The Family Elder In An Uncertain Time Part I : Wisdom for families
Claire Barnes  415.203.8278

Home About MeNonprofit ServicesClientsRepresentative OrganizationsGuest Speaker
Impact of Divorce on America's ChildrenMy BlogsPaymentI'm Still Your Grandma; I'm Still Your GrandpaBoomer Goddess

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.’ 2013. Web. 1. 24 June, 2016.

[ii] Name Withheld.  Used with permission.


Comments (0)

Leave a comment