I'm pretty sure my about-to-be two-year-old granddaughter, Kyla, loves me. When I'm visiting her and leave for five minutes to use the toilet, she cries. I've never been made so happy by someone else's unhappiness. For her, I rush through my morning ablutions, sit on the floor even though my back aches afterward, and recline on the sand at the beach even though I can't bear having sand in my butt. I do these things because I adore her and because I know her biological clock is ticking... not the clock that is set to alarm her when her childbearing years are drawing to a close, but the one that informs her that her grandparents are no longer a necessity of life. I suspected all along my influence on her would abruptly halt at adolescence, but after attending a recent conference titled "The Psychological Road of Adolescence" I am certain this is the case.
Vivian Seltzer, PhD, a professor at The School of Social Policy and Practice at The University of Pennsylvania, is one of the country's leading researchers in the field of adolescent development. Her extensive interviews with thousands of teenagers over several decades revealed that once children reach puberty, they perceive the influence of their grandparents on their lives to be exactly zero. Nada. Zilch. Peers, parents, siblings, teachers, and coaches all have higher influence scores. Isn't that just peachy?
Type "the influence of grandparents on grandchildren" into your web browser and you can enjoy skimming through hundreds, maybe thousands of blogs and articles that have been posted on the subject to inform, instruct, entertain or touch you. Grandparents from around the country write copiously about the bonds they forge with their precious grandchildren. Websites dedicated to the subject abound. Then type "the influence of grandparents on adolescents" and you will, as I did, find very little. One of the few studies I unearthed was published in The Journal of Intergenerational Relationships. It followed 80 grandparents and their adolescent grandchildren and found that while the grandchildren felt great affection and respect for their grandparents, the older generation sensed a greater level of change in the relationship as the grandchild aged. " No surprise there.
Let's not confuse influence with love. Our teenage grandchildren may love us dearly. At some point, however, they simply have no use for our advice. And they may be perfectly content to love us from a distance. Frequent contact is not on their top 10 list of Things I Need to be Happy.
I adored my "Papa Louie." My fondest childhood memories include sitting in the back of his green pickup truck on the way to feed the ducks at the zoo, stealing the maraschino cherries from his Manhattans even though I hated them, and watching "the fights" (his word for televised boxing matches) with him on Sunday afternoons. Ask me how much time I spent with him when I was a teenager or a young adult or a mother with young children and I will cry. It was not enough time. Not nearly enough.
I'm writing this as a member of a culture that encourages independence, a culture that allows, even encourages its children to follow their dreams even when those dreams take them far from home or take up all their time. I suspect this may not be the case in homes where several generations live under the same roof and make interdependence a top priority.
As a young woman my vision of the American dream was a life built on my own terms. It is what I taught my children. As I age, however that dream has morphed into a mishmash of mixed feelings and evolving values. I miss my kids.
My time with my granddaughter is already limited because of the 3,000 miles that separate us. In the blink of an eye I'll have even less time with her than I do now. It stinks. But if I want the best for her, and I do, I have to hope that in the not-to-distant future she becomes too busy for me. I have to hope that her life brims with good friends and activities she enjoys and grand plans for her future. It's an irreconcilable dilemma.
There is some good news. I've already exerted my influence on three children who are now grown. I've been the model of sound values and the dispenser of sage advice. I have been "Influencer-in-chief." Freed from that role I can simply and purely love Kyla. I will sit on the floor with an aching back, and let her have the croissants she so loves, and, for her I will even get sand in my butt. I will establish my presence in her life while she is young and I will try to forgive her absence when she no longer has time for me.
In the meantime, I am going to remind my sons to call their grandmothers on Mother's Day because I have a hunch they'll forget.