Now is a grand time to be a grandparent

Family: When the generations are spanned, everyone benefits -- especially in these busy days.

Life After 50

September 10, 2000|By Deborah Stoudt | Deborah Stoudt,Special to the Sun

What do you call a parent with tenure?

A grandparent, of course.

Sure, it's an old joke, but it also contains a kernel of truth: Next to a parent, a grandparent can be the most important person in a child's life.

And with the increasing strain put on families by single-parenting, divorce and the demands of work, has there ever been a time when grandparents could be of more value to a youngster?

The challenge for many, though, is finding ways to remain close when hectic family schedules and physical distance often keep relatives apart.

Today is Grandparents' Day, a nationally recognized day to honor grandmothers and grandfathers. Whether family members celebrate by going to the zoo, visiting a museum or walking in the park, this much is clear: When grandparents and grandchildren have a bond, the whole family is strengthened.

"It's not only good for the child but the grandparents," says Arthur Kornhaber, founder of the Foundation for Grandparenting in Ojai, Calif., and author of "Grandparent Power." "It supplies for grandparents a meaning for old age. They're hard-wired to be tuned into each other, especially now when parents are involved with so much."

Gwendolyn Johnson, 76, lives less than two blocks from her granddaughter Gwendolyn White and 6-year-old great-grandson Charles Saunders in Cherry Hill. She knows about the magic of grandparenting. She sees her granddaughter every day, and she and her great-grandson have weekly dates.

"Tuesdays and Thursdays, it's his night to stay with Granny," says Johnson. "He sneaks in Saturday and Sunday, but he goes home by 4 p.m. He comes down, and I'll read to him.

Thursdays we might watch wrestling, but I always read to him."

Frequent contact between grandparents and grandchildren or great-grandchildren can help bind them together.

"The grandparent / grandchild relationship is second only in emotional importance to the parent / child bond," says Kornhaber. "Grandparents give lots of stuff, mostly this sense of adoration."

Some 60 million adults, or about 31 percent of American adults are grandparents, according to AARP. The U.S. Census bureau predicts the number will grow to 100 million in the next several years. Lucky are the children who live close to a grandparent.

Although telephones, faxes and computers are making it easier to stay in touch over the miles, most parents need to make a commitment to fueling the grandparent / grandchild relationship. Just because grandchildren are geographically close doesn't guarantee that grandparents will see them.

Staying close is a family affair, says Kornhaber, a child and family psychiatrist who has studied grandparents since the 1970s. "Parents are the linchpin," he says. Parents and grandparents should sit down and devise a plan and ways to keep the grandparents and children in contact. It may include discussing ways to allocate resources for trips or vacations or phone calls or e-mailing.

"Starting them young is vital to continuing a relationship when they are teen-agers," says Patricia Fry, author of "Creative Grandparenting Across the Miles."

That's what Lillian Weeks and her husband Aubrey did to keep in touch with their 15-year-old grandson Ho Young Sinn. They live in Carney. He lives in Killeen, Texas.

Ho is one of eight grandchildren. Their son, Thomas, met his future wife, Chong Suk, and Ho while stationed in Korea. Lillian and Aubrey first met Ho at age 3 when the family visited. The grandparents bought him toy trucks among other things and helped teach him English. His first word was "truck," Lillian, 69, recalls.

Although Ho is busy with school and sports and lives miles away, he keeps in touch. "We don't see him as much as we'd like," says Weeks, but they talk by phone about twice a month and he writes three or four times a year.

How do you get a 15-year-old grandson to chat with you? "Basically, if you talk about sports with him, you've got it made," she says. "He has a dog and we have a dog so we usually discuss the dogs."

Over the years, she's taken care of her granddaughters Lillian, 18, and Virginia, 16, of Carney, while their mother worked. She sewed most of their clothes when they were younger, appreciating the chance to sew girls' clothes after having five boys.

She still makes Halloween costumes and takes Virginia to her music lessons and shopping. She's also been involved with Lauren, 11, and Kevin, 9, who live in Havre de Grace, cooking dinner for them and getting them ready for bed. Two days a week, she watches Brooke, 3, who lives in Abingdon.

She's happy to help. When her children were young, her own mother had to work, and her husband's family lived out of town.

"I had no one who could baby sit for us...not even in an emergency. It made me realize just how hard it was. I decided I would assist my children if I could," she says.

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