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Marilyn Heins: The connection between grandparents and grandchildren

Marilyn Heins: The connection between grandparents and grandchildren

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Marilyn Heins

When I was a little girl, all I had to do to see my grandparents and aunt was dash down a flight of stairs and run into their flat. The door was always open.

My children had to be driven in a car for 45-plus minutes across a city to see one set of grandparents and get on a plane to see the other set. My grandkids? It takes either an airplane ride or a very long drive in a car for them to visit me.

Living in my extended family was a big plus for me. My grandmother made me yummy lunches when I came home from elementary school. Children in those days were sent home for lunch and my mother worked. My grandfather took me to Sunday movie matinees. My aunt took me to the park zoo and to hear operas. Opera and cinema are among my entertainment drugs of choice to this day.

My parents could not afford a piano so I went downstairs to practice on Grandma’s old black upright. We sometimes listened to scratchy old Caruso recordings on a Victrola. I heard true tales about their childhood in Russia. I also loved my grandfather’s tall tales like being chased by a wolf. He saved himself by getting into a barrel and rolling down the hill faster than the wolf could run.

Later when we moved to our own house, the black dial telephone connected us frequently and my grandparents visited us every Sunday. I begged for more stories and Grandma and Grandpa asked me about school. They always arrived with a book from their house. Not a children’s book but one from their library. Some I did not read for many years but those books made me feel so grown-up! I adapted the strategy of always buying books ahead of a child’s age.

Besides death and taxes there is one more thing we can all be sure of today: change. “Oh, the changes you will see!” to paraphrase Dr. Seuss. We live in a rapidly changing world where technology and science advance quicker than my grandfather’s barrel.

Thomas Freidman of the New York Times writes that the old binary left/right way of thinking about issues and world problems isn’t going to work now. Things are accelerating too fast. He quotes Linton Wells: “To find the solutions to today’s wicked problems you should never think in the box and never think out of the box. You have to think without a box.”

Heather McGowan, a future-of-work strategist, says things we have to make decisions about are so interdependent, “our old two-dimensional grid with its binary choices … requires a more complex, three-dimensional set of policy tools and responses.”

The way I look at it, if we have the new tasks of adjusting quickly plus having to think in a whole new way, we certainly need the perspectives of both age and youth. We need grandparents and grandkids to keep talking to one another and learning from one another. There is enough division in our crazy world!

The extended family may be scattered to the four corners of the world, but grandparents can and should teach the grandchildren about their world and the children should teach us about theirs. My 7-year-old grandson received a birthday present that teaches him how to code, which he mastered and promised to bring me on his next visit. I have no intention of writing computer code in my old age but always wondered how it is done. Like my grandparents, I always bring and send books that are a challenge.

I ask my grown grandchildren real questions because they know things I do not. There are also rapid cultural changes I want to know more about. I ask a lot of. “What does it feel like to ...?” and “Do many kids feel the same as you do about…?

My advice to today’s grandparents? Stay connected to your grandchildren in all ways possible — in person whenever it can be arranged. When you are separated by geography, the telephone, texting, Facebook, and FaceTime are a gift to grandparents.

I get an occasional question from a grandparent who is not technically savvy. My advice is to develop a relationship with a computer ASAP. Don’t let technology scare you. Even though your computer can do everything but bake banana bread, start out with just email and Googling.

I have learned computers get cranky sometimes and do not behave as expected. Learn to save your work frequently and perform a restart to help the crankiness. It’s like when you get up and make yourself a cup of tea.

One writer friend says she knows how to do very little on her beloved computer but what she knows she knows very well! I have a computer guru to help me out by phone when a restart does not work. Everybody knows computers do these things only when there is a looming deadline.

l learned how to text when I realized it was the best way to reach grandkids these days. My clumsy fingertips can type out a short message like “Call me.” or “Check the email I just sent.” For me, typing is easier on a real keyboard. And reading on a big screen is easier than reading on a smartphone.

I call to ask my grandchildren about their school or job but I also ask for their take on the world today. It is fascinating to cross the generations gap. I learn much about these people I love and about the Land of Youth they live in. I also ask what their friends think, too. As I don’t query any adults about their love life or criticize what they are wearing, I don’t do these things to my grown grandchildren either.

The relationship between grandparents and grandchildren is vitally important to both. It is not a one-way street, we learn from each other. Remember “Don’t ask, don’t tell?” Grandparents should both ask and tell but in the reverse order. Tell your grandchildren about your life, your victories and your defeats, even your mistakes. When an older person shares, the younger ones get the message that it’s OK for them to share.

Some families find it easier to talk than others do. They see each other as often as possible spending time together feasting and catching up on what everybody is doing. A bold grandparent could share feelings about aging to start a deeper conversation ball rolling.

I saw a cute cartoon many years ago. Child: “I love my mother; she’s like a grandmother to me!” Grandparents are able to transcend daily parenting interactions into sharing facts and feelings. Let’s use this ability to teach our grandchildren about aging and to learn about youth today.

Dr. Heins welcomes your questions. Send email to

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