I’m fairly confident that I have a grasp on the role parents play in the emotional development of their children: all that parental hugging, kissing, soothing and teaching imprints biochemical neural pathways in the child’s brain that will both equip and motivate the child to later reach out to others to form its own caring, nurturing relationships. In other words, human parents actively train their young to search out and form lasting, rewarding connections with others – to befriend and to love—just as certainly as we see other animals train their young in the skills they will need to stay nourished and safe. But I’ve been asking myself for years now, precisely what role do grandparents play in the lives their grandchildren? Clearly it’s an important one, but is it something more than just being one of the early steppingstones in a child’s expansion of trust—from their mother to their father to their siblings to their grandparents, and then later, to friends outside their family? I read the research I could find on the topic, but remained almost entirely in the dark.
And then, my four-year old grandson taught me what I sought to understand. For the year leading up to our Covid-19 imposed separation from one another, I had watched him work hard to understand the meaning of what my son explained to him: “Grampa is my daddy, just like I’m your daddy.” It took a dozen or more of these discussions before my little guy understood-- which I learned that he finally did, because within a week of grasping what his father had explained, he asked me on a FaceTime call, “So, did you have a daddy too?”
What he taught me was that just as it takes two points to define a line, it takes two generations to define a lineage. That’s what grandparents provide. Roots. Heritage. Tradition. The ways of a family. That is what my little grandson was searching for with such determination.
As for so many other grandparents, Covid-19, continues to block off our visits to one another for the time being. His reaction? He asks for FaceTime visits—to my great delight. Even with the wild energy typical of a four-year old boy, he has been clear in his requests for FaceTime visits that he is actively interested in staying linked to me (and to his other grandparents, of course). Somehow, even at his young age when he is working hard to find the patterns in the myriad complexities that give order to social life, he has grasped that grandparents are of enormous importance. He couldn’t explain why, of course, but he taught me how to do so: it is grandparents that tether us to the history of our families, providing us with psychological stability the way the roots of a tree hold it firmly upright, even in hurricane-force windstorms.
And it was thanks to this little boy that I finally arrived at understanding why, during the ferocious wildfires that flattened entire neighborhoods of Santa Rosa, California in 2017, the press reported that the two things residents invariably grabbed, when faced with only five minutes—five minutes!—before mandatory evacuation, were their pets … and their family photo albums.
During these Covid-19 days of isolation and separation where parents are forced to figure out how to deal with the full-time presence of their children, grandparents must deal with their total absence-- except for FaceTime, Zoom and the like. And, from what I understand, even in the coming months when we grandparents can finally again be in the proximity of our grandchildren, we will be masked and barred from holding, kissing and embracing our little ones — disqualified from the somatic part of the (grand)parental input into those neural pathways of connection.
What to do? What might help? There is no science on this, or none that I know of. But here are several suggestions that might help you both fulfill your grandparental role and fill full your grandparental heart:
First idea: upgrade those phone calls to FaceTime, Zoom, or the equivalent. The importance of this goes far beyond the delight we feel in seeing our little ones’ faces and antics. It has to do with what psychologists call “mirroring,” the skill we, along with many other animals, develop in order to be able to read the intentions of those we interact with. Think about when you startle a feral animal; how they hold perfectly still, staring at you, concentrating on your body language, desperately trying to determine if you are an active predator. We humans, of course, greatly refine this process, searching to sense subtle details about the other party’s inner emotional state. Little children are busy honing these important mirroring skills, and it is critical for them to see your loving smile and evident delight as they describe to you their activities and feelings.
Second idea: choose gifts that provide continuity opportunities—i.e., things you can add to. Some examples would be a shell or nature collection that you can add to as you find new items to add to the collection, or a set of books that you can gift one-by-one. Or, give your grandchild an object that has family significance, even if it comes with the instruction that “this is not a toy, but something to be carefully treasured—a long, long time ago, it belonged to my grandmother.” Both the serial gifting into a set and the gifting of a family heirloom serve to emphasize the permanency and continuity of family connections.
Third idea: tell family stories. If there is one thing you and your grandchildren share, it’s that everyone loves a good story. And, if you have photographs of earlier generations of your family to share, all the better. But bring them to life by recounting some engaging family story from the past. I plan to share with my grandson a photograph of my own grandfather and tell the story of how, when I was about nine and happened upon a coiled snake in the hay loft of his barn, I ran all the way back to his house, imploring his help. I can still remember the sound of his laughter when we returned to the barn, my Grampa armed with his 22 rifle. For it wasn’t a snake at all, but merely the skin shed by a serpent long since gone about its business. We each have family stories that keep alive our links to our past, and it is important to transmit them to the next generation. Hopefully my little guy—when I have shed my skin and am long since gone—will one day tell his grandchildren this very same family story, connecting them to their great-great-great grandfather , and to all the generations in between.
About the Author:
J.W. Freiberg holds a Ph.D. from UCLA and a law degree from Harvard Law School. For thirty years he practiced law at the crossroads of law and psychiatry, and authored five books, including the award-winning trilogy: Four Seasons of Loneliness, Growing Up Lonely: Disconnection and Misconnection in the Lives of Our Children, and Surrounded By Others and Yet So Alone. Freiberg is a member of the Massachusetts state bar and the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States, and serves as a justice of the peace in Massachusetts. Find out more at www.jwfreiberg.com and thelonelinessbook.com.