When Joan Robertson's 22-year-old son gets married, he wants to have five children. He looks forward to playing with them at home and to taking them on frequent visits to his mother's - just as he used to visit his grandparents when he was growing up.
Her son's plans for his future family's togetherness bring a welcome personal touch to Dr. Robertson's academic research. ''Some days I think, 'I'm only 49, and I'm not ready to be a grandparent yet.' Other days I think, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful!' ''
Her own lighthearted ambivalence is an echo of the comments Dr. Robertson often hears in the interviews she conducts with grandparents, parents, and grandchildren. But the more families she talks with, the more convinced she becomes that relationships between the generations are thriving.
''There's been what I would call a lot of creative debate about whether or not the family is a strong institution in the United States today,'' says the University of Wisconsin professor. ''There's also been a lot of discussion about the extent to which the nuclear family - mother, father, and immediate children - is separated from the extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. But from my own research, I know that there's high evidence of intergenerational continuity going on.''
As membership in grandparents-rights groups has steadily grown over the past year, so has interest in keeping family relationships intact in the face of the nation's staggering divorce rate. While some grandparents are lobbying US senators and state representatives for the legislated right to visit the offspring of their divorced children, other concerned individuals are pooling their talents to document what's happening and to find creative solutions to some challenging situations.
''We're just now trying to map the territory,'' says Theresa Levitin, a health scientist-administrator with the National Institutes of Health. ''The first phase of divorce research was from the point of view of the couple involved. Then it shifted to the perspective of the effects of divorce on children. Now the final generation - grandparents - is being discovered.''
One pioneer in this new field of study is Frank Furstenberg, a family sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has documented the increased emotional dependence of grandchildren on grandparents at the time of a divorce. To hear him describe the state of today's extended family is to be encouraged about its future.
''We worry about the stability and viability of family relationships, and that apprehension leads to over-exaggerated statements about the disappearence of extended family ties,'' Dr. Furstenberg says. ''But periodically we rediscover that an extended family does exist in American society, although it may appear somewhat different from the classical image. Overall, things aren't quite as bad as they appear to be when it comes to the extended family.''
Next week Dr. Furstenberg and Dr. Robertson will share their findings and projections with other invited researchers as they stroll through the gardens of Wisconsin's famed Wingspread Conference Center, the home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright that has been the site of many international think-tank gatherings over the past 20 years. Sponsored by the National Institute for the Family and the National Jewish Family Center, ''Grandparenting in a New Age'' is the first of several national conferences that will focus on grandparents this year. The University of Nebraska will host another seminar on families in the spring, and the Foundation for Grandparenting will hold its first conference on grandparents and divorce in New York in November.
''I think what all these meetings are about is getting a consensus from people who have both theoretical and practical expertise on how best to help the family,'' says Arthur Kornhaber, founder of the Foundation for Grandparenting.
In addition to the increasing visibility of grandparents-rights groups, there are a number of significant social changes behind the new focus on ''grandparenting'': four living generations in a family now is the norm, rather than three; more grandparents are moving in with their middle-generation children and their families; many older people are assuming grandparent roles in communities where newly arrived families have been separated from their own grandparents.
''Then there's the disappearance of the parenting generation,'' says Dr. Kornhaber. ''With more working mothers, there's been an abandonment of children, and grandparents have started to feel guilty about the kids being raised by strangers.''
Two years ago Dr. Kornhaber published the findings of an extraordinary national survey in his book ''Grandparents-Grandchildren: the Vital Connection'' (New York: Anchor Press-Doubleday). In interviews with 300 grandparents and grandchildren, he found that only 5 percent of the children enjoyed close and regular contact with their grandparents, and that 80 percent of them saw their grandparents only once or twice a year.
Over the past two years, there have been scattered attempts to establish new models for family relationships, from grandparent-adoption programs to group living experiments with several generations. Innovative as many of these programs are, what encourages Dr. Kornhaber and his wife, Carol, who serves as vice-president of the Foundation for Grandparenting, is the gradual turning away from dependence on peer support to what they call a ''natural family contract.''
''We're at the consciousness-raising stage now,'' Dr. Kornhaber explains. ''We're at the stage where people are beginning to think of self-esteem in terms of their importance to their families - where they're beginning to work hard at marriage, at honoring motherhood again and seeing that being away from the family isn't such a good idea.''
''There are so many grandparents who have retired and moved away from taking responsibility for their grandchildren,'' adds Carol Kornhaber. ''If they could just get back into the mainstream, they could help to tighten some of the strings that have been cut in recent years.''