The Unconditional Love Only Grandparents Can Give
The qualities of empathy, self-understanding, kindness, and acceptance are the building blocks of character. The more we have, the better our world will be. Of all the many ways in which grandparents help their grandchildren, nurturing their moral imagination is our sacred task. The moral imagination isn’t created by discipline, and it doesn’t involve following orders from the authorities. It is an internalized sense of self that connects us with what is kind and fair, real and just.
Whenever grandparents foster Empathy, Perspective, Knowledge, and Agency we are nurturing the moral imagination—and perhaps making a better future for our grandchildren and their grandchildren.
Empathy is the air grandparents and grandkids breathe. Even before children develop self-awareness, an adult’s glance or gesture of understanding and acceptance is a comfort. In the hours we spend with grandchildren, our job is to love them and have fun with them. Sure, we may need to give a bath or help with homework or encourage them to do their chores. But most of the time we don’t need to hustle them. Maybe, because we have no overweening agenda, we can see the grandchildren as they are, not as parents wish them to be. The sense of being understood and loved helps a child develop empathy for others. Just listening to a grandchild, seriously and without judgment is an act of empathy.
Teresa knew she was different from the time she was five years old. She had a crush on her teacher, Miss Ogleby. She couldn’t understand her feelings, and she certainly didn’t like them, so she took this as her burden. The family shared a two-family house with Baba, Teresa’s grandmother. Teresa went upstairs to Baba when she came home from school. Teresa was nine when she noticed a pair of brown patent-leather loafers in the window of a local store. They were boy’s shoes, and they cost two dollars. Her mother wouldn’t hear of buying them for a girl. Every day as she walked home from school, Teresa looked at the brown shoes in the window and wished they were hers. She told Baba how much she loved them. Then one day they weren’t in the window. Teresa shrugged and walked home.
When she got to Baba’s, a brown paper bag lay on the kitchen table. “For you,” said Baba. Teresa tore open the bag, and there were the patent leather loafers. “You can wear them up here,” Baba said, “but don’t ever tell your mama about them. If you do, I’ll throw them away.” Eventually they wore out, but Teresa’s gratitude to Baba for love and recognition will never wear out.
Today Teresa is a minister and counselor, who works with LGBTQ teens. Baba, an immigrant from Germany who never learned to read, understood none of today’s concepts—but she knew that little girl, and she loved her.
One of the advantages of age, never mind the creaks and the meds, is Perspective. By the time we’re old enough to have grandchildren, most of us have lived at least half a century, and we have experienced “history.” The grandkids are amazed. “You lived without TV?” “No Internet?” As we tell them stories of what the world was like when we were growing up, we help set their lives in a broader context. Our lives, simple and complex, easy and hard, serve as models for them and give them perspective.
Danny is still mourning the death of Oma, his grandmother. Born in Leipzig, she was five when the Nazis went on the rampage known as Kristallnacht. Oma’s father somehow got the family out of Germany. They landed in Ecuador and eventually in the Bronx, where she met Opa. Sometime in her thirties, Oma discovered that she was going blind. Persecution, exile, and even blindness—none of these stopped Oma.
“The grandchildren viewed my Oma in world historical terms. She had overcome unimaginable adversity. And I think the amazing thing about it was that she was OK. She was clever, she was charming, and she was everything you want in a person. She was also blind, but she didn’t let it define her.”
Oma relied on her Seeing Eye dog most of her life. After the death of her husband, the dog was Oma’s closest companion and survival mechanism. So when Oma died, Danny and his family donated money to train a Seeing Eye dog. They all attended the dog’s graduation ceremony and watched as she met her new owner. The dog’s name is Oma.
The beauty of perspective is that it’s not taught in school but shared from one generation to the next. It’s one of the ways in which we grandparents may enter their souls.
Knowledge is different from information. Information is what you get raw from all kinds of sources, from books, from various media, and in school. Knowledge is information processed through life experience.
Grandmothers who grew up in the South during the years of Jim Crow tell their grandchildren of their experiences as children, setting a powerful context for the new generation. One grandma tells me that her ten-year-old grandson is astonished to learn that as a girl, his beloved and respected grandmother had to sit on the back porch of the Alabama home where her mother worked all day long, cleaning, cooking, and doing laundry. Why the back porch? That’s the way the lady of the house would have it. Grandmothers who were part of the Great Migration north tell their grandchildren how their fingers bled from the prickles when they picked cotton. The children are astonished to learn that Grandma was made to enter the local grocery store by the back entrance and to drink water from a separate fountain. These common stories from the generation that lived through Jim Crow model endurance.
My grandson asked what it was like to grow up in Washington, DC, during World War II. Then I explained that Washington at the time was a southern, segregated city. “No, Grandma,” he said, “Washington was in the North. That’s where Lincoln lived!” Knowledge is different from information.
All generations have a hand in encouraging their children to take a chance and master a new skill. Still, when a grandmother or grandpa urges you to do something on your own, to follow your dream, the message has a special salience–Agency. When the nonjudgmental sense of being accepted as you are, not as other adults want, or as your peers require—radiates from the gaze of a grandparent, it’s a confidence builder. When a grandparent offers words of encouragement the sky is the limit.
Encouraging grandchildren to follow their dreams, despite the worries of the other adults, is one of the pleasures of being a grandparent. We empower them when we bake together, garden together, write books together, teach them to knit and crochet, and stop cheating at cards to let them win as a nod to their becoming more grown up. We empower them in Grandpa’s garage workshop when they hammer their first nail and saw their first piece of wood. Sometimes we let them see their own strengths even though we don’t have a lesson plan.
Vanessa spent weekends at the farm of her step-grandparents. She dreamed of being an actress. One evening, Vanessa, by now a teenager, was in a poisonous mood. She’d had a big fight with her stepmother, and she stomped out to the pit where Poppa was tending the fire. “What’s the matter, baby,” he asked. “Nobody wants me to be an actress, nobody supports me,” she complained.
Then she saw him wave his hand and point his finger to the sky. “What are you doing, Poppa?” she asked. “Well maybe I’m writing it in the stars. One day, you’re going to be a famous actress.” There’s no way to anticipate her career, but I know for sure that when she wins an award, she’ll remember Poppa with his eyes on the stars.
Megan’s daughters spend many weekends at her in-laws’ farm not far from their mid-western hometown. Grandma raises goats. The girls have been helping her around the barn for years, and they know a lot about goats. Last summer, Grandma had knee surgery, and the girls, now young teenagers, stayed at the farm for two weeks and took over Grandma’s chores. These kids do lots of important things with their parents, but the confidence they gained from the summer of the goats will help them stride into the world with straight spines.
Am I giving grandparents too much credit? Of course parents do the heavy lifting. But rounding off the corners of a child’s character and strengthening that child’s courage benefits from more than one set of adults.
The joy of it is that we’re not teaching, we’re not preaching. We’re just loving.