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January 6, 2004

Acorns Don’t Fall Far From the Tree

Joe Volz

I was about to write a column insisting that we sixty somethings don’t get enough respect from adult grandchildren.

We are treated worst than Rodney Dangerfield, I was going to conclude.

You know the argument. Perhaps, you have been guilty of the same lament. Adult grandchildren don’t pay any attention to the free advice we senior citizens like to dispense.

But Sarah Jane Growe, who covers the aging beat for the Toronto Star, saved me from such maudlin embarrassment.

Ms. Growe has discovered an unpublished survey of 90 Canadian college students that concluded grandparents continue to have a strong impact on adult grandchildren.

Professor emeritus Benjamin Schlesinger, of the University of Toronto, and his wife, Rachel, a York University professor, found that “grandparents are influential as role models, offering friendship, love and moral support even after their grandchildren become adults.”

The study said that grandparents were most helpful providing emotional support and financial aid.

So what was I moaning about? Was I turning into a stodgy old contrarian?

All I had to do was look at my own family history to see how flawed my thinking was. My mother and late father actually housed three of my sister’s children at various times when they were attending nearby schools. The grandchildren continually sought their grandparents’ guidance.

So, maybe I am being premature in my indictment of today’s younger generations.

The other day, I talked to my nephew, Rick Wickenheisser, now in his 30s, about the role my mother and father (his grandparents) played in his adult life.

“I admired grandpa so much that I even changed my handwriting style to match his,” Rick said. “And his integrity and honesty rubbed off on me.”

In past times, grandparents often did not live long enough to see their grandchildren reach adulthood. Adult life expectancy in 1900 was around 50 years old. One of my own grandfathers died before I was born and the other succumbed to a heart attack when I was six.

But my father lived until the age of 92 and my mother is still alive at 94. Grandparents now have influence for a longer period of time.

Another social change has occurred in the last century. Divorce rates have soared. There are many more single parents, with mothers often shouldering the burden pretty much alone. The role of grandparents increases.

In the difficult years of his mother’s divorce, Rick said, “My grandparents acted in the role of distracter. They made me look forward to some good times. But they did it without spoiling us.”

To this day, Rick says, “I still have conversations with grandpa. I tell him about things coming up. And I often find myself saying things and then recalling, ‘hey, that sounds like grandpa.’ ”

Grandma’s influence was more subtle. An introvert, she doesn't make any recommendations but she is a good listener, as Wickenheisser’s wife, Lynne, pointed out.

“I don’t think she dictates, but Rick and his brothers feel the strength of her approval. They are always seeking her approval. She provides a sense of history, a strong sense of value structure.”

Rick added, “I don’t think I ever saw my grandparents worried. They were always so positive. How do you solve a problem? Don’t give up.” And that may be the greatest continuing impact grandparents can have.

People with a positive attitude also live longer, according to Dr. Becca Levy of Yale who studied 660 older Americans from a small town in Ohio.

“Our study carries two messages,” she said. “The discouraging one is that negative self perceptions can diminish life expectancy; the encouraging one is that positive self perceptions can prolong life expectancy.”

OK, I’ve got the message.

I am going to stop being so negative myself when thinking about the younger generations. I don’t have any adult grandchildren yet, but I am going to start practicing the art of what Dale Carnegie used to call a half a century ago, “the power of positive thinking."

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