Grandparents and Groups

Happy older couple kissingIt’s a sad irony of life. We begin our lives completely reliant on others to survive, and then, if we’ve lived to our ripe old age, that’s also how we go out. Yes, it’s time to talk about grandma and grandpa.

The really awesome news is just how good grandparents are for us. “Grandparents are the ‘ace in the hole,’ of humanity,” says Bruce Feiler, author of The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go out and Play, and Much More (Feiler 163). We are born to be a socially cooperative species. We crave that connection with other people and caretakers who are not our biological parents help raise us (Feiler 164). A comparison of 66 different studies completed in 1992 found that mothers who have more support from grandmothers have less stress and have more well-adjusted children.

It also turns out the more grandmothers are involved, the more dads are too (Feiler 164). While we may complain that grandparents spoil the kids, that is their job. Parents are supposed to take the lead on disciplining negative behavior which leaves grandparents free to have all the fun (Feiler 165). Don’t worry parents just hope your kids have kids someday, then you get to be the spoilers.

Parents, rather than fighting this dynamic, should embrace it. After all, it won’t last forever. Robin Williams’ character Sean, in his Oscar-winning role in the movie Good Will Hunting, said about his character’s spouse passing away, that it’s all the little imperfections about the person that you miss when they’re gone. Whatever annoys you now will be what you miss about them. If you are lucky enough to still have grandparents and they are of good character and want to be involved, Feiler says there are three great ways to get them involved:

  1. Offload siblings (Feiler 169). When child number 2 or 3 or whatever arrives, grandparents are often happy to take the older siblings (or some percentage of them) for a period of time. This makes the sibling(s) with grandma and grandpa feel special by having their own time, and gives mom and dad a break and some focus time with those still at the house.
  2. Be an escape valve (Feiler 170). When families are having difficult times, possibly financial troubles, maybe arguing a lot, grandparents provide a nice safe place to land for the kids were there is some stability and security.
  3. Hover (Feiler 170) I don’t mean having your grandparents hover over your shoulder explaining to you how to raise your kids, most parents I know don’t really appreciate that unless they’ve first asked for some advice. What we’re talking about here is grandparents being involved in the life of a teenager. Research shows that grandparents who are involved in a teenagers life, typically do much better in life.

    Face it – you’ve been telling your kids want to do ever since they were born and only once in awhile do they listen. Every parent knows this truth: you tell your kids something, they don’t listen – then a friend or another person tells them the exact same thing and its like they’ve just been handed the Dead Sea Scrolls. Yes, it’s frustrating but what is your outcome? To make sure they learn a valuable life lesson or make sure you get the credit?

Unfortunately, there will come a time when grandma and grandpa cannot only no longer not take care of the kids but can no longer take care of themselves. Difficult decisions lie ahead, particularly if there are adult siblings of your own involved. Some won’t be willing to admit to the reality, while others may desire to handle this as expeditiously as possible by pursuing their perceived path of least resistance. This can cause a lot of tension in the family.

Feiler recommends that when there are disagreements about what to do when mom and dad can no longer take care of themselves you must get curious about your siblings perspectives and feelings (its called empathy) and also think about your parent’s perspective (Feiler 116). Stephen Covey called this the Fifth Habit: seek first to understand then to be understood (notice how that once comes up a lot throughout these blogs?). Second, tell your own story. Then create a third narrative that, once you understand each others perspectives, may even be better than either one of your stories or solutions individually (Covey called this the Sixth Habit: Synergize).

There are some other techniques that can help not only resolve an interfamily dispute at this time, but any dispute.

  • Too few cooks spoil the broth (Feiler 120). There’s plenty of research that supports the fact that groups make better decisions than individuals. I’m not talking about those ridiculous committees where everybody sits around getting paralysis-by-analysis  (we call those faculty meetings). I’m talking about that right set of circumstances that allow groups to be smarter than the smartest people in them (Feiler 121). The recipe for an effective team is a mix of strong and weak ties, were trust exists and new ideas can flow (Feiler 121). The best movies and Broadway shows are made when there is a solid team that’s worked together for awhile, and enough fresh young talent infused, and the fogey’s knowing when to listen to a good idea.
  • Vote first, talk later (Feiler 121).  Groups are better at making decisions if they express their views at the start of the meeting before they have a chance to listen to anyone else (Feiler 121). The research shows that once the discussion has begun, people who tend to speak first persuade others of their position even when their positions are wrong, consequently not everybody’s opinion gets heard. One way to solve this problem is to have everyone write down their position which is then read the beginning of the meeting.
  • Hold a premortem (Feiler 122). Trying to make everybody feel good about their stupid ideas is just ridiculous. People need to develop a little bit of skin and express their true opinions. Just because your idea was stupid doesn’t mean you’re stupid. As the Eagles once sang, get over it. Once honesty is in play people can play the, “so what’s this look like a year from now,” game. Have people write down what they think would have gone wrong with a particular course of action. This is the way to have postmortem before the, uh, mortem.
  • The Law of Two Women (Feiler 122). Always make sure there is at least one woman in the room. Turns out there are two factors that matter most in successfully tapping into that elusive concept known as “collective intelligence.” First, groups in which a few people dominate the discussions are less effective than groups where everyone speaks up, and second, groups that have a higher proportion of females are more effective (Feiler 123). Women simply make teams work better.

    They bring a collaborative leadership style that benefits boardroom dynamics by increasing listening, social support and win-win problem-solving. Women are wired to be more cooperative and sensitive to other people’s emotions, and more interested in building consensus (Feiler 123-124). The department I work in has a male-dominated student body because its a male-dominated industry. There are some nights when there are no women in the classroom at all, and I hate those nights. The guys degrade to a sort of groupthink, when only one genders perspective is involved. Plus, the classroom conversation quickly degenerates to something slightly above a group of chattering primates.

Feiler says that bringing down parents is much harder than bringing up kids (Feiler 124). I think I get this. When you bringing up the kids you’re constantly opening doors for them, pushing them out to explore new worlds and new experiences. When you’re bringing down your own parents, you’re slowly taking away their transportation, their home and ultimately their freedom – it’s all about shutting doors and ultimately, shutting down their life. It seems the best way to approach this is through open and honest conversation with siblings and your elderly parents. Just like when they gave you “the talk,” about the birds and bees when you were a kid, addressing these issues is not a “talk,” but a conversation. While it might be easier for you to have one talk with your parents and consider it done, that will not be what is in their best interest nor yours. Even if siblings don’t want to talk, Feiler says we need every voice…including emotion ones and ill-informed ones (Feidler 126).

Remember that your parents are now relying on you to make the tough decisions. They knew that one day you would have to make. Watch out for their interests just as much as you watch our for your own kids, because one day, your kids will be making the decisions for you.

Feiler, Bruce S. The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go out and Play, and Much MoreNew York, NY: William Morrow, 2013. Print.



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