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I have been reading and writing about the importance of grandparents in the lives of kids. Most of it has focused on the simple joys of having extra pairs of loving hands in their lives, as well as helping mom when she needs a break. But the University of Utah just published some research that suggests that grandmothers actually increased the longevity of humans way back when.
The article explains:
“…as human ancestors evolved in Africa during the past 2 million years, the environment changed, growing drier with more open grasslands and fewer forests – forests where newly weaned infants could collect and eat fleshy fruits on their own.‘So moms had two choices,’ Hawkes [professor of anthropology at the University of Utah] says. ‘They could either follow the retreating forests, where foods were available that weaned infants could collect, or continue to feed the kids after the kids are weaned. That is a problem for mothers because it means you can’t have the next kid while you are occupied with this one.
That opened a window for the few females whose childbearing years were ending – grandmothers – to step in and help, digging up potato-like tubers and cracking hard-shelled nuts in the increasingly arid environment. Those are tasks newly weaned apes and human ancestors couldn’t handle as infants. The primates who stayed near food sources that newly weaned offspring could collect “are our great ape cousins,” says Hawkes. “The ones that began to exploit resources little kids couldn’t handle, opened this window for grandmothering and eventually evolved into humans.”
Apparently, theories like this have been around for a while. But this new study provided mathematical evidence that involved grandmothers were a primary factor in increasing human lifespans.“Grandmothering gave us the kind of upbringing that made us more dependent on each other socially and prone to engage each other’s attention,” she adds. That, says Hawkes, gave rise to “a whole array of social capacities that are then the foundation for the evolution of other distinctly human traits, including pair bonding, bigger brains, learning new skills and our tendency for cooperation.”
So if you are debating how much time and effort you should invest in strengthening the relationship between the kids and grandparents in your life, you might want to be conservative and make sure there is a strong bond. Who knows what the research community will find out next?
There are so many reasons why I wish my parents lived closer to our family: last-minute babysitting, weekly dinners, tutoring, beautiful hand-stitched Halloween costumes (I wish. I saw some on Pinterest by a Grandma that made me envious). But what’s really getting to us now is adjusting back to everyday life after a visit from the grandparents.Our grandparents were just here. The anticipation of the visit was phenomenal, especially for my 5-yr old. Every day for a week before their arrival, she would wake up, run down the stairs, and make sure she knew how many days until they showed up. “Is it 3 days after this day, or 2 days after this day?”, she would ask? Her excitement wore off on all of us, and we planned and had a wonderful visit. (Except for the wee little stomach virus I shared with my mom. Oops.)

After such a big build up and a cookie-filled, totally indulgent visit, we should have predicted that the grandparents’ going home may not go over so well. One night, my parents just went back to the hotel rather than to our house to tuck in the wee ones, and our 5 year old bawled for 20 minutes. But when they left the state, she really surprised us. Our normally mellow, tantrum-lite child had about 3 major breakdowns in one day.

Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, researched families and communities, including inter-generational relationships. She authored the popular quote: ‘Everyone needs to have access both to grandparents and grandchildren in order to be a full human being.’ My suspicion is that my daughter simply is trying to be a full human being, and is struggling when her grandparents are not around. I truly believe that she is complete when surrounded by her whole family, including both sets of grandparents, and that their departure is much more than less ice cream. I think there is a biological need that takes over, and she feels less ‘whole’ as a person when her family is limited to two busy parents and a nasty older sister.

That being said, we will do our best to keep our kids and grandparents in touch between visits. But I do wish we lived near all of her grandparents, and I know she does too.

I drove 24 hours over the last 3 days to attend a wedding in Arizona (Death Star-themed wedding cake pictured above). I spent 16.5 hours of this prolonged, but welcome, silence listening to Homer’s story of the Iliad. It is an extraordinary tale, laden with rich characters, emotional conflict, and gruesome death scenes (‘…a cloud of darkness overshadowed him as he sank, holding his entrails in his hand.’ Ew.) But I was mostly interested in the story as an oral history, and I was glad I had the chance to listen, rather than read, the Iliad.

The story of the Iliad was likely passed on orally before Homer wrote it down in the 8th century BC. I like to imagine young people listening to the events being narrated by an older person, perhaps a parent or grandparent, over several days, and then learning to tell the story themselves. In this case, the Iliad was most likely studied, memorized and recited, and all in verse.

I believe oral traditions play an important role for children. There is value to learning to listen, and to remember and recite both the main story, as well as the details that bring a story to life. I could probably summarize the Iliad on Twitter in about 12 tweets. But that isn’t the point. The details of stories are what make it interesting and memorable. Also, the motivations of the characters Achilles, Agamemnon and Hector drive the conflicts, and teach moral lessons about greed, jealousy and holding grudges.

Grandparents can help kids appreciate stories, and become storytellers themselves. A grandparent’s life is itself a story, or a series of stories, with details that give a picture of life through time. And while many technologies focus on abbreviating stories, there are plenty that can allow a child and a grandparent to share richer, more detailed accounts. (Yes, DoubleScoop would work well here). A grandparent can play an active role helping to build a tradition of storytelling in a child’s life, and help a child gain the skills of storytelling – active listening, tracking plots, adding compelling details, and understanding people and their motivations. On top of all that, a child can learn about their family history, and strengthen their relationship with their grandparents.

I am going to a family wedding this weekend. I am very excited, not only to see some family members, but also because I am going without my kids, it’s in Sedona, AZ, and there’s a rumor of a Star Wars-themed cake. But it’s also my first family function since she died 3 years ago. Here is why I will be missing her so much:1. She won’t see my fantastic dress. After years of questionable fashion choices, I have at least partially got my act together. I wish she could see it – she herself always looked terrific, and cringed when she saw some of my get-ups.

2. She’ll miss another grandchild getting married. When she died, only one out of nine grandkids (me) had married. While she would not want anyone to rush into marriage, I think she would have enjoyed a couple more weddings than she did.

3. I won’t really have anyone to show pictures of my kids to. While my cousins and uncle will certainly look at a snapshot or two, it’s not the same total enthusiasm. (Of course, if she had been there, somehow the kids would have tagged along.)

4. I can’t call her the next day to talk about the event. This has been the worst part about her dying, and I finally understand what it is to really miss someone. Something just clicks, and I find myself reaching for the phone, and I remember she’s not here anymore.

I do know, however, that she would be happy for her family to be getting together to celebrate this milestone.

The rat

I don’t remember a lot about my first mouse. She was followed by a series of adventurous, devious hamsters that dominate my memoria rodentus. But I do distinctly remember one time when my Grandmother visited us in California. I took my mouse and ‘surprised’ her with it, dropping it on her shoulder. Her face is as vivid in my mind as the day I moused her. I have never seen her look so aghast, and she wasn’t play-acting. She was a good sport about it during the visit, but she and my mouse agreed to keep their distance.
Today, our first rodent joined our home. We had planned on a hamster, but after babysitting one, they seemed a little too easy to get lost. A little research on rats suggested they are quite intelligent (‘what does that really mean?’, my husband asked, ‘can it tutor the kids?’) and easy to care for. It has even been suggested that we can clicker-train the rat to do tricks. While this sounds great, I suspect our new $2 clicker will find a cozy place next to the foreign language DVDs, the dusty piano, my canning and quilting equipment, and the yoga ball.
After we bought the Luxury Rat Pet Home, we picked up our new friend at the Humane Society. (Yes, we went with one of the older rats that didn’t quite make the cut the first time around. I’ll let you know how that pans out). My kids were so excited, and it was time to let the grandparents, aunt and uncle know about Sammy.
Their uncle gushed over the picture of the rat, and asked what he could send to Sammy to make him the most ‘killer’ rat palace ever. He and my daughter rattled on about obstacle courses, etc., for a while. Then she called her grandmother, my mom, who had been through my mouse and 3 hamsters. She also thought Sammy was adorable, and I left them to chat. After a bit, they hung up, and my daughter said, “Sammy can go with us to California when we visit for Thanksgiving.” Now that’s one awesome grandmother, who clearly hasn’t seen how big the cage is.

Grandparents Day?

September 4, 2012

Before I started this job, I had never heard of Grandparents Day. Given that I have been extremely close with my grandparents all my life, I was a little surprised. At first, I wondered, ‘Have I been missing out on something?’ I also realized that this was the first year that I don’t have a grandparent alive to honor. My last grandparent died about a month ago. This all got me thinking about Grandparents Day, and what it might, or might not, be all about.

Grandparents Day is a relatively ‘new’ celebration. Marian McQuade founded Grandparents Day, with the goal of educating the youth about important contributions seniors have made. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter made the day official, and described the purpose of Grandparents Day “to honor grandparents, to give grandparents an opportunity to show love for their children’s children, and to help children become aware of the strength, information, and guidance older people can offer.”

The reason for Grandparents Day makes sense to me. But did I personally need a separate day to honor grandparents? I was fortunate as a kid in that my grandparents visited me often, and I was able to visit them, even though we lived in different states. I felt that we honored them every time we saw them. A visit with the grandparents was always special – the food was good, we had special treats, we learned to be patient when they told stories. I think if you asked them, they would not suggest that they needed more recognition for their role as grandparents.

Every family is not the same however. More grandparents are helping with the day-to-day tasks of raising their grandchildren. This changes everything. Just like Mother’s or Father’s Day, these grandparents might enjoy being recognized for their unique contributions to a child’s life. Additionally, as a community, I think it is important to take time out of our busy lives to appreciate the contributions seniors have made, and how we have benefited from their efforts.

I am fortunate that my kids and their grandparents are always showing love for each other throughout the year. They were on the phone last night with the grandparents in New York, and on DoubleScoop this morning sending messages to their other grandparents on a cruise ship somewhere. So this Sunday, I probably won’t encourage a special communication from my kids. But I might ask around and see if a senior needs help in our neighborhood with their fall cleanup, and make sure my kids help out.

Italian Proverb

A friend’s daughter just started kindergarten, and she attempted a courageous escape from the playground back to her house. She made it as far as the parking lot when her mom caught her and dragged her back. I found the breakaway story to be pretty funny, but it also reminded me of how difficult going back to school can be for some kids. And maybe grandparents can help a little.

When a child is going back to school or even starting school is a great time for grandparents to share stories about their own experiences at school. Young kids love to hear stories in general, and a story starring a family member that relates to the child’s own life is especially exciting. Chances are, there are some funny or exciting moments you can use to liven up your story. And a child might be comforted by knowing that others in the family have gone through the same experience, and maybe even have felt some of the same emotions.

Kids and grandparents can get in touch by phone, DoubleScoop, email, Skype and start exchanging their adventures. How did you get to school? What was your favorite part of the day? What did you eat for lunch? Were you nervous about anything? What did you do after school? There is so much to talk about, and kids love to hear about when their grandparents were kids. Kids will be especially thrilled if a grandparent can share an old photograph when they were the same age. Hopefully, these stories will help going back-to-school a little smoother, and a little more fun.

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