Weekly column in the Washington Times Communities by Laurie Edwards-Tate
“If you associate enough with older people who enjoy their lives who are not stored away in any golden ghetto, you will gain a sense of continuity and of the possibility for a full life.” Margaret Mead
Margaret Mead may be the only anthropologist most of us can name. Although she died over 30 years ago in 1978, her writings and insights on modern American and Western culture remain of interest.
Mead had strong views about what it means to age in modern society. In an interview with U.S. News and World Report in May 1963 about the state of the American family, Mead predicted the circumstances we now face in 2012. She is amazingly prescient about the challenges faced by the Baby Boomer generation and their families. Her thoughts are well worth revisiting.
In her interview, Mead was asked whether grandparents could contribute more to the stresses and strains upon parents in a modern family.
Mead: Well, grandparents don’t live in the home to any great degree any more. Even when they do, people feel they shouldn’t be there. The grandparents feel they shouldn’t be there. The parents feel they shouldn’t be there. The children are taught they shouldn’t be there.
Q. Isn’t this a change? What’s caused it?
Mead: It’s partly because of the size of the house, of people living in city apartments with no room for grandparents. Also, improved Social Security benefits mean that some grandparents can afford to live alone better.
And another thing: Twenty or so years ago young people married when they were older. Often they married people their parents had never met. Often the two sets of parents didn’t like each other and so the safest thing to do was to move away from both sets of parents, so you didn’t get involved in their disapproval. Besides, grandparents were supposed to be old-fashioned.
In the last 15 years grandparents have become popular again—but always provided they don’t live in the house.
Q. Why the regained popularity, then?
Mead: Children are marrying so young, they’re going steady so early, that the two sets of parents are almost bound to know each other, almost forced to like—or at least accept—each other. Often they are forced to combine to support their married children, and the grandchildren that come along.
Also we have that wonderful invention, the sitter. That’s a wonderful thing to do with your mother-in-law. You see, when she comes in, you can go out.
Q. Doesn’t this mean we might get back to the three-generation family—children, parents and grandparents living under the same roof?
Mead: No. There is, I think, a continuing trend away from it, especially in these “ghettos” that are being built for older people.
Mead: They are special preserves where only older people may live. In some, no one under 50 is allowed—like a maternity ward in reverse. As someone said of these places recently, “They’re programmed for death.” Instead of having the older people near the growing children and being part of the community, they’re putting them away in these boxes.
Q. Could grandparents really contribute to a family?
Mead: I think older people know much more about change than young people. What children have to learn is how to live in a changing world.
These children that are born now think the world was made the way it is today—complete with transistors. They need someone who gives them some kind of perspective—someone who can convince them that you could be born in one world, grow up in another, and grow old in a third.
Q. And could grandparents do that for them?
Mead: Grandparents could give them an idea it’s possible.
Q. Living apart as most of them do, what could these grandmothers do in the life of the family?
Mead: I think we could have GTAs—Grandmother-Teacher Associations. Grandmothers should be still tied into the school, should be going to the school, helping the school, conferring with the teachers about Jimmy’s spelling and Suzy’s arithmetic. They should be doing a lot of the chauffeuring. They have the time—much more time than young mothers.
Furthermore, that way we would not be turning grandmothers into cranky, disgruntled taxpayers. Now we graduate mothers from the PTA the day their last child leaves school.
We say, “You don’t belong any more.” And so they get cut off from the whole school life of the community. Instead of being an asset, they’re often just a group of rather unhappy critics.
Until next time, enjoy the ride in good health!