“A people without a history is like wind on the buffalo grass.”
The American Family is in transition! The nuclear family of a mother, father and children no longer seems adequate to cover the wide diversity of household arrangements we see today. Over the century, there have been significant changes in the family’s structure and functions. Prominent among them has been the extension of family bonds, of affection and affirmation, of help and support, across several generations whether these be biological ties or the creation of kin-like relationships. But as families have changed, they have not necessarily declined in importance. The increasing prevalence and importance of multigenerational bonds represents a valuable new resource for families in the 21st century.
Urbanization, increased individualism and secularism and the emancipation of women have transformed the family from a social institution based on law and custom to one based on companionship and love. In the last few decades, with the shift to a postindustrial domestic economy within a globalized capitalist system and with the advent of new reproductive technologies, the modern family system has been replaced by what has been called “the postmodern family”.
Each child born is granted the gift of life by their parents. This gift is a link to their ancestors who lived before them. From the beginning of time people have sensed a need to belong. Without this connection to our ancestors we would have little knowledge of our culture or how we fit in. Through discovering our roots we become aware of who we are as people. We also come to understand more about our purpose in life.
Valuable lessons can be acquired by learning about the ethics of our ancestors. The way an individual behaves and their ideals are often passed from generation to generation. People are referred to as being a descendant of so and so. In reality, it does not matter if our ancestors were heroes or scoundrels. We cannot take credit for their achievements nor should we be blamed for their faults. It is important to realize that as individuals we are accountable for our own actions.
In recent years the age structure of most American families has changed with more family generations alive but fewer members alive in each generation. Family relationships across several generations are becoming increasingly important in American society. They are also increasingly diverse in structure and functions. As the demographics of the country changes with the older generation living longer more active lives, the result is longer years of “shared lives” between generations. As family dynamics change there is an increasing importance for grandparents and other extended family members in fulfilling traditional family functions.
Grandparents have become important role models in the socialization of their grandchildren. They provide economic resources to younger generation family members, contribute to cross-generational solidarity and family continuity over time. They also represent a bedrock of stability for teenage moms raising infants. In the context of marital instability, the breakup of nuclear families, and the remarriage of parents, it is clear that grandparents and step-grandparents are becoming increasingly important family connections.
An unfortunate stereotype of the older generation today is of “greedy geezers” who are spending their children’s inheritance on their own retirement pleasures. In reality, most grandparents are providing some form of help and assistance to their children and grandchildren. They have been described as a sort of “Family National Guard”: Although remaining silent and unobserved for the most part, grandparents (and great-grandparents) muster up and march out when an emergency arises regarding younger generation members’ well-being.
Multigenerational bonds are more important today than ever before, particularly with regard to the network of family support across generations. These multigenerational relationships are increasingly diverse in structure and functions within American society. Because the increase in marital instability and divorce have weakened so many nuclear families, these multigenerational bonds will not only enhance but in some cases replace some of the nuclear family functions that have been the focus of so much recent debate.
So let’s hear it for grandparents! A family is not a set of unconnected individuals doing their own thing; it’s a cluster of related generations. A loving grandparent has so much to give to the grandchildren but they can learn from them as well, and this adds to the general health of a society. Much research, over the past few years has provided evidence that grandparents can be vital in providing family stability. With both parents working, family stress and all the confusions of modern life, grandparents give children unconditional love, support and valuable life lessons. They are family historians with unique experiences who are contributing to the future by passing on important values and also learning about what matters to younger generations.
In my exploration of changing family dynamics over three generations, I have discovered that while it is also true that grandparents can rule with an iron rod, undermine the daughters-in-law that come into the family, interfere between parents and children, prevent or make very difficult the introduction of change and create factions within the wider family, grandparents have always had a role in passing on the culture of their society. A study of past generations can shed light on recurring patterns of behavior that if repeated or misunderstood can create further disfunction in the family. This communication and understanding can help to bridge what can be a significant gap between generations and improve the harmony of the family as a whole.