Beth was a teenager trying to grow up the best she could. She was the only child in a single-parent family where she lived with her mom. Her mother was doing all she could to hold the family together and make it through life. Since her mom worked three jobs, she was never home. Beth would get herself up, eat breakfast, and go to school. In the evening she would return home, do her homework, fix dinner and stay up to see her mom just a little bit before going to bed. Basically she was raising herself.
Her best friends were not making good decisions: making poor grades, being promiscuous, and experimenting with alcohol and drugs. Beth, on the other hand, was making excellent grades and was not mixed up in any of the other bad habits.
When she told me about all this, I was curious: Why was she doing so well, especially when her friends were so different? She told me, “Years ago when I was young, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother. She is gone now and I miss her greatly. She was a woman of great faith. Now I would never do anything that would violate my grandmother’s faith.” Her grandmother had been gone for a few years, but she was still the anchor in a life that would likely have drifted in an unhealthy life course.
Do grandparents have influence?
The older I get, the more I have come to realize that one of the most remarkable phenomena in all of human relationships is the impact of grandparents upon the lives of grandchildren. There is unbelievable influence that seeps into grandchildren’s lives, and is often undetected until years later. It quietly arrives like a fog, easing into every crack and crevice. Then one day, in adult life, the fog slowly clears and one discovers that the bright sunshine of their grandparents’ influence is embodied in their very personhood. It is like seeing the view of a mountain range emerge from morning fog, almost too wonderful, too spectacular for words. One social scientist who has studied this for years has come to the conclusion that we cannot scientifically describe it because it is a spiritual relationship.
Have you ever considered the potential you have to make a difference in the lives of your grandchildren? Perhaps you are already aware of this, but if not I want to call your attention to the tremendous opportunity you have to impact those in the generations that will follow you.
When I have talked to grandparents, I find they are asking questions like: Am I having an influence on my grandchildren? Do I make a difference? What can I do to help them become better people? How can I help them to establish themselves in life?
Most grandparents have a larger influence than they may think, and often it is a direct impact from grandparent to grandchild. Certainly there are traits and attributes passed from parents to children, who then pass them on to their children and so on through the generations. However, what’s really striking is the one-on-one, direct relational influence.
That’s why I am always surprised when I meet grandparents who have little to do with their grandchildren. Typically there are at least one of several factors involved. Sometimes the poor relationship with grandkids is due to challenges with the middle generation, since parents are the gatekeepers to the grandparents. The gatekeepers determine access to grandchildren, including how often, for how long and under what circumstances. Sometimes grandparents had a poor relationship with their own grandparents and have no role model. It can also be health problems or even personality issues. If a grandparent is struggling with major health concerns, it preoccupies their time and energy. Sometimes living at a distance can be a barrier.
I met one grandfather who told me, “I have little to do with them. I see them once or twice a year and give them a birthday present, and that’s about it.” He did not seem interested in changing any of this, so I suspect he has little influence on his grandchildren. How did he get this way? It was interesting to me to note that he had experienced a poor relationship with his own grandparents. He adamantly stated to me, “I didn’t have much of a grandparent. We would visit once every three or four years, and that’s all it amounted to.” He was now repeating the same pattern, and I wondered how his grandchildren would someday relate to their grandchildren. But he is the exception to the rule.
What is more common is that the grandparent/grandchild relationship will be the second most powerful relationship a child will experience. The parental connection has the most influence, but grandparents are next in line of those impacting children. In some cases, like where there is a family disruption, grandparents may be the most influential.
Making the Most of Opportunities
Like all of us, grandchildren respond most positively to those from whom they sense love and acceptance. If they are young and impressionable, they will also copy behavior that is modeled by those significant people. When grandchildren bond to grandparents, they automatically begin to take on the grandparents’ characteristics. The bonding power can be silent, so this powerful force may well go unnoticed.
Earlier I mentioned the spiritual aspect of this grandparent influence. Have you noticed that, right in the middle of the Ten Commandments, we are taught that a grandparent’s influence goes to many generations? Exodus 20:5-6 states, “For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love me and keep my commandments.” Did he really say thousands? Have you ever seriously thought about how you may be impacting thousands in the generations to come?
One other striking aspect of my interviews with grandparents was that some were quite intentional about influencing their grandchildren, but many were not very aware that they were having a profound impact. Perhaps this was because many grandparents did not set out with a plan to mold or shape grandchildren. Yet as they talked, it became obvious that they really valued passing on their values to the third generation. They did not see themselves as being on a mission; most did not have a strategy or designed methods of influence. They simply lived their lives and included their grandchildren on the journey.
I did talk with a few grandparents who seemed more aware and were more intentional about their influence. When asked if they thought they were having an impact on their grandchildren, one of them told me, “Down the road it will show up more than it does right now.” Another one said,” Oh, I believe grandparents have worlds of influence on grandchildren. And I think all grandchildren should be influenced by grandparents. This is why I reckon it’s a pleasure, not an effort.”
How about you? Before reading this, had you thought about the ways you may be influencing not only your grandchildren, but numerous generations that follow after them? What are the values and characteristics that are important to you? What is it that your grandchildren are picking up from being around you? Are there things you would like to impart to them? Are there ways you may need to modify your relationship and influence with them? What needs added or subtracted to your life?
I will leave you with the admonition I received from my granddaughter Elsie when she was about four or five. One day I asked her, “Hey, Elsie, have you ever heard of fried ice cream?” There was a long silence and she looked puzzled. Then she said, “Think about it, Opa, just think about it.”
So, when it comes to your powerful impact on your grandchildren, I encourage you to “just think about it.”
Judd Swihart and his wife Nancy are parents of three grown children and grandparents of eleven grandchildren. Judd has conducted research on the grandparent-grandchild relationship for his Ph.D. dissertation, and he’s a member of the Advisory Board for the National Association of Grandparenting. He and Nancy have individually authored or co-authored six books on family relationships.