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Empathic Grandparenting

"Grandparents: The people who think your children are wonderful even though they're sure you're not raising them right."
- Author unknown

About 150 years ago, people began to recognize that the tone of one's skin does not make someone less of a person, and laws were passed to protect people of color from abusive and unfair treatment. This was, of course, a bitter struggle, which has continued into the present, but most of us today understand that people of all skin tones are entitled to the same rights and freedom in our society.

About 100 years ago, people began to recognize that one's gender did not make someone less of a person, and laws were passed to protect women from abusive and unfair treatment. This too has been a bitter struggle which has continued to the present, but most of us today understand that all people, male and female, are entitled to the same rights and freedoms in our society.

About 25 years ago, people began to recognize that the age of one's body does not make someone less of a person, and that seniors are entitled to the same rights and freedoms as everyone else. Again, this is a bitter struggle which continues into the present and will hopefully continue far into the future.

In recent years, we have finally begun to extend rights and freedoms to children. What does our struggle for children's rights mean for grandparents, who were raised in such different times? One outcome is that children are no longer seen as property, to be manipulated through threats and punishment to meet the needs of their parents and grandparents. We are beginning to see children as real persons with real feelings, to be treated with the same dignity and respect as everyone else.

Fifty years ago, a grandchild was expected to show outward respect and courtesy to a grandparent, with little regard to the way the grandparent treated the child, and with little regard for the child's true inner feelings. Respect and courtesy are still highly valued today. The difference is that respect is now seen to be a two-way street, and the child's feelings are to be taken into account along with the feelings of the older members of the family.

There is good news and bad news here for grandparents. The bad news is that a grandparent can no longer expect to be shown courtesy and respect simply by virtue of the fact that he resides on that particular branch of the family tree, without some effort on his part to respect the child, to earn the child's respect, and to look at things from her point of view. But the good news is wonderful! Grandparents are now in a position to receive genuine respect based on the child's love for them, and not merely an outward show of "manners" based on the child's fear of punishment.

Freedom is always contagious. More freedom for a grandchild means more freedom for the grandparent, who no longer needs to take the thankless role of the "feared elder" waiting passively for an empty show of respect. Grandma and Grandpa are now free to play the more active role of close, loving grandparents, with the emphasis on "grand"!

Today grandparents are called upon to listen carefully ("I can understand that you're feeling sad"), to judge fairly ("When you're four, you're entitled to act like a four-year-old"), to share feelings honestly but gently (I'm so sorry, but I'm too tired to play right now"), to share one's own experiences ("That reminds me of something that happened when I was four"), and to believe in the child's good intentions in all circumstances ("I know you threw the pillow because you want to play with me. What else can we do together?")

Because children of today are recognized as being real persons with real feelings, more effort is expected of both parents and grandparents, and that can seem unfair; after all, they had to show respect to their own grandparents, regardless of how they were treated by them. Children may have more freedom today than grandparents had as children, but the consolation for them is substantial. Grandparents of today are free to have real interactions with real persons, rather than formal, meaningless role-playing with a frightened child. Both grandparents and grandchildren have gained an exquisite freedom: to love and get to know someone real, and to be loved and known in return.

Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting and unschooling. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby
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