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Harvey Karp

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National Grandparent's Day: Get a Good Dose of the Grand Vitamin "G"

Posted: 09/09/2012 2:13 pm

I was in the library working on a new book when the sweet tinkle of children's laughter pulled at my attention. I looked across the grand room and spied five little munchkins -- in various states of sit, stand, and wiggle -- as Grandpa Bill unspooled his story to his rapt audience. Their eyes grew and squinted as the old man's voices and gestures propelled the characters off the page... and into their hearts.

Grandparents Day -- September 9th -- is upon us, and it's time to honor the enormous role grandparents play in society and child rearing.

The wisdom of seniors earns them the highest respect in cultures all around the world. Your six-year-old may think Nana is mostly a kissing machine that also makes trips to the ice cream store. But, grandparents enrich and guide us by recounting their exploits, chance experiences and personal values (like hard work, triumph through struggle, and resilience).

Raising children takes enormous time and attention. No wonder parents fell so much stress and fatigue. Caring for young kids without the help of one's extended family is a huge challenge... even for the most dedicated parent.

In fact, I would list the nuclear family (2 parents and a child) as one of the riskiest experiments in human history! Please don't buy into the phony idea that you're supposed to do it all alone! Few parents ever did. Asking for help in raising your kids is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of smart, loving parenting.

Until the last century, most parents got tons of help from aunts, siblings... and grandparents. We moved away from that after World War II. But, since the Great Recession, many 3-generation families are bundling together again under one roof. According to ZERO TO THREE (one of our Nation's premier child development groups), about 1 in 4 families rely on grandparents for regular child-care assistance.

The act of grandmoms helping new moms is so central to human nature it is even ingrained in our DNA! According to the "grandmother hypothesis" biologists believe that extended life -- and menopause -- may have evolved in part because older women were so valuable for helping raise children.

However, grandparent wisdom must occasionally give way to modern discoveries. While babies haven't changed at all in the last few decades, what we know about babies has certainly advanced. And, the task of merging old myths with new ideas is no easy feat.

Grandparents have to give up some strong beliefs (like, holding babies spoils them or that babies sleep safest on their bellies... both of which are totally false). They have to admit that their generation "oopsied" when they ditched some key gems of ancient wisdom, like the high value of breastfeeding and importance of swaddling.

Discipline is another issue moms and grandmothers wrestle over! Some elders claim spanking is best -- "It worked for me!" But, many new parents see smacking as a trauma that can break a child's spirit... be humiliating... and inadvertently teach it's okay for big people to hit little ones.

This information gap can spark an intergenerational culture war. Ultimately, parents have the prerogative and responsibility to choose how to raise their child. But, both sides are best off practicing tolerance and respectfully acknowledging the wisdom of the other.

Our "new and improved" society seduces many of us with its tickertape of constant tweets and blogs. It creates the delusion that now is the only important moment in history. Yet, so much of what we take for granted - our airports, schools, interstates, museums, parks...and our freedom -- was built by the muscle, sweat and sacrifice of the generations before us.

Our seniors are a national treasure, a Fort Knox of key life lessons and a precious link to our traditions and culture. They deserve to be rewarded with much more than cheap early dinners and a discount at the movies. As we labor to upgrade our bridges and roads, let us also labor to upgrade our family "infrastructure" by inviting the participation of grandparents.

So, this Grandparent's Day, ask your parents -- or an older neighbor -- over for a family lunch! Or, take your kids on a field trip to a senior center. Or, ask your school to start little forums so that the generations in your community can mingle and share stories. You, your kids, our families -- and our nation -- will be much better richer for the effort!

 
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