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On Choosing Your Grandparents Wisely

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by Ellen Frankenberg, Ph.D.

For the past few years, I have been working quite hard on a major research project: finding one ugly grandchild within these United States.

Everywhere I go, the answer is ubiquitous: no one has an ugly grandchild. My deadlines are fleeting, my funding will dry up, and my research project is doomed.

The blind love affair between grandparents and grandkids seems universal. Only one person (who ultimately refused to name names) has taken me aside to whisper, "I don't have any ugly ones, but I know someone who does…"

If we didn't have grandparents, we'd invent them.
If kids didn't have grandparents, we'd probably invent them. What a wonderful concept: someone who believes you're beautiful no matter what, and also takes you fishing, plays Hearts by the hour, buys ice cream at the slightest hint, and doesn't ever ground you.

Some of us are better grandparents than parents, with more time to spare, and
less anxiety about unfinished homework or "proper nutrition". We don't even serve spinach when grandkids come around, because in the ultimate scheme of life, other things, like bragging about someone right in front of the whole family, matter more.

In my more informal research, I have often noticed that personalities seem to skip a generation. A daughter will have a daughter who is much more like her mother than she ever was. This can be good news or bad news.

How come a three year old, whose grandfather, a master carpenter, died long before he was born, consistently chooses a toy hammer over the snazzy electronic gizmos his father buys for him? And how come he learned how to pronounce "braunsweiger" before he could say "peanut butter", so he can have the same sandwiches that grandpa liked?

Not only eye color and hand size are transmitted; preferences and mannerisms show up in later generations too. Perhaps this is why this bond is called grand: the younger and the older, cut from the same cloth, share the gift of time, not so preoccupied with urgent business. They are free to focus on each other, here and now, understanding without talking.

Especially when a child is in trouble, "in the doghouse" with mom and dad, it's grand to have another nurturing person, who can listen and understand, and still support the family's requirements.

Don't underestimate the power of genes
If you want to live a long, healthy life, develop a successful family business, enjoy gardening or golf or gastronomics, and a loving marriage too, the best thing you can do is choose your grandparents wisely.

Most of us don't take the time to do this, but I still strongly recommend it. The folks who parented our parents have an enormous influence on our health and happiness, either positively or negatively. One powerful indicator of our own longevity is the life span of our parents and grandparents. Learning the facts about the cause of death of each predecessor (even those no one wants to talk about) is extremely valuable medical information. And often a wake up call.

Not only physical characteristics and preferences, but also habits of behavior are transmitted within families too, as automatically as breathing. Growing up in a disciplined household, where children do chores as well as play soccer, say thank you, and share supper most nights with mom and dad, provides structure that signals future success - or at least, according to some research studies, higher National Merit Scholarship scores.

Your parents' marriage is literally in your bones; it's the one you know best besides your own. It teaches you day by day what a husband does, how a wife acts - whether they can show affection, or make up after a fight. If your parents' marriage ended in divorce, or was persistently unhappy, all your grandparents provide other opportunities - less emotionally entangled with you - to develop a broader template against which to shape your own marriage.

How You Define Success May Depend on Your Grandparents' Dreams.
Whether you consider yourself a success or a failure may depend on your grandparent's dreams. In the immigrant generation, learning enough English to start a business, so the family could live in a heated flat above the store, was a great "success", compared to starting with nothing. In other families, the one son who didn't graduate from medical school may consider himself a failure, because of standards that established the family "trade" long before he arrived.

Murray Bowen, a seminal thinker in the field of family psychology, teaches that
family influences go back at least seven generations - to our great grandparents' grandparents. Fundamental attitudes toward success or failure, birth and death,
faith or doubt, risk-taking or caution, are transmitted across generations, often without words, even though the facts of original tragedy or triumph have been long forgotten.

Some of the messages that our grandparents left echoing in our minds have provided
strength or pride for our generation. Sometimes their choices, their prejudices, are no longer acceptable. Sometimes we shape our own adult values by defining ourselves in contrast to those powerful voices from the past. But the echoes remain, sometimes to motivate us to do things differently.

The key is to determine what is the best of our grandparents' legacy.
What are the values they lived that we want to pass on to the next generation?
What habits or attitudes that were common in our grandparents' lives do we want to change?
What are the main messages to perpetuate for grandchildren yet unborn?

In his book, Sustaining the Family Business, Marshall Paisner writes about how he deliberately discusses core family values around the supper table, because he is less concerned about transmitting great wealth to his heirs, than he is about transmitting attitudes towards work and fairness and creative problem-solving that will sustain any entrepreneurial effort they may choose in the future. (See also the cover story, Family Business magazine, Autumn, 1999.)

The Skills of the Grandparenting Trade:

Although I don't really expect to find that ugly grandchild, I do expect to find beautiful grandparents. Those I admire, seem to have some common characteristics:

  1. They tend to take the long view, because they have already wintered and summered all that life has to offer; they can separate the trivial from the significant with more calmness than most parents can muster.

  2. They don't try to control the next generation, but they do try to get next to them, even if they have to cross continents. They do things that both are reasonably likely to enjoy: a fishing trip to Ontario; making Schaum Torte for the birthday supper; restoring a 1957 Chevy and then offering the keys for the Senior Prom. Baseball games seem to work year after year, even when the Cubs win and the Yankees lose.

  3. They laugh a lot. Macgruder Hays, patriarch of Teche Electric Supply in Lafayette, Louisiana, carries a stack of two dollar bills in his pocket at all times, and a twinkle in his eye, just in case he runs into one of his grandkids. There is a special brand of humor that only the very young and the very old enjoy together.

  4. Good grandparents treat each new generation with respect, without put-downs, because they are secure in their own integrity. They are fascinated by the fresh perspective that only the young can bring, even if it differs from theirs.

  5. Especially in the homes of their sons or daughters, even though they may be biting their lips, they don't offer unrequested advice about child rearing to those they have already reared.

  6. They know that their relationships with their heirs do not depend on the amounts in their trust funds. The most important bequest they have to offer is their time, their experience, the spirituality that gives meaning to their lives.

  7. Somehow, good grandparents find a niche (and some cupcakes) for each grandchild, without showing preferences. They compliment each one by finding an important job to do, like planting geraniums, or walking dogs.

  8. Those extraordinary grandparents who offer the legacy of a family business, share their love of the challenge, their sense of self-determination, their capacity to create opportunity that would not have been there without them.

Perhaps you have other standards for the grandparents you know, or hope to become. In choosing your grandparents wisely, I suggest that you look for assets that are not measured by trust funds; I suggest you look for wisdom.

Ellen Frankenberg, Ph.D. is a family business psychologist and president of The Frankenberg Group, a Cincinnati- based consulting firm. She welcomes your visit to her web site:

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