Wisdom for families
When I was four years old, our phone rang one evening and a woman on the phone asked for my father. I was a very late-in-life child – my parents had married after a complicated ten year courtship. The woman caller identified herself as my father’s daughter – a daughter he walked away from when he divorced her mother several decades before. And although my mother knew about my father’s flawed life history, she had no knowledge of the existence of this daughter. When they met, dad told mom, ‘I have no children… that I know of’.
Although my mother was very forgiving of my dad’s human imperfections, I am aware of the role family secrets and lies can play. We live in a post-truth society. How half-truths and untruths can impact the well-being of children is important to consider. Our national leaders lie to us daily asking us not to believe our eyes and ears. How that translates to our interactions with our children and grandchildren becomes a tricky fence to straddle.
We know parents and grandparents form the foundation for the first trust relationships children experience. A cornerstone of the trust relationship is truthful communication, so parents and grandparents bear the burden and responsibility of setting the standard in families on how this plays out. Suzie Hayman, UK Agony Aunt columnist and author, How to Have a Happy Family Life puts it this way: Never, ever lie to children. If you're a good liar and succeed in deceiving them, then you've put deception at the heart of your family relationship and that always sours it. More often, they will find out. Honesty may be hard – but that’s what parenting is about, managing the hard stuff as well as enjoying the good stuff.
Lying, or bending the truth, really plays out in a family divorce or separation. Children naturally ask questions when parents decide to break up. The context for their questions is grounded in THEIR world and related to their age and stage of development. Dr. Jesse Boring, author, Children of Divorce Coping with Divorce offers this perspective: Kids hate to hear one parent talk badly about the other. So the first line of defense I'd recommend is to avoid topics where, if you're being honest, you have to say something negative about the child's other parent. If I had to choose between having a parent lie and having them tell the truth (when telling the truth means trashing the child's other parent) I'd tell them to lie. It's just too hurtful to children to hear one parent talk badly about the other.
Suggestion: In the case of divorce or separation, keep answers to delicate questions simple, factual and age appropriate; no need to add a complex narrative about all the problems within the couple.
One of the riskiest parental behaviors is for one parent to exaggerate negative information about the other parent. The whole field of parent alienation has developed based on this conduct, and the fact is it can be very tough to control the urges to demonize the other parent. When hurt, anger, or a sense of betrayal fuels the delivery of information stretching the truth, everyone suffers.
Suggestion: When tempted to say negative, inflated things about the other parent, remember part of your child’s identity lies with that person. Hurtful exaggerations can also wound the child.
If you are considering lying to a child about divorce circumstances, consider what you are trying to accomplish and the context of your actions. Do you want to protect your child from feeling hurt or anxious? Is your motive to make yourself look better or superior to the other parent? Do you feel good about your actions? Are you lying to delay pain, harm or suffering?
In more general circumstances, our post-truth culture, where national leaders lie to us daily, makes enforcement of the truth challenging.
Suggestion: Confer with someone you trust before deliberately lying to a child. Consider how you would feel if you were on the receiving end of the story, and make sure you can live with the result if the truth comes out.
And finally, the fact parents and grandparents are demonstrating behavior their child (of any age) will copy or repeat is a dramatic reason to consider when and if to lie. By lying to a child….and realizing the child may eventually find out the truth…..you demonstrate lying is an okay behavior. Because children don’t have adult filters to determine when stretching the truth might be necessary, their impulses around lying may be hard to control.
Suggestion: Frequently remind your youngster of any age they will never get in trouble for telling you the truth. Always remember, your behavior (not your words) sends the strongest messages to children.
Fortunately for me, my family situation turned out okay. The sister I learned about when I was four, stayed connected to me and in my life until her death in the 1990’s. But the episode offered a lifelong lesson that lies do not make the truth vanish.
Overall Health and Well-Being
Food is a tremendous agent of socialization. We eat when we are happy, sad, celebratory, lonely, in love – any human emotion or life experience is easily tied to food. Think of the image of a hovering mother who says, eat this, you’ll feel better.
Unfortunately, industrialized countries are experiencing obesity in epidemic proportions. The cheap and easy accessibility of fast food and sugary sodas contribute to children who struggle early on with weight gain. Recent studies also suggest, a diet overly dependent on fast food can contribute to depression in youngsters. Food and drink portions are supersized, snacking has increased up to six times each day, and our caloric intake has increased by one third compared to the previous generation of children. Lack of access to nutritious foods (especially in lower income communities) paired with a reduced interest in exercise (everyone is glued to technology) are additional elements adding to the spike in the numbers of childhood diabetes and eating disorders
The gender differences reflected in eating difficulties are notable. Girls are bombarded with media role model images of stick thin models and actresses. They are simultaneously exposed to advertising for foods which cause their weight to increase (pizza, burgers, sugary drinks). These conflicted messages create a clash of desires for young girls and complicate their self-image during their adolescent and teen years. Is it any wonder concerns with weight affect 40% - 60% of girls ages 6-12 in the United States? And these concerns continue throughout much of their lives.
The long-range problems experienced by obese youngsters include academic difficulties, increased medical costs, self-esteem concerns (victims of bullying), and a population that is sicker and more lethargic than previous generations. Like socialization, the first place children learn healthy eating habits is the family.
Maintaining healthy dietary habits and routines can be helpful to both Boomers and their grandchildren. You can easily involve your grandkids in meal planning and food preparation when they are with you.
· Keep your focus on low fat, low carb menus which are high in fiber.
· Stay away from heavily packaged (processed) foods.
· Read labels – added sugars are lurking in foods under a variety of names: Anhydrous dextrose, brown sugar, cane crystals, cane sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, crystal dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose sweetener and fruit juice. Many sugar names end in ose.
· Shop in the outer aisles of the supermarket where the fresh foods tend to be displayed.
· Snacks like chips and sugary cereals can be saved for a special treat.
· Fresh fruits and veggies (with hummus dip) can become tasty, familiar staples.
Be aware of the role food plays in your house and in your family. Try to avoid associating food with a reward (extra food) or punishment (taking food away). Grandparents and grandchildren can focus on the healthful aspects of food together and both generations will be better off for it.
Let's Move If you are not inclined to initiate a formal exercise routine, there are other options. Obviously, exercise helps us burn calories, stretch our muscles and keep our bodies flexible. What you may not know is movement increases oxygen to the brain and thereby stimulates brain functions in children and adults. Movement also encourages nonverbal activity and expression (dancing, pantomime). If you have a hard time finding thirty minutes daily to move with your grandchildren, here are some alternatives:
1. Gardening. Not only are you outside and moving, you are communing with the earth and bringing something organic to life;
2. Swimming. Go to a local water aerobics class and get moving in the water. Swimming is easy on the joints and can ease arthritis discomfort. Then take your grandchildren to the pool and teach them your aerobic routine;
3. Walking. Thirty minutes daily is the recommended standard. Walk the dog; walk to the store; walk over to see a neighbor; walk in a park; take the stairs. If the weather does not cooperate, walk or march to music around your house. Buy an inexpensive pedometer to count your steps and measure how far you walk. Gradually challenge yourself to increase the distance;
4. Bike Riding. Bike riding is easy and offers a good muscle workout. It improves balance and can even reduce stress and melancholy. When riding with your grandchildren, be sure and be a positive role model and wear your helmet;
5. Move to music. Put on some upbeat music you enjoy and dance, move or march with your grandchildren. Belly dancing is currently a popular activity for women. You can take lessons then teach family members. Belly dancing has no limits on age or body shape;
6. Play an active Wii or Xbox game. The unavoidable technology games do offer opportunities to move. There are dance games, sports games (ex: tennis, golf, basketball), and fitness games. Some systems are sophisticated enough you can even track your burned calories and weight loss. If you are shy about technology, let your grandkids show you how the games work;
7. Learn Yoga. There are many introductory free yoga videos online. And although we may not think of yoga as exercise, the American Osteopathic Association notes the following benefits of yoga:
· Maintaining a balanced metabolism
· Weight reduction
· Cardio and circulatory health
· Improved athletic performance
· Protection from injury
· Increased flexibility
· Increased muscle strength and tone
Running is deliberately left off this movement list. Unless you have been a lifelong runner, taking up running in retirement can be difficult on the joints of a sixty-something grandparent. Run if you can, but also remember there are lots of options to get you moving with your grandchildren.
In summary, by making exercise a priority in your own life, then sharing it with your grandchildren, you are encouraging overall health and well-being in your entire family.
There is a whole new body of work in psychology suggesting we are only happy when we are striving for something. Once we meet our goal, we move the goalpost resulting in a constant struggle to find satisfaction and happiness in the moment. How to find contentment in the immediate moment, rather than tying it to a goal which constantly changes, is a challenge for many people.
Harvard lecturer Shawn Achor is developing a contemporary approach teaching skills to develop what he calls the Happiness Advantage.
Based on his studies and publications, Shawn has promoted the following five steps worldwide helping people build skills leading to happiness as a benefit:
- Write down three things you are grateful for each day. By doing this you train your brain to focus on gratitude and optimism;
- Write for two minutes daily describing one positive experience you had within the past twenty-four hours. This exercise helps your brain remember an event with a positive meaning as an alternative to a ‘to do’ list;
- Exercise for ten minutes daily;
- Meditate for two minutes daily, with focus on your breath going in and out. By focusing on your one body function, you can transition your attention away from multitasking
- Write one quick email first thing in the morning thanking or praise a friend or loved one. This encourages your social support network.
Remember Mr. Wilson in the ‘Dennis The Menace’ cartoon? We all laughed at his grouchy demeanor in his retirement. He and Dennis were at constant odds with one another.
Now, here we are, aging like Mr. Wilson. No one wants to be tagged with a sour, grumpy grandparent label. The role of the Family Elder is a big responsibility. By embracing it you fulfill your own life and the lives of family members. By maintaining an upbeat demeanor, embracing each sunrise as a gift, we spend life’s third act as a positive, optimistic Family Elder.
When I retired, I enrolled in an Olli class called "Transformations: Revisiting Fairytales". I anticipated course content that would explore the human condition as characterized over the centuries through Fairytales. I wasn’t disappointed by the first session with the entire focus on Little Red Riding Hood. Most stimulating to me was the role of the Grandmother, which led to further, independent exploration of how grandmothers and grandfathers across cultures are presented in folk tales.
Little Red Riding Hood is obviously close to her Grandma. She is willing to navigate the dangerous woods and face down a wolf to take food to Granny when she is sick in bed. Similarly, in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, the lead source of comfort and adult supervision for Peter is his Grandpapa. Even when Peter disobeys Grandpapa and steps outside the gate and into the woods (watch out for those wolves again), Grandpapa is gentle, kind and tolerant of Peter’s youthful curiosity.
Similarly, in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the aging Sorcerer (Grandparent substitute), has to tolerate the Apprentice’s energetic inquisitiveness even at the risk of flooding the castle. What Grandparent hasn’t had to watch a grandchild make a mistake and while learning the inherent?
And finally, our favorite American holiday, Thanksgiving, is paired with a visit to Grandmother’s House. Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go .. evokes a warm, welcoming and safe atmosphere with plenty of food when we get there.
I am encouraging my fellow grandparents to consider the importance of their role in their families as characterized across cultures and through multiple, artistic representations:
1) Grandparents are a source of family continuity – the family elders. When parents don’t have the time to share family histories, traditions and habits, it is the grandparent’s privilege to do so.
2) Grandparents have the patience to let children make mistakes and learn from those experiences. Because most grandparents are not with their grandchildren every day, they can be tolerant of youthful questioning (Why?) and missteps that are part of learning.
3) Grandparents often act in loco parentis (in place of parents). When parents are not physically or emotionally available, grandparents can nurture, cuddle, supervise and discipline. Importantly, with grandparents involved, childrearing is still a family matter.
We lived in my grandmother’s home when I was 2-4 years of age. My grandmother had very long, straight gray hair, which she taught me to braid into two braids, then wrap the braids around her head so she could tuck them under her Sunday Church hat. I always loved doing that for her.
She also let me eat oatmeal cookies for breakfast because they had oatmeal in them. I loved her very much, and like Little Red Riding Hood, I would have navigated a dangerous woods to go see her. So for all you Grandmas, Grannys, Grandpas, Nanas, Abuelas, Papas, and Babooshkas, always remember how important you are to your grandchildren. By doing so, you will live forever in their memories.
Dedicated to the memory of my Grandmother, Jenny Ellis Gorton, one of the first female school superintendents in rural Nebraska.
Claire N. Barnes, MA
While in graduate school working on my guidance counseling certification, I had a very wise mentor, a counselor at a local public school. We discussed family values in great detail, long before family values became a topic entangled in politics and religion.
My mentor suggested adult family members demonstrate their values based on how they spend their resources (time, money, energy). For example, if a parent says to the children, “I really want to spend time with you” but does not initiate time to do so, the message is a hollow one. Actions are always stronger than words, and are the most effective way to exhibit your priorities.
· Keep your word and your promises. If you commit to doing something with or for your grandchildren, by all means do it. Make your promises within your capacity to deliver. Granted, sometimes life interferes and our plans change, but knowing you are dependable can help children feel secure.
· Honesty is the best policy. Keeping it real and honest in your interactions with your family members is important. I wrote a 2013 Huffington Post column on the topic of lying to children, and here is an excerpt:
Children naturally ask question, especially when parents are separating and the family is reorganizing. The context for their questions is grounded in THEIR world and related to their age and stage of development.
Suggestion: Keep answers to their delicate questions simple, factual and age appropriate; no need to add a complex narrative about all the problems within the family.
One of the riskiest behaviors is for one adult to exaggerate negative information about a family member. The whole field of parent/grandparent alienation has developed based on this conduct, and the fact is it can be very tough to control the urges to demonize a parent or grandparent. When hurt, anger, or a sense of betrayal fuels the delivery of information so it stretches the truth, everyone suffers.
Suggestion: When tempted to say negative, inflated things about a family member, remember part of your child’s identity lies with blood relatives. Hurtful exaggerations can also wound the child.
If you are considering lying to your child about family circumstances, consider what you are trying to accomplish and the context of your actions. Do you want to protect your child from feeling hurt or anxious? Is your motive to make yourself look better or superior? Do you feel good about your actions? Are you lying to delay pain, harm or suffering?
Suggestion: Confer with someone you trust before deliberately lying to your child. Consider how you would feel if you were on the receiving end of the story, and make sure you can live with the result if the truth comes out.
And finally, the fact adults are demonstrating behavior their child (of any age) will copy or repeat is a dramatic reason to consider when and if to lie. By lying to your child….and realizing the child may eventually find out the truth…..you demonstrate to your child lying is an okay behavior. Because children don’t have adult filters to determine when stretching the truth might be necessary, their impulses around lying may be hard to control.
Suggestion: Frequently remind your youngster of any age they will never get in trouble for telling you the truth. Always remember, your behavior (not your words) sends the strongest messages to your children.
· Demonstrate your commitment to your faith. The broad range of religious and faith-based belief systems in today’s culture is tremendous. If you have a personal faith which plays an important part of your life, demonstrate it to your grandchildren. Exposing children when they are young to a faith will help them select what works for them as they get older and help them develop a basis to answer life’s big questions. If you do not participate in a structure religion, The Golden Rule can guide you in almost any moral predicament.
· Cooperation, Collaboration and Compassion are the three ‘C’s of human interaction. A cooperative spirit put forth in collaborative efforts (working with others) teaches children there is strength in numbers. Two heads are always better than one, and teamwork skills can be applied later in life. Working closely with others also offers opportunities to experience the point of view of another person. Standing in the shoes of another person encourages empathy and compassion when necessary.
· Keep your sense of humor. Laughter is, indeed, the best medicine. Laughter is contagious and can lighten any mood. Laughter does not make our life difficulties go away, but it certainly helps us get through them.
Who is The Tribal Elder?
The definition of the Tribal Elder is consistent worldwide. Specifically, the Tribal Elder is usually a senior citizen who is designated as the patriarchal (male) or matriarchal (female) head of a family. The family may extend beyond blood relatives, and it is quite common for community leaders to be considered tribal elders. A perfect example is Nelson Mandela. As the tribal elder of his family, he also: led a social movement; was labeled a terrorist; conducted a successful election to President of South Africa. In his lifetime, President Mandela held the names of both ‘Mandiba’, his clan name, and ‘Tata’, the endearing term meaning ‘father’.
Few of us will rise to the iconic status achieved by Nelson Mandela. But we will hold a role of senior status within our own families. It is important to remember the significance of the position
The role of the Tribal Elder varies from family to family, and it generally includes the responsibility of guardian of the family culture (those elements making each family unique). Before offering suggestions on the favorable aspects of the responsibilities of Seniors in families, I have a story to share. This story suggests an alternative perspective of the tribal elder.
Sociology is one of the courses I taught at a local vocational college. Many of the students are marginalized by life circumstances (finances, language, ethnicity, recovery from addiction, wounded veterans, etc.). These adult students have overcome significant difficulties and have chosen to improve their circumstances by following a targeted career path including training for a specific job or career
While in the process of writing this book, I told my Sociology class I would be developing a chapter on the role of the Tribal Elders. I shared highlights of the chapter content, and a couple of students told very personal anecdotes about unreliable parents and grandparents who did not fulfill the favorable role I described.
I acknowledged their honesty and further suggested even undependable parents or grandparents can be role models as well. Those who experience difficult childhoods and struggle with erratic parents or grandparents, often exercise the free will to live their lives in contrast to those elders. Valuable lessons can be learned from positive AND negative role models. Clearly, many of my students have chosen life paths intending to avoid repeating mistakes made by the people who raised them. I salute their wisdom.
In contrast, it is my hope those Boomers who find themselves in the favorable role as the family elder will benefit from the content of this chapter.
There are three general life categories where the grandparents can pass on family habits and traditions to their children and grandchildren. The first category is:
Socialization is the process whereby the individual acquires the conventional patterns of human behavior.[i] Human beings are designed to be social beings and to thrive in social settings. We occasionally hear distressing stories about the discovery of isolated children whose parents or caregivers have kept them locked away and solitary. These non-socialized, feral children take years to recover from abuse and seclusion.
Less dramatic, but also just as unsettling, are those families living off the grid. These groups are isolated from a 24/7/365 culture. A film released in 2017 t romanticized the notion of a father and mother who were raising their children in the wilderness. The plot gets complicated when the mother dies, and the father must bring the children into civilization for their mother’s funeral. The complexities the children experience in a contemporary culture are a large part of the film.
Parents motivated by religious, political or fringe group opinions, who choose to cut off their children from society, make it harder for children to adapt when the inevitable occurs and the world comes knocking on their door.
A student in my Composition class wrote about the difficulties she experienced being raised in a religious cult. She entered the cult to which her parents were committed at the age of two. As a young adult, she exercised her free will and decided to leave. Her complicated exit journey became painful and an ongoing struggle even as she became a grandmother. My student wrote: I am still trying to overcome and heal the damage. Learning to be part of a relationship and not just a cowering shadow. Facing my fears instead of just running away. Creating a future for my children and grandchildren. Looking at what I have accomplished and saying ‘Yup, I did that…..and no one hurt me.’[ii] Her comments are a real testimonial to the harm separation from the mainstream can cause any person trying to adapt to our contemporary culture.
Because we live in a global culture and participate in a global economy, actions on the other side of our world ripple across the planet and affect us directly. We know what it is like to call for information on our credit card or call for computer tech support and end up connected to someone on the other side of the globe. This reality causes us to be sociable beyond our immediate geography. We may not travel to India, but having a respectful conversation with a tech expert located there is a necessary skill in this century.
Most sociologists agree the family is the first agent of socialization for children, therefore the role of grandparents can be as important as the role of the parents. Those of you who might find yourselves wondering how to tackle these significant (and fun!) duties, can consider the following methods of socialization.
· Storytelling is a valuable way to help socialize the children in your family. In his Ted Talk video,
Cultural traditions are fun to share and pass along to your grandchildren. Whether it is holiday traditions (often adapted for a reorganized family) or genuine cultural customs, the grandparents can set the stage for anticipation and celebration of those events which define who we are.
· Relationship interactions are an important element of socialization and are taught in the family setting. How we treat others, including respect, courtesy, politeness, conflict resolution, and self-control are all developed long before children start school. Teaching “please” and “thank you” or “we are not a family that hits” can be simple, yet significant messages coming from grandparents.
If your standards for behavior are different from those of your grandchild’s parents, you can simply say, “this is how we do it at my house.” Importantly, the verbal message must be modeled by the adults. If you want youngsters to learn to use please and thank you, you must use those phrases yourself. Remember: A person’s behavior is the strongest statement they make.
An important tip: try to frame requests in a positive way. For example: “close the door quietly please.” Not, “don’t slam the door.” Children hear “no,” “don’t do that,” “stop it,” etc. all too frequently. Framing requests in a positive way is a skill to practice, and an important one to master.
TO BE CONTINUED