Today’s parents are too young, too involved in finding their place in the external world, focused on paying the mortgage, getting the kid into a good school, keeping their marriage alive. They have no time to worry about their inner selves. That’s where they should be at thirty.
Things are different in your sixties. Grandparents have the time. Parents teach children how to behave in the present, how to get along, how to succeed, how to balance their needs with reality. Grandparents connect the kids to the past, who they really are, where they have come from, what’s inside.
My wife, Susan, and I have a country house in upstate New York. When our grandson, Emory, was little, his parents, Noel and Donna, rented a bungalow nearby for their summer vacations so they could have lots of time with us and we would happily babysit for hours on end.
Emory and I could swim in the nearby creek. Well, not exactly swim but we could spend hours damming the water with a wall of rocks like we were beavers. We could fish in the creek using frozen corn niblets for bait but never caught anything but sunnies, tiny flat fish with lots of bones. Most fisherman throw them back but he was so excited about catching them that Susan fried them and we ate them, bones and all.
Tennis was a big deal in our family. Noel played with Susan and me. Donna sometimes joined but she wasn’t as fanatic as we three so she often sat on the sidelines with Emory as he watched for a while, then climbed up and down the bleachers, dug in the sand nearby, sometimes found other kids to play with whose parents were also on the court.
When he was big enough, Noel took him out on the courts and what happened was a revelation. After hitting a while, Emory said he wanted to serve. Noel said give it a try.
I guess I have a distinctive serve. I certainly was not aware of it until that moment but, the minute he tried, we all started to laugh. I always bounce the balls twice – never more, never less – body hunched, wrist flipping in a strange way. I tilt one foot and lean back, slightly to the left, and then toss the ball high.
Damned if Emory didn’t ape every movement, every idiosyncrasy, every twitch. Although I never would have known I had such distinctive mannerisms the minute I saw him do it, I knew it was me. He was not even aware he was imitating me. This was the way his grandpa served. This was the way you were supposed to do it.
In a startling moment of recognition, I realized that they are always watching. They pick up every nuance, every subtlety, every message – even those we do not realize we are sending. They absorb what we do and who we are and bury it deep in their memory. We have no idea how much they are recording and what they will use when all the elements merge to form their character.
Daunting Lesson for Grandparents
This is a daunting lesson for grandparents. Kids pick up the essence of who we are, how we live, what we truly believe from our daily behavior, our quirks, from minute details that they store in those tiny brains and then, all of a sudden, they merge with what they saw in their parents, what they picked up at school, what they sucked in from the streets – and a new adult is formed. It is not what we proclaim about as the way to live. It is not what we make a big deal preaching about. If the messages you are sending are negative and harmful, to them or yourselves; if a sour, angry inner life is creeping out through your pores – even if not through your words – the children are going to receive the signals.
If, on the other hand, you are sending messages you can be proud of, even if you do not recognize them yourself, your grandchild is going to use them to grow and develop them well beyond where you have taken them.
My grandson picked up what was good and honest and valuable about me — not that my tennis serve was so terrific — but qualities of mine that were such an intrinsic part of my life I did not acknowledge them or value them as highly as I should have; my imagination, my love of make believe, my devotion to art, my tenacity. He is now a film actor; a talented, disciplined, creative artist. He has taken the best of my inner self and made it even better.
So, if you’re lucky, the kid picks up the ball and hits an ace.