and heartwarming thoughts by writer Lois Wyse on what it felt like when her first grandchild was born.  She reports on grandparents in the news, from Hillary Clinton’s #grandmothersknowbest hashtag in her tweet on vaccines to the grandpa who trucked in snow for his granddaughter to play with and the Congressman who is proud of his transgender grandchild.  And she welcomes the stories of families about their own experiences.

Olivia generously took time to answer my questions about what grandparents can give their grandchildren and about the challenges and conflicts in maintaining the relationship across three generations.

Olivia Gentile, photo by Deborah Copaken, copyright 2015
Olivia Gentile, photo by Deborah Copaken, copyright 2015

Where did the idea for the site come from?

My dad’s mother and both of my mom’s parents were hugely important to me, especially when I was a young adult.

My dad’s mom lived in Boston, so when I was growing up in Washington, D.C., she was a plane ride away. But I ended up at Harvard for college, and that’s when our relationship blossomed.

My college years were rough. Early on, I developed a horrible case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it wasn’t properly diagnosed or treated until after I graduated.

I did try to get help during college, but no one at the campus health center seemed to know what to do with me. It was the early 1990s, and clinicians didn’t know nearly as much about OCD as they do now.

So I didn’t have a good psychiatrist, but I had my grandmother, who lived three T stops away from campus in an apartment building for senior citizens.

My grandmother didn’t really believe that there was anything wrong with me, so I didn’t discuss my problems much with her.

But she baked me wonderful lasagnas, took me downstairs to visit with her friends, and told me stories about the guy down the hall who had a crush on her. (It wasn’t requited.)

All that love helped me a lot.

And then, in my sophomore year, I began to realize that someone else in my family had a terrible case of anxiety: my mom’s father.

I’d only known my mom’s parents casually when I was growing up, even though they lived in Washington, too.

They were close to my mom, but I think by the time my sister and I came along, they weren’t too keen on spending time with screaming kids. And once we were more civilized, we got busy with school and friends.

But slowly, when I was in my early 20s and my grandfather was in his early 80s, he and I started opening up to each other about our respective problems. He probably had OCD, too, but his psychoanalyst, whom he’d been seeing daily for 40 years, called it “free-floating anxiety.”

It was such a relief to be able to talk to someone who understood what I was going through. And he had a great sense of humor about his anxiety and life in general.

Soon, he and my grandmother were two of the most important people in my life.

My dad’s mother, the one in Boston, died in 1997, a year after I finished college, but my mom’s parents both lived long enough to steer me through my 20s. My mom’s father died in 2005, at age 93, and her mother died in 2011, at 94.

I got the idea for The Grandparent Effect not long after that.

My grandparents had saved me. And I suspected that there were millions of people all over the country who’d been saved by their grandparents, too.

I wanted to tell my family’s story, and I wanted to collect stories from other families, too.

What are your most cherished memories of your grandparents?

My dad’s mother took me to Disney World twice when I was little, and I have vivid memories of the fun we had together, particularly on the rollercoaster Space Mountain.

My favorite memories of my mom’s parents are from my 20s. After college, I worked a newspaper reporter in New England, but I’d fly to Washington often to spend weekends with them, and we always had a blast.

They lived in Dupont Circle, so that’s where a lot of our adventures took place.

They really liked taking me to Restaurant Nora to eat fancy organic dinners. Other nights, we’d round up a bunch of my friends and take them to the Brickskeller, which served beer from around the world.

During the day, my grandmother and I would pop in to the Phillips Collection and Kramerbooks. And we’d always spend a little time at Secondi, a clothing consignment store. She had a great fashion sense, and she’d help me choose my work clothes and the dresses I needed for friends’ weddings.

Other times we’d just hang out at my grandparents’ house. My grandmother and I would read novels and the paper while my grandfather watched Court TV.

What are some of the most important things grandparents can teach their grandchildren?

I think grandparents can teach their grandkids perspective.

I went through a bunch of breakups in my 20s, and whenever a relationship ended I’d call my mom’s mother in tears, convinced that it was the end of the world.

Instead of telling me I was wrong, she’d tell me stories.

As a teenager and a 20-something, she’d had several ill-fated romances, including one that imploded because she was Jewish, her boyfriend was Catholic, and their families disapproved.

But, in retrospect, she was glad things had worked out the way they had. Her marriage to my grandfather hadn’t always been easy, but by the time they were in their 70s they were deeply in love.

These days, so many families are spread out, with generations often living hundreds of miles from each other. What can grandparents do to stay in close touch with their grandchildren?

Actually, contrary to what most people think, extended American families are probably no more spread out today than they were a century ago, according to sociologists.

In other words, grandchildren and grandparents are no more likely now than they were 100 years ago to live far apart from one another.

Isn’t that surprising? I was certainly surprised when I came across that research.

What’s more, multigenerational households are making a comeback. They were common before World War II, declined in popularity after the war, and have been resurging since 1980.

I didn’t know that, either, until I began this project.

So a lot of kids live near their grandparents, and many even share a roof with them.

That said, you’re right that in many, many families, distance is a big and painful issue. The good news is that it’s much easier to keep in touch with far-flung family members than it used to be.

Many long-distance grandparents Skype with their grandkids. Others text and email with them. And in a lot of families, three or even four generations communicate with one another on Facebook.

Of course, grandparents and grandkids would rather actually see one another.

In addition to visiting with their grandkids during holidays, many grandparents host them for a week or two of “camp” every summer.

Increasingly, grandparents and grandkids are traveling together, too—sometimes with and sometimes without the middle generation. I interviewed one grandmother who plans to take each of her grandchildren on a special trip upon his or her thirteenth birthday.

What are some of the primary sources of conflict between grandparents and parents?

Sugar, babysitting, and money.

Of course, there are plenty of other sources of conflict, but those three subjects come up again and again in my interviews with both parents and grandparents.

A lot of parents worry that their kids’ grandparents give them too many sweets, even when they’ve asked them not to. In some families, it’s the reverse: grandparents worry that their adult children allow too many sweets.

This might sound like a small issue. But in many families, grandparents watch their grandkids several times a week, so it’s challenging if they’re at odds with the kids’ parents about food.

Speaking of which, I’ve interviewed a lot of families in which grandparents and parents have different notions of how much babysitting the grandparents should be doing.

In most of these families, the parents wish the grandparents would make themselves available to babysit more often than they do. But I also know a couple of grandparents who’d like to be regular babysitters to their grandkids but aren’t getting many gigs.

Finally, I’ve talked to a number of grandparents who wish their grown children didn’t need so much financial help from them. And I’ve talked to a number of parents who appreciate the help they’re getting from their own parents but worry that it’s threatening their autonomy.

Can you imagine what kind of grandmother you’d like to be?

This is something I think about a lot, especially since my 25-year-old stepdaughter, Lexi, got married last summer.

She and her husband don’t intend to have kids right away, but it’s likely that my husband and I will welcome our first grandchild before too long, and certainly before our daughter, Madeline, who’s now 5, is a teenager.

The problem is that Lexi and her husband live out West. If they end up staying there, we’ll have to settle for occasional visits with their kids.

We’ll see what happens. Maybe they’ll decide to settle in New York, where both of Lexi’s parents live, or in Cleveland, near her husband’s parents.

If they raise their kids here in New York, maybe my husband and I will volunteer for a day of babysitting each week, but that depends on how busy we are with work and Madeline at that point.

Right now I can’t fathom where we’d find the time to babysit, but we’d try to carve it out—both to help Lexi and her husband and to enrich our own lives. Besides, Madeline would make a great hands-on aunt.

My husband and I have already talked about how we’d like to start college funds for our grandchildren, and I’m sure we’ll want to spring for occasional vacations for all three generations. So we’ll help our kids and grandkids a little financially, too.

One thing I’m sure I won’t be doing with my grandkids is cooking. I’m wretched in the kitchen.

On the other hand, maybe when my grandkids are all grown up, they’ll teach me to cook. So I guess I should keep an open mind.

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