From the loving "Swami" and grandmother's favourite in Malgudi Days, to "Puttar" by Jassi's bebe, no Indian story is complete without a grandparent.
If you're lucky enough to have grandparents in your middle age, it's a wonderful feeling to be able to hear the tinkle of the old bangles in an older kitchen, or listen to the hymns sung softly in the shaky voice of your grandfather in the early hours of the morning.
The hands that caress the face of the middle-aged "child" that you are has a rare warmth. It does not have a comparison.
From Little Red Riding Hood's tale to Pushkin's The Queen of Spades, the grandmother has been the focus of attention in every genre of writing. In the Chinese cultural milieu, or Japanese, a grandparent is as ubiquitous as in an Indian household. Whether it's the East or the West, whether it is literature, history, mythology or psychology, we have not been able to do without our grandparents.
The relationship is unique and the role varies from household to household. Just as parents feel it is all ending and their children are off to start their own families, a new role begins for them. They experience their second parenthood as grandparents. In some families, grandparents play a minor role, they are usually around retirement age and the grandchildren are brought around to visit once in a while. In other homes, the line between parents and grandparents is expanded: they bring up grandchildren, rather like parents, but sans the stress that comes with parenthood. They are more indulgent, more patient, and less prone to bouts of depression at the tantrums of their pre-teen grandchildren.
For grandchildren, their approach obviously works out better than the one that harried parents take. Grandparents expose them to different environments and points-of-view based on their long experience of life. They are more gentle; much more patient. Besides, if one of the parents is absent or unavailable, a grandparent can sure provide a missing gender role model. For a child, a grandparent can be a hero.
Older people too gain from getting to know their grandchildren. They forward the links to the future and continue to contribute to their family. They're able to enjoy a strong relationship with their grandchildren and also become an important part of their lives. They're able to help their grown-up children and feel appreciated for the important role they play in the family.
Grandparenting, like grandparents, presents differing styles. Here goes:
Tradition-keepers. A link to the past. You know them, don't you? Grandparents who insist that a lamp should be lit in the evening in the shrine at home and also explain why it should be done. They tell stories, introduce children to epics, religious texts, tell them about the past, talk about the childhood of their parents, about relatives, important family events, family traditions. In short, they make grandchildren understand their cultural background and help develop a family identity.
Confidante. This role is crucial. Grandchildren may open up to grandparents better. They would be the people the child would turn to when s/he wishes to share something. The communication can enable grandparents to understand how the child's mind is working and how it needs to be guided. For grandchildren, they are happy to being listened to by someone who is least likely to mock, or scold them. This imparts a feeling of psychological security; this is important in the growing years.
Playmate and hero. This applies to the grandfather more than the grandmother. A grandfather is the one who always has time for you when everyone else is too busy. Who else would have the time to look at the local trains for an hour in the morning? Or, take a leisurely walk? Reading books, playing games. who else would do this other than a grandfather? And, who else is in the position to reprimand even Papa when the time comes? A grandfather is the best playmate and ultimate hero.
Stress-buffers. Stress affects adolescents as well as younger children. Remember how Swami's grandmother stands by him at every point of time in his young life? Grandmas observe the company that the child keeps, his/her food habits, entertainment preferences - all these are possible conflict areas and need a buffer between the child and the parents. This buffer is the grandparent.
Counsellors. Once the storm of disagreement between a child and parent is blown up, it is the grandparent that can explain points-of-view that each one holds, to the other; at times, they can even suggest possible solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems of the moment.
Indulgent supporters. When parents refuse what they think is a useless demand, who else would the child turn to other than grandparents? Grandparents are notorious for overindulging in their grandchildren. It is believed that being grandparents sufficiently removes them from the responsibilities of disciplining children so that they can be friends. It's not entirely true. The indulgence lets children understand how much they are cherished. It is, thereafter, easier for a smart grandparent to make use of this feeling to bring the child around the next time s/he defies correct behaviour.
Grandparents are often more tolerant, loving and supportive. They can see better things in a child's personality. This outlook, reflected in their behaviour, is of great value to a child to be able to improve his/her confidence and have healthier self-esteem.
There is obviously something in this relationship to be able to have such a profound effect on young minds since time immemorial. For grandparents, grandchildren are, perhaps, the only ones who accept them and love them the way they are without rebuke or an effort to change them, unlike their own adult children. After all, a child needs a grandparent to grow securely in an unfamiliar world.
In the East, we don't need a Grandparents' Day. Grandparents in our society are too important a feature of the family for us to make space for them as an afterthought. Whether they live with their grandchildren, or away from them, they form an integral part of our lives. They are, as an endearing quote of a child describes them, ".Usually fat, but never too fat to tie your shoelaces. They wear glasses and sometimes they can take their teeth out."
Or, as Victor Hugo believed, "When grace is joined with wrinkles, it is adorable."
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