A Grandparent's Role

AT BIRTH, A CHILD ENTERS THE mysterious world of its parents. At the same time, the child also enters the wider, even more mysterious world of its grandparents. Grandparents can, if they choose, remain aloof, becoming merely titular family figures in a grandchild's life, like the wooden image on the top of a totem. Or they can enrich that child's life-and their own-as a powerful and irreplaceable presence.

Unfortunately, some experts on the family dismiss the role of grandparents as old-fashioned, inadequate and even unnecessary in an age of new family patterns and government programs. In her best-selling book, for example, Hillary Rodham Clinton misconstrues the old African proverb "It take a village"-her title"to raise a single child." Those African villages were not at all like small-town America in the 1950s. They were tribal clans, extended-family networks of grandparents and aunts and uncles with strong spiritual, emotional and biological ties. A more apt proverb for today's truncated nuclear family would be "It takes a whole village to replace a single grandparent." Indeed, in terms of nurture and emotional commitment, grandparents are infinitely more precious to grandchildren than a whole villageful of babysitters, child-development specialists, day-care centers and after-school programs. And when it comes to support for working single mothers, close grandparents can be indispensable.

Research by Arthur Kornhaber, a child psychiatrist with whom I wrote a book, "Grandparents/Grandchildren: The Vital Connection" (280 pages. Transaction Press. $24.95), shows that "the attachment between grandparent and grandchild is second in emotional power and influence only to the relationship between parents and children." But there is an important psychological difference between the two. The normal tensions between parent and child simply do not exist between grandparent and grandchild.

Bonding between grandparents and grandchildren begins with the first viewing of the baby. For grandparents, the experience is usually love at first sight. (Some women have even been known to lactate when a daughter delivers her first child.) Infants need a few years before they can reciprocate that love. But gradually, children come to realize that, like themselves, their parents have parents-"great parents" who seem to have existed since the creation of the world. In the same way, they eventual-learn to recognize close aunts and uncles as "elders" of the family "tribe."

Attentive grandparents play a number of vital roles in the life of a developing child. One is oral historian. Grandparents are inherently interesting for having lived in "olden" days. Children are especially intrigued by stories about what their parents did when they were children themselves To know that their parents were mischievous and made mistakes reassures children that they are just like Mom and Dad. In matters of family history, grandparents-not parents-are the ultimate authorities. A kindred role is family archivist. Children love exploring the grandparental attic, discovering old pictures, clothing, knickknacks and, in the process, their own roots. In these and other ways, grandparents supply grandchildren with a "we" as well as an "I." Regardless of their education or experience, grandparents are natural-born mentors if they take the time and trouble. When the emotional attachment is strong, learning is playing in the presence of a grandparent. Whatever the "curriculum," young children readily absorb what a loving grandparent has to teach. Many years later, grown children often cannot remember when or how they learned to build or bake, fix or make, the way a grandparent taught them. It has long since become instinct.

In religious matters, it is often a grandparent who provides spiritual sustenance to children of indifferent parents. Children always ask the big questions, like "Where does God live?" and "What does he look like?" Regardless of their grandparents' actual age, grandchildren always see them as old and "closer to God"--and therefore in a position to know. As history has shown, Christianity survived in Russia largely because the grandmothers-the babushkas--kept the flame of faith alive during more than seven decades of communist rule.

With the emergence of two-worker families, some grandparents are taking on more practical roles, as part- or full-time parents to their own grandchildren. And with the increase in the numbers of divorced and never-married parents, aunts and uncles, often single, are rediscovering their importance to nieces and nephews. Like grandparents, aunts and uncles are family, but their nurture is delightfully different from that of parents. In short, Americans are gradually relearning an ancient truth: that the natural family is the extended family. In that widened womb, every child thrives with aunts and uncles and-as the family's foundation-those mysterious figures called grandparents.