Why I invited “the grandparents to move In
BY LEONARD SAX, M.D.
I have been a family doctor for 29 years. I have learned some things about families. One of the things I have learned is that kids benefit when they grow up with strong bonds across the generations: not just with their parents, but with their grandparents, and with aunts and uncles as well.
That’s not just my opinion. I’ve written four books for parents over the past 14 years: Why Gender Matters, Boys Adrift, Girls on the Edge, and The Collapse of Parenting, which became a New York Times bestseller. In researching those books, I consulted with comparative anthropologists: people who have spent their professional lives studying how other people have lived in other times and other people. I asked them: is there anything that all enduring cultures have in common? If you ask that question in terms of what people eat, or how they dress, or what their religious beliefs are, then the answer is “No.” Cultures vary enormously from one to the next. But there is one thing that all enduring cultures share: they all have strong bonds across generations.
family photos American culture used to be characterized by strong bonds across generations; but no longer. That’s not a guess. And it’s not nostalgia. It’s a fact. We have careful scholars, like Robert Putnam at Harvard, who have documented how strong the bonds across generations were in the United States 50 years ago, and how weak those bonds are today. Fifty years ago, even thirty years ago, it was common for a grandfather and grandson to work under the hood of a car together, or for a grandmother and a granddaughter to do a sewing project together. Today such activities are much less common, as Putnam and others have documented.
There has been an explosion in the proportion of young Americans who are anxious, depressed, and disengaged, as I document in my books. I have become convinced that the breaking of bonds across generations is a major factor driving the rapid rise in the incidence of young people who are unhappy and adrift. It’s not the whole story, but it’s an important part. Parents, however loving they may be, can’t do it alone, and they don’t do it alone in any enduring culture of which we have any substantial record. It takes a village: it takes aunts, uncles, and grandparents.
My wife and I were married for 15 years before we had our first child. We thought we were infertile. We were wrong. After our one and only daughter was born, I invited my wife’s parents to move in with us (my parents are both dead). We have been living together in the same home now for ten years.
“But despite our differences, we are joined in our love for my daughter, their granddaughter.”
My background is about as different as can be from my wife’s parents’ background. I was raised in a suburb of Cleveland Ohio; they were both raised in rural south-central Pennsylvania. Our family bought our food at a grocery store in the city; they raised much of their food in their own gardens, and raised chickens, which they ate. I like sushi, and gefilte fish. They don’t. They like scrapple, and chipped beef on toast. I don’t. They once asked me if I knew how to pick up potatoes. I answered, “Sure, you just go to the grocery store and pick up a bag of potatoes.” I didn’t understand that they were asking about getting potatoes out of the ground.
I know that my Sarah has benefited enormously from having her Grandma and Grandpa in our home, which is also their home. And it now seems so natural, it’s odd sometimes to recall that our family arrangement – three generations under one roof – is now unusual in the United States.
I realize that our arrangement can’t be copied by everybody. But I encourage parents to get the grandparents involved as much as possible – not just at holidays, but throughout the year. Create rituals and pastimes that grandparents and grandkids can do together. Grandma teaches my daughter Sarah sewing, and Sarah teaches Grandma how to use the computer. And Grandpa and Grandpa both help Sarah to plant her seedlings in the garden. Good things are growing there.
It may not always be easy. But it can be done. And it’s worth the effort.
Check out these books by Leonard Sax, M.D.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – LEONARD SAX MD PHD
Leonard Sax MD Ph.D. is a family doctor, psychologist, and the author of four books for parents. He and his family live in Chester County, Pennsylvania. More information is online here.