A little over three years ago, I became one of America's 40 million grandmothers -- a group whose ranks are swelling and one that has received considerable media attention since there is the potential for our nation's first grandmother-in-chief, Hillary Clinton.
As a pediatrician and a professor in a medical school, I realized that the fundamental paradigms of Grammahood have shifted for my generation of grandmothers.
So what exactly has occurred that makes us different than all of the other Grammas who have come before us?
Paradigm 1: The past supremacy of Gramma's wisdom no longer exists. It has been replaced by the all-knowing Internet and social networks of like-minded people.
Not so long ago, grandmothers enjoyed a monopoly on parenting information. The long string of grandmothers who came before us were the midwives, the breastfeeding advocates, and the child-care experts. They held all the wisdom, passed down from one grandmother to the next.
I think of my own grandmother, Sadie, born in the 1890s. An immigrant from Russia and a mother at age 17, she learned everything she needed to know about being a mother from her mother-in-law, Anna. Anna helped Sadie give birth (at home), showed her how to nurse (at regimented intervals), and taught her how to discipline her five children (with a stern hand). Sadie did whatever Anna told her, and then, Sadie helped my mother, Rachel -- also an immigrant -- do the same with me and my two siblings. Although Dr. Spock had just published his first book on childrearing right before my brothers and I entered the world, my mother relied more on the wisdom transferred from Anna to Sadie to her than she did on the popular child-rearing literature of the day.
My Baby Boomer peers and I were the first generation to learn the ins and outs of child rearing, child psychology, basic biology, and nutrition from schools and books, rather than from our parents. But my sons and daughters-in-law -- and their Gen X and Millennial peers -- have relied even more on information from outside the family, such as blogs, television, and social networks. As a result, today's parents no longer think their mothers (or grandmothers) have all of the answers -- the unintended consequence being that Gramma's wisdom and advice no longer reigns supreme.
Paradigm 2: There are few absolutes on how to raise children. Some critical rules for childrearing are scientifically validated; the rest are culturally or socially determined. It's important for Grammas to know the difference -- so she can be a backstop for what matters, not a pain about what doesn't.
During my career, I have observed a near constant evolution of the way Americans birth, nurse, comfort, and raise children. Some of these shifts in childrearing have come from important scientific and medical advances. These include the ways babies sleep, get immunized, and what's allowed in their cribs.
Most child-rearing practices have evolved for cultural, social, religious, or philosophical reasons. These practices are simply customs -- not absolute rules. For example, is a flexible schedule better than a fixed one? Should a pacifier be used? Should children be allowed in their parent's beds? What is the most effective way to discipline? Scientifically validating that one versus another of these culturally or socially determined practices of parenting is superior to another has proven impossible. There are no studies that show having a pacifier, or sucking your thumb, or sleeping in your parents' bed makes someone more or less successful, depressed, or neurotic.
Today's Grammas should be aware of the distinction between parenting behaviors that are scientifically validated and those that are culturally determined. The reality is that it won't matter where and when Gramma's grandchildren went to sleep, whether they sucked their thumb, or how precise their eating schedule was. These are personal decisions that are up to the parents. What matters is that today's parents feel confident in their parenting roles and that their children are loved and supported.
Paradigm 3: We now know that children's brains dramatically develop for five years after birth. Grandmothers can help assure their grandchildren's maximal developmental success.
When I was raising my children, the consensus was that brain development was a simple process in which predetermined steps were played out, as the nervous system simply "matured" over time. However, science has shown us that brain development is extraordinarily complex, with the outcome determined by the interplay between genetics and the environment. The genetic part refers not only to all the genes one has, but how these genes are turned on or off (epigenetics). The environment consists not just of a child's physical surroundings, but all the people in it. In this context, children develop personality traits, abilities, strengths, weaknesses, resilience, optimism, hope, despair -- the full spectrum of human emotions and capabilities. Because the brain continues to develop and remold itself based on a constant stream of interactions and experiences, the impact of the behaviors of the people around the child matter even more than we ever believed -- particularly during the first five years when it is estimated that over three thousand trillion neural connections are made that dictate how that child will perform for the rest of their life.
Who better to offer nurturing, stimulation, warmth, support, and love than Gramma? Who better to serve as a positive role model for others to emulate? Gramma can be that additional force in her grandchildren's lives who enables them to develop, learn, and succeed. Grammas who understand the basic stages of brain development -- that vision and motor skills rapidly develop during year one, that a toddler's language acquisition accelerates and self-recognition develops during year two, that the peak build-up of synaptic density helps children understand cause-and-effect relationships occur in year three -- are best equipped to support their grandchild during these crucial development stages. The modern Gramma is one who spoils and adores her grandchild, but who also understands how to help maximize his or her developmental success.