A recent study at the Brigham Young University School of Family Life in Provo, Utah, examined the role grandparents play in children’s development. It found, among other things, that a strong emotional tie to a grandparent was associated with higher social engagement in the short run and in the long run could lead to kinder — and possibly smarter — children, regardless of their relationship with their parents.
I’m not a grandmother — yet — and I missed out on having close connections with my own grandparents because both of my parents were the babies of their families. But I don’t need a study to show me the exceptional role grandparents play in a child’s life.
I loved watching my father play with my son when he was growing up. My father was a hard-core sports fanatic, and his great unfulfilled wish was to have a son. Dad would sit for hours with his grandson, playing a game his brother had taught him in the 1920s (dice baseball) and passing along baseball lore he wanted to remain in the family chain (“Tinkers to Evers to Chance!” “The shot heard around the world!”).
Because his father didn’t grow up in America, my son missed out on that male bonding that so often happens through a shared love of sports, but he lapped up what my dad had to offer in that department. Once, when he was about 7 and I was tucking him into bed, I asked, “Who’s your best friend?” And he said, “You mean, besides Grandpa?”
When friends of mine talk about the special role older people have played in their lives, they tend to cite not their parents but their grandparents. Emily always told stories about her maternal grandmother, an artist and a true individual: “She never worried about what others thought of her, and focused her attention and life on what was important to her: her art and art in general, ideas, her friends and family.”
When Emily wrote a book last year, she opened it with a story about a memorable drive she had taken as a pre-teen with her grandmother — a very slow drive, over a bridge, with her grandmother waxing poetic about the natural beauty surrounding them … and ticking off a very long line of drivers behind them. Her grandmother's response to all the honking: “Oh, why can't they enjoy the view?”
Connie, an internationally renowned Pilates and yoga instructor, tells me her fondest childhood memories are of hiking through the Poconos mountains with her paternal grandmother, who pointed out and described every tree, flower and bird they passed. “‘Take deep breaths, girls,’ she’d say. ‘God is all around us, and you want to make sure He's a part of you.’ I still get chills whenever I hike,” Connie says.
That’s not all that’s stayed with her. “My grandmother also told me when I was a 16-year-old smart-ass in hip-huggers and a macramé halter that showed more than it covered that I should treat my body like the gift from God it was, and never take it for granted, keep it healthy with good food and exercise, and keep the gift wrapped. Great advice that I still follow.”
Some lessons were simpler. Steph’s Grandma Ella taught her always to button shirts and sweaters from the bottom up "so you won't miss one and have to do it all over again.” Samantha’s Gram Evelyn, a lingerie buyer for a big department store, instructed her to bury an almost-empty bottle of perfume in her underwear drawer “so that the items become lightly perfumed with your signature scent.” For a girl growing up in a trailer park in New Mexico, that was an ooh-la-la epiphany.
Chef Tanya visited her grandparents in Belgrade when she was 8, and asked her grandmother why she got up at 4 in the morning to go to the farmers' market. “You must always buy homegrown fresh ripe tomatoes” was her answer, and it’s a lesson Tanya has never forgotten or ignored.
Then there’s my dear friend Harriet, who has fond memories of her grandfather teaching her to ride a bike. “He was a short, stocky Jewish man who smoked cigars," she recalls. "Day after day he went out with me, running alongside and holding me and my bike up as I tried to find my center of gravity. He was the one who eventually got to let go and see me pedal off on my own. After that, biking to his house, about a mile away, was one of my favorite childhood activities.”
“Where were your parents, and why didn’t they want to do that?” I asked her. Harriet replied, “Hello. If I knew that, maybe I'd be a more intact person.”
Studies like the one from BYU are great, but I think many of us have all the “scientific proof” we need.