"Parenting, Grandparenting, and the Modern American Family" By Allen Weiss, MD, MBA, President and CEO

Parenting, Grandparenting, and the Modern American Family

September 1, 2010 - Today's society has changed with a blending of generations. Gone are the stereotyped images of a “Father Knows Best” nuclear family and a gray-haired grandparent sitting in a rocking chair. We are more like the “Brady Bunch,” but with a savvy 50+ year-old surfing on a new iPhone4.
Now we have two working parents, too many single parent homes, and the average age of a first time grandparent is a record low of 47. We also have had a technological revolution with digital natives—our kids; and digital immigrants—the rest of us.

What happens to the kids, parents, grandparents and great grandparents? Do all four generations have an advantage and a better life if they are communicative, cooperative, and desire to maximize success? Raising children and keeping families functional is more of a challenge in today's urban, fast-paced world than was the case in the pre-industrial world.

So, what works and what doesn't for today's multigenerational families?

Here are suggestions on what to do:

Communication. Understand that this is always a two-way process, which starts with listening. Studies have shown that the one-week retention rate from a normal lecture is less than 20%. Taking the time to listen empathetically among generations is an important first step to functioning well as a family unit—or for that matter, in any team, group or organization. The non-verbal cues one shares are even more important than the words we use. The same studies show that our feelings are shared and remembered even better than our words and thoughts. Taking time, and focusing on the child, parent or grandparent is critical to having everyone feel as if they have been heard.

Each summer NCH has the assistance of many teen age volunteers who interact closely with our year round adult volunteers serving patients and our community. The interaction and communication along with the mentoring are added, unexpected and unanticipated benefits for both the young folks and adults. I believe that teenagers have added advantages when they are exposed to well meaning non-parent adults. Having these additional role models who are living examples of good people as they give of themselves is so beneficial for the younger generation.

Involvement. There's no question that family involvement makes a positive difference in student and school success. Parents and grandparents who are involved and take a role, also feel better about themselves, which is a wonderful benefit for everyone. Parents and grandparents, whether they're “local” or “long distance,” can stay involved in many creative ways. The smart use of technology helps lessons the effects of distance.

Many of the newer cell phones have technology imbedded which enhances communication by adding visual to the traditional voice. Once you understand what can be performed with these new devices, distances will shrink. Sharing homemade snap shots and video clips also creates excitement and continuous engagement. Young children grow and change so quickly. Using technology will close the distance and maintain the connections.

61% of parents of 2-17 year-olds say the grandparents assist with raising the kids, according to a Nickelodeon 2008 Family Study. Grandparents helping after school, on weekends and even just babysitting for busy parents are huge satisfiers for all three generations. Long-distance parents or grandparents can take advantage of technology to connect with scheduled time and activities such as reading the same book simultaneously or writing back and forth consistently or even helping with homework.

Commitment. Investing time, energy and intellectual power with each other is also a critical attribute. Rather than sitting passively watching TV, expend some energy and have a discussion, play a board game, start a project or have the satisfaction of sharing a task. Certainly, there is a time for just relaxing or “hanging around,” but combining this refreshing time with real commitment will make both activities more satisfying for all generations.

Recently, my wife and I had the pleasure of doing some activities with our two pre-school grandchildren. My wife organized a pizza making party complete with chef's hats, rolling pin, “stop light” peppers (for our non chefs like me this is a package of three bell peppers with different colors—red, yellow, and green), and the other accoutrements of the craft. We all had pride in our product and it even tasted great.

Cooperation. Being able to give and take makes the world go around. We all have different issues at different stages of our lives. By having the flexibility to modify schedules, interests, activities, and anything else that crosses boundaries among generations makes for a better experience for all concerned.

Of course, there are certain times when we need “to do our own thing.” But many times flexibility and sharing will create a better outcome for everyone. There is a concept in the science of operations management called “sub-optimization,” which translates in plain English to everyone having a worse time or less benefit when one person takes advantage for him or herself. By looking out for everyone around you, everyone has a better experience.

Cheerleading. Positive feedback is so important and yet too rare in modern society. Children who are doing well in school have had four or five positive reinforcements for every negative, according to Ruby Payne, PhD, a noted authority on poverty. Children who are doing poorly have had two negatives for every positive.

Criticism is so easy but so hollow. How about sharing some ideas for solutions with every critical remark? Of course, we are not living in a fantasy land where everyone and everything is wonderful. We need to be positive as we seek improvement. Always being negative or being a Monday morning quarterback is not productive for any generational member.

Learning. Continuously desiring to seek and share knowledge is also very beneficial for everyone. Children thirst for new knowledge and experience. Parents constantly need to update their competencies. Grandparents traditionally have been repositories of experience. Sharing among the generations just makes sense.

Looking back as a grandparent gives a much broader, longer and more comprehensive view than any parent can have. Obviously, a child has an even narrower view which evolves with life's experiences. Each generation takes a role in helping each other through life cycle themes and events. Continuously learning from each is a core competency of successful multigenerational families. Recently, I was with a spry great-grandmother who has a weekly babysitting date with a toddler, her great grandchild. You can be sure that grandchild will remember his great grandmother and hopefully will pass the tradition forward.

Values are so important and sometimes left to society in general or others who do not share long-cherished beliefs handed down from generation to generation. Many venerated religious traditions support a value system which sustains society. Generations of families should weave what is important to themselves into each new generation. Actions speak louder than words as we all know. Being a good example is so much more important than idle chatter.

And a few thoughts on what not to do (fortunately, the positives are much more numerous).

The old adage, “spoil them and send them home” is just that—a bad old adage. This attitude or behavior is not good for any member of any generation. When temporarily substituting for a parent, a grandparent is essentially the parent. The same, I believe, goes for a college or university when the institution assumes the role of a parent. In both cases, having appropriate expectations, roles, ideas and goals is important.

A child or student can be confused by having different sets of behavior, depending on the person they are with or their environment. Consistency is comforting and beneficial. Excesses or lack of discipline creates unnecessary expectations or problems which ultimately result in disappointment and sadness.

Having the ambition to understanding the interdependence among generations will help society further mature and stabilize. We are all in this together as our world evolves and becomes smaller. With fewer resources and more people, getting along and growing will be critical.

Being in the role of a child, parent, grandparent or even a great-grandparent is special.

Knowing each other across generations adds a richness which we all should savor.

And understanding each other will make everyone happier and more successful.

Past Health Advice Articles

Dr. Allen Weiss is CEO & President of the NCH Healthcare System. He is board certified in Internal Medicine, Rheumatology and Geriatrics, and was in private practice in Naples, Florida from 1977 - 2000. Dr. Weiss is active in a variety of professional organizations and boards, and has been published in numerous medical journals, including the American Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Investigation.