Thursday, August 23, 2007

Time With Grandparents Most Priceless of Gifts by Dr. Alan Singer

When Robin read my column on middle children, she related the "favoritism" of siblings to her parents' extravagant treatment of her nephew. This column appeared in the Home News Tribune on 08/22/07

Home News Tribune reader Robin e-mailed me with this comment: "After reading your column on middle children, and how they feel neglected because the oldest child and youngest child get so much attention, I want to point out to you that a grandchild creates an even bigger problem. I can't believe the attention that my parents have showered on my nieces and nephews. Can you imagine that my nephew received a $300 video iPod from my parents when the most expensive gift they ever got me as a child was $50?"

Robin makes an excellent point, which falls under the rubric of favoritism. It is detrimental to children, whether they are toddlers or adults, and it is harmful to children, whether it relates to their siblings or their nieces/nephews. The Babylonian Talmud poignantly describes the damage that can result from favoritism. Tractate Sabbath (10B) states, "It was because of what Jacob gave to Joseph in excess of his other sons, that his brothers became jealous of him." The Talmud concludes, "The matter resulted in our forefathers' descent into Egypt."

Don't expect this entire column to discuss favoritism, because it is not one of those issues that can be presented from two points of view. There is no formidable pro-favoritism lobby out there, and there is no scholarly research I know of that has tested favoritism's harm, using a control group. Parents who care about their children cannot make one of them the center of their universe, nor can they do that to a grandchild. Dr. William Doherty of the University of Minnesota explained to his own children, "In the solar system of our family, our marriage is the sun and the children are the planets, rather than the other way around."

I have chosen to use the remaining space here to discuss some important issues that face America's 56 million grandparents that came to light in a poll of 1,419 parents and 1,209 grandparents, which was conducted by Child magazine in December 2006. While it is encouraging to know that 80 percent of the nation's grandparents had visited or spoken with their grandchildren by phone in the past month, according to AARP, it is a bit disheartening to know that 62 percent of grandparents want more time with their grandchildren, and only 47 percent of parents would welcome the extra bonding time. Contact with grandparents is seen as a disruption of the weekly routine and the culprit appears to be overscheduling.

The author of the Child magazine article, Jessica Brown, quotes a grandfather named Doug, who lives 2 1/2 hours away from his son and grandchildren and complains, "I'd love to see my three grandchildren more often, but they have something to do every weekend, basketball, dancing, soccer, you name it." Sadly Doug adds, "The fault is with my son, not the kids, because he should be going out of his way to make time for visits."

With many households facing the dilemma of overscheduling, I'd like to pose these questions: Do parents believe that soccer is a more worthwhile use of their child's time than interaction with his/her extended family? Can the benefits of dancing compare to the priceless conveyance of values, affection, and history that occurs in multigenerational bonding with grandparents?

The survey indicates that the biggest obstacle to closeness is physical distance. Among the respondents, parents and grandparents lived an average of 235 miles from each other. Psychiatrist Arthur Kornhaber, M.D., encourages families to exchange photos and video mail to keep the emotional attachment going. "And if you need to save more money for visits to keep the generations close," he remarked, "consider it spiritual currency."

The Child magazine survey describes discipline as "a hot-button" issue. Brown states that when it comes to critiquing their child's parenting style, 36 percent of grandparents wish they didn't have to bite their tongues. Eighty-one percent of parents think grandparents applaud the tactics they use. In fact, however, only 63 percent of grandparents give their seal of approval.

Does the video iPod that began this column constitute spoiling? Brown indicates, "Only 34 percent of grandparents feel they spoil their grandkids more than the parents do. Instead, a surprising 56 percent of parents own up to playing the role of the chief spoiler." The article quotes Amy, whose mother-in-law brings her 4-year-old a present on each visit: "I understand her desire to do so, but I want my daughter to appreciate gifts, not expect them."

This column is dedicated to our first grandchild, David, born July 19.

"Be Counted" columnist Dr. Alan Singer is a marriage therapist in Highland Park. He can be reached at He blogs at