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Some Thoughts on the Value of Grandfathers

Much has been said about the value of grandmothers in helping children develop into healthy adults, but less has been said about the role a positive grandfather can play in a child's life and well-being.

Like the latest crop of fathers, who have been more engaged in general with their children, many modern grandfathers are stepping in and taking a more active role in their grandkids’’ lives.

Some wives (my own included) marvel at the heretofore hidden aspects of their husbands that manifest once we take on the mantle of being a grandfather.

A number of these shifts in roles have been driven by changes in societal norms. Others have been driven by socio-economic factors like the two-working parents family now common in the USA, but less so when some of us were growing up and our mothers stayed at home while dad went out to support the family financially.

So, what exactly are these modern grandfathers up to? And how does it impact the lives and development of their grandkids? Conversely, what effects does this greater involvement have on the grandfather?

  • Caregiving: More
    granddads are babysitting, often after early retirement (though some flee
    the scene for warmer climes and abundant golf courses).  And despite the fact men are not socialized in general to be caregivers, many are quite good at it.
  • Role Modeling: Being
    more closely involved with their grandchildren makes it more likely the
    children will see their granddads as role models – ideally positive
    ones. And I would clarify that as “alternate
    role models
    ” since many of us have vastly different styles, world
    views, gender-specific behaviors, and life experiences than our sons or
    son-in-laws. [See also UNCLES] It’s a good thing for young people to
    see there are different ways of being a man when they grow up in contrast to the “my way or the
    highway” model of fathering prevalent when we were being raised.
  • Nurturing: Yes,
    Virginia, in case you haven’t received the memo (tweet?), we men can be
    nurturers despite all the common media portrayals and still prevalent
    common wisdom to the contrary. Grandchildren can bring out the latent nurturing/paternal/protective instincts embedded in men’s psyche/DNA — even in men who were minimally involved in the raising of their own children.
  • Playing: There’s nothing
    like grandkids to summon the inner kid in us men which some of us haven’t
    seen in decades. They can also remind
    us of abandoned childhood passions which we can now pass along to a new
    generation. Perhaps your son or
    daughter showed no interest in your favorite sport/hobby/TV shows/whatever. The dynamics between grandfathers and grandkids
    are less freighted with the need for the child to stake out their own
    identity making it more likely they will take an interest in Hot Wheels
    cars, Godzilla, or 1980’s New Wave music (just to cite some random examples). And researchers have noted that playing can reap enormous
    health benefits for grandfathers, releasing stress, allowing us to belly
    laugh (often at ourselves), and rediscover why we enjoyed a particular
    hobby or pursuit in the first place.     >See: https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-importance-of-play-for-adults/
  • Passing along family traditions: While grandfathers can often be
    portrayed (or behave in reality) as being retrograde in our thinking,
    politics, behaviors, or values, I would contend that like grandmothers we
    can be successful in passing down
    family traditions/values that can stay with a child into adulthood.
  • Building resiliency:  While many parents perceive grandparents as overly indulgent; grandfathers can
    set boundaries at the same time as they are cheerleaders for their
    grandkids. They often have the time
    and patience to help kids with the challenges life may throw their
    way. When kids express frustration
    or experience difficulties, a grandparent may have an out-of-the-box idea
    to offer to the child (or to their parents). The unconditional love of a grandparent
    may help a child in difficult circumstances or with strained relations
    with their parents [see TEEN YEARS] to identify and tap into their inner
    strengths to sustain them through challenging times and propel them
    forward into the adulthood. A healthy grandfather can also serve as
    a counterweight to a troubled father or one who has difficulty relating to
    his offspring.

Reflecting on my own experience of being a grandfather, I have realized that I am much like my maternal grandfather Carl (actually Carmello, but he Anglicized it when he came to America). We lived upstairs from my mothers’ parents for most of the first 9 yrs of my life in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Grandpa Carl was the opposite of most of the men in my life (my father, my uncles) and my paternal grandfather.

He was soft-spoken, well-dressed, articulate, hard-working and a family man. But underneath that surface identity, he was a self-taught musician who had his own “big band”, an amateur boxer, gregarious and vocabulous. He taught me the word “obstreperous”; a term he often applied to my behavior when I was a youngster. He also loved to drive and I was his sidekick for rides to Coney Island, running errands, and other misadventures in his sky blue Ford Galaxie 500 which he drove with the passion of an Italian race car driver.

I learned after his death that he used his written/oral command of the English language to help fellow Italian-American immigrants complete government forms, apply for jobs, and obtain their citizenship. I was profoundly impressed by this altruism on his part AND the fact that he never spoke about it. He just went around and did good deeds for others. I wanted to be like him in that respect.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my paternal grandfather, Anthony — another Anglicized name. His name was actually Antioco, but I also did not learn this until after his death.

All my life I called him Grandpa Tony. Another “fact” I learned after his passing was that he supposedly jumped off an Italian Merchant Marine vessel in New York harbor to start a new life in America. If this tale is true, then I am the decedent of an illegal immigrant! He could be difficult to understand because he spoke Italian on the docks where he worked as a Longshoreman and at home, too. So his English was limited at best. That didn’t mean he wasn’t an intelligent man. He was also curious about the world. He had a collection of National Geographic magazines on shelves in his living room that spanned decades and I would often sit on the floor perusing them. Taking note of my interest, he bought me a gift subscription on my 10th birthday. . . which I have kept renewing to this day. His gift nourished my mind and my imagination. He was also an ethical man. Again, I learned this story after his death. Italian families seem to keep so much hidden I’ve learned over time. Apparently, he refused to go along with some of the common practices on the docks which necessitated relocation to the west coast for several years before he and his family could safely return to Brooklyn. He was also an accomplished athlete having been a member of the winning 1937 Italian Rowing Team. Looking at his youthful photos from his time on the team, I saw where I got my shoulders in his physique.

The legacy of both of these men, each with his unique world view, experiences, style, limitations, and talents, was passed down to me and shaped the man I am today. I should make clear that I do not mean to diminish the role my father played – a very significant one – but this article is focused on these other elder male family members.

I never had children of my own. Instead, I “inherited” three older children when I married my wife who happened to be a widow. Because of their ages when I met them, my role in their lives was not one of a stepfather, but rather “their mother’s husband”.

When I became a grandfather those unfulfilled desires to play a nurturing role in a young person’s life came to the fore. I discovered aspects of my own identity I hadn’t previously known existed. I channeled both Grandpa Carl and Grandpa Tony in trying to be a good grandfather to my now 6 yr old grandson.

I’ve shared my childhood interests; actively played with him; engaged him in philosophical debates about why the villains are bad guys and whether the actions of the good guys are justified; and watched cartoons with him (Paw Patrol or the Octonauts when he picks, and Scooby Doo or Speed racer when I pick). We’ve taken walks in the woods; looked up at the stars; discussed the fatal voyage of the Titanic endlessly; and I’ve taken an active interest in whatever his latest passions happen to be – Nerf gun wars, garbage trucks, dinosaurs, and even dressed up as a vampire for Halloween at his request and gone Trick or Treating during my recovery from Thyroid surgery. He climbed in the bed with me when he visited the hospital – a balm better than any other medicine known to medical science.

It’s funny to see or hear myself reflected back in his behavior or words. Alternately, I’d have to say one of the more profound experiences I’ve had as a grandfather is seeing the world anew through a child’s eyes. Everything is new and there are many questions about the things or phenomena he’s encountered on any given day. I sometimes give him humorous answers but more often than not I try to answer him as if he were an adult and if I don’t know the answer, I show him how we can look it up (an old-fashioned Encyclopedia or Google usually suffice).

A side benefit has been getting to know and befriend his other grandfather, “Big Ed” as we call him. He and I have bonded over our mutual love of our grandson, but also discovered we share quite a few common interests; not something an observer would imagine upon seeing us together since we are separated by a couple of decades and very different upbringings.

So while grandfathers can play an important role in the lives of their grandchildren, it’s most certainly a two-way street with us older males gaining much from these little beings in our lives with their curious natures, their ever-changing interests, and the mirroring of ourselves evident in their personalities and behaviors.   

Through them, we have license to do things we wanted to do anyway (like jump in a pile of leaves or visit LEGOLAND). They can rekindle old interests put aside years ago like collecting Hot Wheels/Matchbox cars, watching Star Trek or Star Wars, and playing sports we once enjoyed. My wife, with a grain of truth I must admit, says I buy him vintage toys on eBay that I want to play with myself. Guilty as charged, I suppose.

At 48 yrs old, I was somewhat apprehensive about becoming a grandfather, but now 6 yrs later I’ve embraced it as my favorite job title ever.  It’s a role I take seriously,  even when we are having fun, knowing that my words and deeds can have a lasting impact.  Can you hear me Grandpa Carl and Grandpa Tony?  Thanks for all you did for me as a kid.   

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