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.

When my grandmother was alive and I lived far away, I quickly learned that all she really wanted was a phone call or a visit. I could skip the holiday or birthday scarf, book or other gift. Instead, we had a regular phone schedule that we both enjoyed. (I am particularly missing her this election since she closely watched politics and always had something interesting to say).It turns out that this was a very healthy habit. AARP recently published an article and infographic, Alone and At Risk, that suggests that social isolation is a major risk factor for aging adults. The article comments, ”Research shows that social detachment — having few close relationships — is as bad for you as smoking and worse than obesity.”

The article then explored why seniors are experiencing social isolation by conducting a survey. The two top reasons by far were “Family and friends live too far away” (48% of respondents) and “Family and friends are too busy” (42%). I was surprised that so many seniors felt disconnected from their families, especially given all the technologies available today.

However, it made me wonder if the problem somehow had it’s roots in the response ‘Family and friends too busy.’ When I think about all the activities I do with my kids, both during the week and the weekend, it really is challenging to find time to make a call or set up Facetime or Skype. One possible way to help seniors and their families become more connected is to focus on asynchronous communication. For example, DoubleScoop, Facebook, and even plain old email don’t require both grandparents and their families to be available at the same time. This might in part explain the growth of seniors using Facebook. For grandparents with grandkids too young for Facebook or email, DoubleScoop and BloggleBeans are fun, new ways to connect them when they have a free moment.

And why haven't I deleted it yet?

And why did I take a photo of zucchini corn cakes? And why haven’t I deleted it yet? 

Scrapbooking does not come naturally to me. My family scrapbook growing up was a big drawer under the TV where we dumped the occasional photos we felt were worth keeping. A couple of moves and the photos were duly placed into a new drawer somewhere else. Perhaps a photo would be removed from time to time at a milestone birthday or graduation. But usually not. Not to paint too dim a picture, our best photos were tastefully framed and placed somewhere in the house to enjoy. I suppose if you put them all in a row, we would have a timeline.

So, not surprisingly, when I had my own family, I started out with a large drawer in my coffee table where I placed any photos I remembered to print. I finally did organize quite a few into various scrapbooks when there was a wildfire near our house and it seemed easier to haul a couple of books than 1000 loose pictures. But soon after, the drawer filled up again.

Then we got a new coffee table. And there were no empty drawers in our house. Another round of shoving photos into some photo albums came to pass. And then things got really ugly. My husband and I each got iPhones, our 8-year old took possession of an old digital camera, we got a new digital camera, and my husband and I each got new computers, one Mac and one PC. Within 3 months, I had 1000s of photos on 6 different devices, nothing was getting printed, every memory card was full, and about 1% of all the photos were worth looking at again.

The solution? No idea. But for now the digital cameras are off limits, since we aren’t completely sure where the download cables are, and we have reactivated an account at an online photo-printer to encourage us to print and ‘scrapbook’ more. Facebook and its timeline are beyond my skill set. Of course we are using DoubleScoop with the grandparents and uncle so at least their photos are all in one place, rather than in separate emails. If you have any great ideas to help with organizing photos, please share them.

My family loves storytelling, not only from books, but also from our own lives. Stories from my kids’ grandparents are even more exciting. Here are some ideas to begin a tradition of storytelling between grandparents and kids:

1. A Day in School. Tell your grandchild about a day in school at about the same age. Details are key: What did you wear? What was in your lunchbox? Was another kid mean to you? Did you take classes after school?

2. Halloween. Describe how you spent Halloween when you were a kid. What was your favorite costume? How much candy did you get? What was your favorite, and least favorite, treat?

3. Weekend fun. Share how you spend weekends as a kid. Was it mostly sports, or family outings? Was there a special meal or tradition that you had? What did you look forward to?

4. Grandparents. What were YOUR grandparents like? What are some of your favorite memories? When did you see them? What did you do together?

Do you have any other ideas? Please share them!

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.

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