What Grandparents Offer

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What Grandparents Offer

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"Ughhhhh! Why do we have to go to Grandma and Grandpa's house?" groaned 16-year-old Kayla. "I get so bored when we visit them. There's nothing to do there, and they hardly say a word to me, even though they tell me they're happy to see me. If they do talk with me, it's usually a short conversation because they have no clue what I'm interested in. Really, I don't know what to say to them either."

Have you ever felt this way? If you have, you're not alone. Many teens find it difficult to connect with their grandparents—and older people in general.

"Teens can have some stereotypes of older folks—that they're cognitively slower, that they're stuck in the past, and that they're out-of-touch with today's world," says James Ellor, director of the Center for Gerontological Studies at Baylor University. These stereotypes can make teens feel as though they have nothing in common with their grandparents.

Dr. Ellor continues: "You may assume that the older generation couldn't possibly understand the pressures and challenges youth face today and think, 'Why bother to even try to talk to them?' At the same time, your grandparents may be equally unsure of what to say to you, especially if they do fit the stereotype of the senior citizen who shuns technology and isn't up on today's music and entertainment."

Other obstacles can stand in the way of your developing a strong relationship with your grandparents. They may be in poor physical health or suffer from memory problems, making you feel uncomfortable and even less willing to interact with them.

Distance can be another obstacle. Your grandparents may live hundreds or thousands of miles away. With airfare so expensive, you may only get to see your grandparents on occasional trips—and that can make you feel like you hardly know them.

What grandparents offer

But while a close grandparent-grandchild bond is not always easy to maintain, it is definitely worth pursuing. For starters, this relationship can offer a lot in the way of emotional support.

"Because your parents are responsible for raising you, they can't always be supportive of your behavior," says Nancy Schlossberg, professor emerita at the University of Maryland. "If you do something wrong, your parents are going to issue consequences."

Grandparents, on the other hand, "can act as a neutral adult with whom to talk." It's not their job to come down on you when you get into trouble. Chances are they're just going to listen to your story and let you unload a little. That's not to say your grandparents will approve of behavior your parents disapprove of, but you may feel a little more at ease opening up with them than you would with your parents.

Not only do grandparents make great "sounding boards," they can also provide helpful advice. "With decades of life's experiences behind them, your grandparents are often more helpful in dealing with problems than friends your age, who may be struggling with the same issues you are," Dr. Ellor says.

The Bible tells us, "Wisdom is with aged men, and with length of days, understanding" (Job 12:12). In Leviticus 19:32, God told the Israelites to respect and esteem the elderly. Older people have a lot of wisdom to share.

Since they are a living family history, your grandparents can also provide you with a better understanding of your family background. "Your grandparents can tell you what their parents and grandparents were like, providing you with insights into your family's genealogy going back four or five generations," Dr. Ellor says. Also, your grandparents can share stories about your parents when they were growing up, which will help you better understand why your mom and dad think and act the way they do.

Finally, a close relationship with grandparents can provide you with a realistic picture of older generations. "Not all grandparents are white-haired, bent over and walking with a cane," Dr. Schlossberg says. "There are many grandparents who are relatively young. A lot of grandparents are working and involved with careers and have very active lives. The grandparent relationship gives teens a realistic picture of the aging process, that life is not over until it's over."

Of course, if your grandparents are frail and in poor health, you can learn valuable lessons from that too—gaining empathy for older people who may be weak and experiencing pain, and realizing that old age is a normal part of the cycle of life.

Strengthening the bond

Although there are obstructions that can challenge the development of a strong bond, they don't have to prevent it. One of the most important things you can do is to let go of any stereotypes of older people.

Don't assume your grandparents aren't interested in hearing about your music, your favorite sports teams or the movie you want to see. Don't decide for them that they won't want to learn how to play a video game with you or are incapable of learning how to use the computer. Give them a chance. They may enjoy some of these things.

You should also not assume your grandparents can't remember what it was like to be young or that their experiences were that different from what you're going through. Ask them what challenges they faced when they were teens and what some of their most memorable experiences were. Find out whether they had a hard time understanding their parents or getting along with their siblings.

Ask them where they lived when they were growing up, how they met, what lifestyles were like back then, what their favorite subjects were in school, where they went to college, where they have traveled, etc. Show a genuine interest in what they have to say. You may discover that your grandparents lived fascinating lives. That can bond you to them as well.

What if your grandparents live far away? Telephone regularly. Call the same day and time each week so your grandparent can look forward to the chat. Ask your parents if they can purchase a computer for your grandparents if they don't already have one. Hook them up to the Internet as a gift and ask them to keep in touch with you by e-mail or a social networking site (many grandparents do use Facebook!).

If your grandparents aren't interested in using a computer, mail them cards and handwritten letters so they can have a surprise in the mailbox—and include some recent photos.

No other relationship in your life is quite like the one you have with your grandparents. Make the effort to spend time talking with them—whether by face-to-face visits, e-mail or phone. Be willing to share what's going on in your life and give your grandparents opportunities to reminisce about their lives. Let them know you value the relationship you have with them.

Your own life will become richer in the process! VT