New York — Anyone who has ever watched a concerned and loving grandparent with a responsive grandchild has beheld the kind of wonder that effuses from an easy, comfortable, and happy camaraderie.
Several new books serve as reminders of the special relationship that exists between grandparents and their grandchildren. They also describe the regrets that come from its absence. Combining professional observation and persuasion, the authors make strong pleas for strengthening the grandparent- grandchild relationship and describe the many ways it can be done.
Society, they acknowledge, has changed in recent decades. Families move around more, live miles apart, go their own ways more, see and depend on each other less. Children themselves may seem different -- more sophisticated, more widely traveled, more exposed and influenced by such new social forces as the feminist movement, working mothers, changing roles of men and women, divorces, and new behavioral patterns.
Grandparents (although they are now healthier and financially more secure) may sometimes feel benign neglect, loneliness, and alienation from their families. All the more reason, the writers claim, to shore up enormously important three-generation family networks and make them more rewarding and enriching.
Dr. Arthur Kornhaber and Kenneth L. Woodward, co-authors of "Grandparents/Grandchildren, the Vital Connection" (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, $11.95), conducted a study of 300 grandparents, and as many grandchildren, to come to a simple conclusion: Chilren nedd grandparents and grandparents need grandchildren.
Their study points to the fact that only 5 percent of US children enjoy close and regular contact with at least one grandparent. Fifteen percent, the authors estimate, never see a grandparent. About 80 percent of the children they studied see grandparents once or twice a year and often do not feel a close attachment to them. These authors found, however, that even though grandparents fill a unique place in a child's life, they have all but been ignored in contemporary discussions of the family.
The authors found that grandparents generally feel few of the emotional intensities that mark parent-and-child relationships. As a result they are freer just to be, to love, to make happy, to be an influence and a bridge between generations and between past and present.
"Children told us," the authors write, "that they felt a natural connection between themselves and their grandparents, and when that bond was broken or never acknowledged by a grandparent, the children felt wounded, as if some vital part of themselves were missing." Grandparents, too, they discovered, often felt deprived by their disconnection from their grandchildren and regretted their lost opportunities for loving and for passing on more of the family heritage.
Where the bonds between generations are weak or nonexistent, the authors blame an unstated by damaging "new social contract," which they feel controls and limits the degree of intimacy between today's grandparents and their grandchildren. They see this contract producing "disconnected grandparents" whose conversation is dotter with such telltale comments as, "Well, they have their lives and we have ours," or "I don't want to meddle or interfere, and it is probably best for us all to be independent," or "I think it would be bondage to get too involved with the grandchildren, and I don't want to get into child care and baby-sitting. It would tie me down too much." Or, "I hate the label 'grandmother" -- it makes me feel so old."
These adults, the authors say, are conned into wholly or partly detaching themselves from grandchildren and from their own instinct to nurture. They are encouraged to forget that "to exist is to be connected," and that connections are precious and to be prized and cultivated. The authors urge grandparents to revolt against the hampering "new social contract," toss it out, and assume their symbolic place as the heads of their families, rebuild their family pyramids, and through reconciliation and reunion, reknit the generations.
They encourage grandparents to be an "imaginative counterpoint" in the world of children, to be playful, to joke, to laugh and sing and dance with them. They illustrate how they can become more caring adults, advocates, guardians, and supporters of the young.
How? Listen to their suggestions: "Grandparents are oral historians and living ancestors. Children love to hear them tell stories of the 'old days,' because grandparents are living authorities on how life was before television, superhighways, frozen food, and the modern airplane. Grandparents can describe, through words and images, relatives who have died or who live far away, so that they exist for the child. They are official biographers of the children's parents, and family archivists generally. They can help transmit ethnic heritage and religious faith and moral and cultural values. They can become role models and mentors who teach out of the wisdom they have accumulated through a lifetime of experience. They can preserve those family rituals which means so much to a continuing sense of community."
"How to Grandparent," by Dr. Fitzhugh Dodson (New York: Harper & Row, $12.95) , is another book that issues a clarion call for a new "extended family, where children, parents and grandparents will all make their unique contributions to a new type of family structure, and enjoy the secure feeling of belonging to a group of people who care." Dr. Dodson, a Redondo Beach, Calif., psychologist, author, and lecturer, says this new extended family would give maturity, enrichment, and stability to the family as a unit -- contributions that are extremely important in this period of change.
No one is born knowing how to parent, or grandparent, Dr. Dodson writes, but anyone can learn. Having plenty of leisure time to spend with youngsters and having a relatively mellow attitude toward them are great helps. So is the acknowledgment that a grandparent can learn plenty from a grandchild and the fact that being a grandparent is a wonderful way to keep alive, alert, growing, and giving.
"In learning to talk with children," he writes, "the first rule is to stop talking so much and listen. Next, learn the art of asking questions of children so they feel they are participating in the conversation and not feeling quizzed."
When it comes to dealing with teen-age grandchildren, Dr. Dodson advises, "Try to be warm and understanding and as uncritical as possible. Keep a sense of humor. Listen and do not be judgmental. It is harder to be a teenager today. The temptations are greater and the supports fewer. So instead of noticing how difficult your grandchilren have become, why not notice how well they manage in spite of all the obstacles they face? And when you have good feelings about them, why not sing them out loud and clear? And when teen-agers show any kind of courtesy, why not genuinely thank them?"
He tells grandparents to try to share a skill or a hobby with a grandchild, for in doing something together side by side, you not only share knowledge but come to know each other better. A special bond is forged, the author says, when a child enjoys the undivided attention of a grandparent.
Dr. Dodson's book covers all the "ages and stages" of grandchildren, from infants through adolescents, with some helpful insights on behavior at each age. It also gives practical advice on gift-giving, visits, and discipline (or "teaching," a word he believes is preferable to discipline).
What grandparents do best can probably be summed up in the statement of a Mrs. Mason, which is recorded in the Kornhaber- Woodward book: "I think of myself as the family curator and keep old albums and old movies of all the aunts , uncles, cousins, grandparents, and I show them to the grandchildren. But really, let's get it straight. I need them. Well, I make all their favorite foods. I teach them things and tell them stories. I help them with their parents, and I help their parents with them. I take care of them and participate in their activities, like going to "school night" and other things like that. When they don't feel good I go over and comfort them. I let them know them I am always available, no matter what, but particularly in any time of stress. Mostly, I give them an awful lot of love. They really feel it and they tell me that."
The third book is "to record thoughts, memories and hopes for a grandchild." "A Grandparent's Book" was produced by James Wagenvoord and Milton Kamen and is available, by mail, from Rawson, Wade Publishers Inc., 630 Third Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017, for $12.95, plus $1 postage. It resembles a baby book, with spaces left blank for recording family history, lore, holidays, traditions, and favorite things and places. Grandparents who record their experiences, insights , and observations in such a grandparent book will have yet another way of delightning and instructing their grandchildren.