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Wisdom for families

The Family Elder in an Uncertain Time Part II

by Claire Barnes on 08/18/19

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is publishing a policy paper issuing a call to action for America's pediatricians to reduce the impacts of racism and improve the health of all children.   

During this time of stress, confusion and (for some children) abject fear, the important role of grandparents in the family is higher than its ever been.

This blog is Part II taken from my book, I'm Still Your Grandma, I'm Still Your Grandpa published in October, 2016.  This particular chapter emphasizes the role Grandparents play in families and communities by setting the tone of social interaction which is passed down to generations.

The AAP position statement is particularly relevant to this content as it focuses on the teaching of values.  

As a young adult, I was a pack-a-day cigarette smoker.  I rarely smoked when I was pregnant, but after I delivered twins in 1976, I energetically resumed smoking.  One day, when my girls were about three, I was driving them to see their grandmother.  I was smoking and they were both mesmerized watching the cigarette smoke in the car from their car seats.  I realized then, if I wanted to raise nonsmokers, I had to quit smoking.  "Do as I say, not as I do" was not going to cut it.  Plus, the health incentives were becoming more obvious every year.  Stopping smoking became a priority.  It was tough -- very tough.  But I did it.  That was forty years ago.

How parents and grandparents lead by example during this chaotic time in our country is emphasized in this excerpt from the chapter on Grandparents' role as the family elder in teaching values:

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.  


The Family Elder In An Uncertain Time Part I

by Claire Barnes on 08/12/19

The images and videos of crying, traumatized children who came home from their first day of school last week in Mississippi will haunt me forever.  The disregard for children whose parents were taken away in an ICE sweep was, in my opinion, government sponsored child abuse.

The Boomer generation represents a population of adults who have the advantage of longevity in which to contextualize contemporary life events.  I am beside myself trying to find relevant historical examples in my own life to current events -- actually, there are no comparables.  But, I do believe, our role as Family Elders does help us comfort and support our children and grandchildren during this uncertain time.

The following is an except from my book published in October, 2016.  The book, I'm Still Your Grandma, I'm Still Your Grandpa, was intended to help grandparents navigate family transitions when adult children separate or divorce. 

This particular chapter, The Tribal Elder, emphasizes our position as role model, historians and examples for our children and grandchildren.  At a time when government leaders demonstrate demeaning, bullying and abusive behavior, misogyny, racism, and cruelty toward the environment and endangered species, the tribal elder's role is more important than ever to deliver a clear message:  "we don't act like that in our family."

Enjoy the excerpt, and I trust it will resonant today as it did in 2016.

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, The Power of Storytelling to Change the World, Texas journalist Dave Lieber uses compassion and humor to articulate the power of the personal narrative. Mr. Lieber traces telling tales back to cavemen and suggests the brain neurons stimulated by storytelling are still part of the core of our primitive brain.  

Stories help us visualize, empathize and identify with the storyteller.  We learn how family members overcome life hardships. Stories of what we experienced as children offer lineage and continuity for a child’s very existence. As the parents of the child’s parents, you can humanize the adults in a child’s world.  A child who loves swimming, might enjoy hearing his mom did also when growing up.  A child who hates peas, will be glad to know her also dad not like peas as a youngster. In reorganized families especially, these vignettes and tales help the child define where he fits in life. Also, it is nice to learn personal imperfections and idiosyncrasies are part of what makes us human.

Very young children might enjoy drawing pictures to accompany the stories you tell.  The resulting artwork could be simply bound and made into a family history book.  Once that happens, the young children can tell the stories from the pictures they created.

There are Senior Centers and Lifelong Learning Centers across the country offering Boomers the opportunity to craft their oral or written histories.  These classes are generally free to participants, and the documents are priceless legacies in any family.

When a grandchild asks you to “tell me a story about when you were little,” do so with enthusiasm. Today’s grandchildren will find it hard to imagine you grew up without a computer, internet and cell phone. But their family histories are important.   Keep in mind they will be teenagers before you know it and their interest in family lore will diminish as their peer group becomes their priority for socializing.

·    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.

Using storytelling as the foundation, cultural traditions connect children to their past while validating their present and setting the stage for future replication. Day of the Dead Festivals (Mexico), St. Patrick’s Day Parades (Irish), Thanksgiving feasts (universal USA and Canada), Boxing Day (United Kingdom), Bar Mitzvahs (Jewish), Quincineras (Hispanic), Chinese New Year (Asian) are representative examples of how families and communities affirm their cultural identity.

 Food is another important element in cultural continuity. Most holiday dinners in families have a pretty predictable and time-honored menu. Can you remember a time when you were transported back to your childhood by a particular smell or fragrance? How you demonstrate these time-honored family traditions can be a comfort for your grandchildren each year.

·      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.


[i] Shah, Shelly. ‘The Importance of Socialization in Society.’ Sociologydiscussion.com. Sociologydiscussion.com. 2013. Web. 1. 24 June, 2016.

[ii] Name Withheld.  Used with permission.


It's Not the Divorce; It's The Conflict

by Claire Barnes on 10/28/16

It’s not the Divorce; It’s the Conflict

It’s not the divorce; it’s the conflict ...which victimizes children when parents separate. 

Children can manage pretty well during parental separation or divorce IF their parents minimize the conflict to which the children are exposed.  In fact, when the pre-divorce conflict subsides and a calmer, post-divorce family routine begins, many anxieties children are suffering begin to disappear. Meaning, the very act of parents separating can reduce the conflict to which a child is exposed.

Children who observe their parents and extended family members conducting themselves in highly conflicted ways, grow up believing this is how you solve problems.  Children in homes with ongoing conflict fight at school and can even become bullies.  It is no surprise, family conflict patterns are passed down from one generation to the next and between relatives.

As parents and grandparents, it is our job to protect our children, including keeping them safe in their own families.  This safety includes freedom from anxiety and stress caused by arguments among their caregivers. When parents do not know how to provide the protection, or are unable for some reason to offer it, the negative outcomes of outbursts and fighting can have long lasting effects.  Let’s examine how these behaviors impact youngsters at different ages and stages of their lives.

Children age five and younger: The family is where very young children learn about their world.  Infants, toddlers and preschoolers develop attachment to the important adults in their lives – mommy, daddy, grandparents, caregivers. The generic definition of attachment is:  the condition of being close to something or someone, in particular. Historically in our culture, females – mommies and grandmas – were considered appropriate caregivers to whom children could attach. 

We now know, young children can attach to a LOT of people – those adults who are consistently in their lives offering comfort, reassurance and nurture (food, clothing, a home), no matter what the gender. This is how children learn the world can be a safe or frightening place, depending on how the attachments develop.

It is the responsibility of the adults to whom a small child is connected to consistently provide a peaceful environment where the youngster feels safe and can grow and develop successfully.  If that safe environment is nonexistent, the following early childhood difficulties may occur in very young children:

--The inability to attach to significant family members or caregivers.
--Regression from developmental benchmarks (ex: children who are potty trained may start to have toileting accidents).

--Clinging to a caregiver; difficulties with normal separations (ex: when dropped off at daycare or school).

--Sleep disturbances.

--Regression in language development.

--Demonstrating anxiety when one or both parents is not nearby.

--Hyper-vigilance (heightened sensory awareness anticipating environmental threats).

[i] Use of Facebook is an increasing element leading to divorce and separation.


What's Your Boomer EQ? Part 5 Conclusion

by Claire Barnes on 09/04/14



I was listening to an interview with author, Paul Taylor, yesterday.   In his book, The Next America he makes a case that the US is in the throes of a comprehensive demographic change and that Boomers (10,000 of us are retiring every day) are challenged to create a new model for retirement.   Emotional Intelligence (EQ) can help us maintain sense of well-being and emotional health while we navigate the largest social changes seen in America in a century.

For review, the first four parts of this series can be found here:

Part 1:  Know Yourself

Part 2:  Manage Yourself    

Part 3:  Motivation for Healthy Emotions   

Part 4:  Understanding Others 

The final step towards EQ competency is Managing Relationships.  The goal, of course, is to take the accumulation of all the previous steps and apply them to navigating relationships with family, friends, neighbors and others in ways that are peaceful and reflective of a lifetime of experience.

At this point in the EQ journey it is critical to determine how optimism can play a role in your life.  EQ and optimism are interconnected.  A person who expects the best possible outcome or possesses a hopeful attitude is more appealing to be around than one who has a negative approach to life.   Boomers who are challenged with major life adjustments (finances, living circumstances, etc.) could do well to consider a hopeful attitude based on their history of problem solving.  Optimism is a learned behavior and can lead to self-fulfilling expectations.

Self-care is a critical element in Managing Relationships.  This important detail may upset the balance in families or relationships where the Boomer member has spent a lifetime as a caregiver.  Letting family members know this is your time to explore, taste and experience the world within your financial capacity to do so, may feel a little selfish at first.  But you will be glad you shifted the focus of your energy from others to yourself.   Make a pledge to yourself:  In difficult times, I will take good care of myself by_________________.

And finally, I am a huge proponent of Lifelong Learning.  I have written several times about the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) – over one hundred of them around the country offering free or inexpensive special interest classes for Boomers.  I am currently on the board of the OLLI/UNR   and I marvel at the information, activities and personal connections these organizations encourage.  The Osher Foundation is creating a new framework for communities to value and support people in a way that is fulfilling and validating.  Seek out Lifelong Learning in your community at your local college, senior center or community building.  If your community doesn’t have such a program, start one!  We are a species that thrives on socialization at every stage of life.

The Boomer generation has been defined by its enthusiastic willingness to change traditions and cause significant societal shifts at each benchmark of life.  Forearmed with the tools to maintain our health and well-being, our age group will now prove the ‘afternoon’ of our lives is unlike any other experienced by previous generations.  What we do and accomplish will be a tremendous legacy for our children and grandchildren.

Watch Your Step for Grandparents

by Claire Barnes on 08/22/14

One of the major parts of this relocation move has been the necessary (and pleasurable) task of hanging pictures.  My husband and I love hanging pictures and as we relived travel memories, family relationships and special mementos, we practically covered the walls in our new house. That was in late April.

And then it occurred to me last week:  a picture of my (step)grandmother is nowhere to be found in my house.  It’s like she didn’t exist!  When in fact, she was the only grandmother I ever knew.  How could I have disregarded her memory so significantly as to not even put her picture up?  And maybe it means more to me now that I am a (step)grandmother myself.

My mother’s mother died when she was a toddler, leaving behind a widower to raise six children – four boys and two girls.  To my grandfather’s credit, he kept the family all together and eventually married Jenny Ellis, a County School Superintendent in rural Nebraska.  Her sister was also a County School Superintendent.   (I wish I could have known them – they must have been awesome, pioneer women.)  Jenny and my grandfather had a son together, raising the total of the number of children in the family to seven.

Jenny was in her eighties by the time I came along.  In fact, we even lived with her for a couple of years while my parents were in the process of purchasing a house.  To me she was GRANDMA.  I helped her braid her hair because her hands were arthritic; she let me help her with the dishes; she took me to church and told me Bible stories; she helped care for me when I was sick; and she let me eat cookies for breakfast. 

After we moved into our own home, Jenny lived with us a little while before she moved into a nursing home.  I occasionally stayed home from school on those few occasions when it was better for her to not be alone.  It was when she died that all this ‘step’business came up and I came to understand she had been a replacement mother to the first six children.  I also learned that my mother’s older sister had always resented her – so much so she didn’t even come to her funeral.

I am now a step-grandmother.  When our daughter married a father with custody of his two children, I sought out the counsel of a very good friend (and therapist) who advised me that the two young children joining our family were now also our grandchildren.  They are, after all, just children and along for the ride with the adults.  That was very wise advice and my husband and I have tried to embrace them with our own grandson when we are fortunate enough to spend time with the three of them. 

It’s still hard, though.  No matter how much one tries, the blood that binds family members together can interfere with our willingness to love and appreciate those who come into our families by choosing to do so.  Because of the high divorce rate in our country, most American children will eventually acquire step-parents and step-grandparents, and become stepchildren themselves.  In fact, 33% of all Boomers over the age of 65 are now step-grandparents. http://firstthings.org/step-grandparents

Have you noticed?  Step relatives always get the bad rap in fairy tales.  Stepmothers, stepfathers, stepsisters and stepbrothers – are the cause of the difficulties for our heroes and heroines.  The human psyche struggles so much with substitutes, that having difficulty loving replacements for our blood kin has been memorialized for centuries in fables and even in the Bible.

I wish I could include in this Blog some helpful hints on how to make the Step-grandparenting role easier.  Instead, I will rely on my dear friend and British Columnist, and Agony Aunt, Suzie Hayman  to advise all of us:  i've always been so careful to make it clear that I am my stepson's stepmum, not his mother. I say that he is my son but I am not his mother. It's hard sometimes because his mother is dead and his wife considers me to be his parent. but I was overwhelmed when he told me they were expecting a child becasue he said, specifically, that I was to be a grandmum, not a stepgrandmum. and that's the trick - to be aware of the boundaries but give unconditional love.

Thank you Suzie.  I am now signing off to go hang a picture of Grandma Jenny.