In many ways, the memories I have of my grandparents are even stronger than the ones I have of my parents.
My brother and I spent many a weekend under our grandparents’ heels in their tiny home. We had sleep-outs and cook-outs on the patio. Ice-skated on the neighboring lake. Watched toads splash in the pond on the hill. Swung in the swing my grandfather built for us. Pulled onions and tomatoes from our grandmother’s garden. While my parents moved from house to house, my grandparents’ home never changed. It was my anchor—my lifeline.
My children haven’t had the same experience.
Clearly, the state of the American family is changing. Not only are many families fragmented by divorce, but they are also living further apart. I would know. I’m a divorced mother of two sons. My father, who lives 2,000 miles away has never met them. I’m not alone. About 20 percent live more than a few hours away from their parents. Couple that with the increasingly frenetic pace of after-school activities, youth sports, and screen time, and it’s hard for some families (even ones that do live within driving distance) to find a way for grandparents to play a meaningful role in their children’s daily lives.
At a time when we’re about to see the largest boom of aging Americans take over the country, it seems we’re simultaneously pulling away from older family members in lieu of our phones, after-school activities, and work. In many cases, they’re getting pushed to the sidelines of our lives, rather than staying where they need to be—at the center.
So, what do we do about it?
For starters, we need to teach our children to be more mindful of those who came before them. We need to teach them some key lessons like:
Newer isn’t better.
Children today often view old toys as being just as disposable as paper plates and cups. What about their views of older people? My own six-year-old recently told me I don’t need to bother learning the correct way to hold a football because I’m too wrinkly! We need to show children there is value in aging. There is value in new perspectives. There is value in people who have been here—working, learning, and living—long before they came. Newer isn’t better. Wrinkles aren’t bad. Slow isn’t boring.
You’re not the center of the universe.
When I was younger, it didn’t even occur to me to ask my grandfather about his time in the Navy, or how he and my grandma fell in love. Those details came out much later when we started corresponding by letter in college. We need to show our kids how their older family members are walking history books. We need to show them that they aren’t the first ones to face a challenge, get scared, take a road trip, fall in love, or fight for something they believe in.
Parents and teachers need to take the lead and start those conversations earlier to teach kids the value of being curious about those who came before them. To help them to see their grandparents as people, not just older people there to help take care of them when their parents are busy.
We don’t get do-overs in aging. Not in our own lives, and not in the lives of others. My mom died when she was 48. I spent many years of my life running away from her sickness because it was hard to face. It was uncomfortable. It made me sad. And, frankly, I was in a hurry with my own life. I wanted to do my own stuff without thinking about the harder things. I know the regret of not being there for someone when they needed me. I learned the hard way that slowing down and supporting my loved ones is the most important thing I can do.
Indeed, perhaps one of the most important things we can do to teach today’s children that family is forever is to model that behavior ourselves. We need to show them—not just tell them—that involving, asking, helping, and making space for those we love is essential no matter what age someone may be.
There is no appropriate time to push an older family member to the outskirts of our lives. We need to honor this idea—that family is forever—every day of our lives.
Author: Jess Stonefield
Editor: Danielle Beutell
Copy Editor: Lieselle Davidson