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Making the most of grandparents

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They left your business much more than cash and inventory. Here’s how to tap their hidden assets.

by Ellen Frankenberg

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 response 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 has taken me aside to whisper, “I don’t have any ugly ones, but I know someone who does....” And even he refused to name names.

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 serve spinach when the 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.

Why does a three-year-old, whose grandfather—a master carpenter—died long before he was born, consistently choose a toy hammer over the snazzy electronic gizmos his father buys for him? And why did he learn how to pronounce “braunschweiger” before he could say “peanut butter,” so he could have the same sandwiches that Grandpa liked?

Eye color and hand size aren’t the only traits that 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 and not so preoccupied with urgent business, share the gift of time. 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 position.

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.

The folks who parented our parents exert 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) yields extremely valuable medical information—and often a wake-up call.

In addition to physical characteristics and preferences, habits of behavior are transmitted within families as automatically as breathing. Growing up in a disciplined household, where children perform 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. But 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.

Whether you consider yourself a success or a failure may depend on your grandparents’ 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” as opposed to starting with nothing. Yet in another family, the one son who dropped out of 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, contends 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 and 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 of theirs do we want to change?

What are the main messages to perpetuate for grandchildren yet unborn?

In his book, Sustaining the Family Business, entrepreneur Marshall Paisner writes about how he deliberately discusses core family values around the supper table. His prime concern isn’t transmitting great wealth to his heirs but transmitting attitudes toward work, fairness and creative problem-solving that will sustain their entrepreneurial efforts in the future (FB, Autumn 1999).

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

1. They take the long view, because they’ve 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 pursue activities that both are reasonably likely to enjoy: a fishing trip to Ontario; making a special dessert 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, La., carries a stack of two-dollar bills in his pocket at all times, 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. They 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 unsolicited advice about child-rearing to those they have already reared.

6. They know that their relationships with their heirs don’t 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, they 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 existed without them.

Perhaps you have other standards for the grandparents you know, or hope to become. In tapping your grandparents’ assets, don't look for trust funds. Look for wisdom.

Ellen Frankenberg, Ph.D., is a family business psychologist and president of The Frankenberg Group, a Cincinnati consulting firm.

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