Friday, October 19, 2007

A Fourth Key: Constructive Help

A fourth key to intergenerational relationships is constructive help.

At first glance this seems pretty easy: our kids need help, so, if we can, we help them.

On the other hand, sometimes it's not as simple as all that.

When our granddaughter Elsie was just starting to walk, her mommy, our daughter Amy, regaled us by phone with stories of her first steps. I was happily excited, thinking about Elsie toddling around in a pair of ankle-high white walking shoes, just as her mommy had done years earlier.

At that time, Amy and Jack lived several states away. I knew I wouldn't be able to go shoe-shopping with Amy and Elsie. Since I couldn't be there myself, I carefully explained the importance of choosing good shoes.

"Oh," she said, "I don't think Elsie needs shoes just yet."

"Sure she does," I said. "Now that she is walking you want to give her feet and ankles plenty of support. Those little white walkers like the ones you wore are perfect. I know just where to get them."

"No, but thanks, mom," said Amy. I could hear her choose her next words carefully. "It will do her more good to go barefoot. Our doctor says that will help the muscles in her feet develop properly. I don't think I want to put her in shoes just yet."

In my mind's eye, I could see a little parade of white walkers, from the ones my younger brothers had worn right through the pair I'd bought our youngest son not so long ago. What I heard in my daughter's voice convinced me that the parade was over, and it wouldn't do any good to argue the point.

Whether it's a major holiday celebration or simply an everyday tradition like a first pair of shoes, change is difficult. We invest a lot of ourselves in choosing how we give meaning to significant times in our lives. It isn't easy to erase or amend those choices, or to stand by and smile when our children seem to diminish them by easily giving them up.

As our children marry, form new families, and begin new family traditions of their own, our attitude can be one of condemnation and criticism, or of blessing. We can guilt them into doing things our way, or we can bless their efforts to incorporate our values into their traditions. Insisting on our own way of doing things, demanding their presence at traditional family events, or complaining when things change is not the path to blessing; it is, instead, a good way to alienate the people we love most.

So that afternoon on the phone, I reminded myself that the issue of white walking shoes was not a make-or-break issue in Elsie's development. I quickly thought about the times I failed to take my own mom's advice about various child-rearing choices. I decided this would not become a bone of contention between my daughter and me.

"Going barefoot will certainly strengthen the muscles of her feet," I said, and smiled to myself at the picture of that tiny barefoot girl.

Offering constructive help to our children as they parent means, first of all, listening and watching carefully for what they really want and need from us. We need to be sensitive to our children's need for encouragement and support even while we respect their independence and their right to make decisions for their own children.

Sometimes we simply have to ask: what could I do that would be genuinely helpful to you? Other times we need to just pitch in: mopping up a flooded basement, or caring for our grandkids so they can accomplish errands or go out for dinner.

It's important for us to recognize that while, most of the time, our children may be managing so well they don't seem to need help, there may still be times when they could use help but are shy about asking. We also have to be honest with ourselves and with our children about what we are able and willing to do to help them.

Learning when to ask, when to offer, and when to simply pitch in is just another “learning objective” for us as grandparents.

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