In a study released last month by researchers at the University of Liege in Belgium, ageism can be seen in children as young as three. It's normal - little kids naturally sort what they see into categories, and often assign traits to those categories based on the messages they receive (such as that elderly people yell a lot and want you off their lawn).
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They tend to grow out of their ageist views at around 10 to 12, but it helps to give them a nudge. One way to dissolve their stereotypes about the elderly may as simple as this: Encourage your kids to have "meaningful contact" with their grandparents.
According to a statement about the study, this is the key. The researchers asked 1151 children and teens ages seven to 16 their thoughts on getting old and about the elderly. Those who described their contact with grandparents as "good" or "very good" had more favourable feelings toward the elderly than those who described their contact with Grammy and Gramps less positively. Allison Flamion, who led the research team, explained in the statement that the "quality of contact mattered much more than frequency".
I did not need more data to be convinced of the wonders of the grandparent/grandchild bond - yesterday my in-laws invited my five-year-old to sleep over at their house and offered to take her to school this morning, so I know. Having two sets of grandparents nearby has improved our lives in a million different ways, and my husband and I are so fortunate. However, the relationship isn't as organic for every family. Sometimes, there's distance. There are generational differences. Some grandparents have died or are not around due to other circumstances.
But if there's a grandparent or grandparent figure who wants to be in a child's life, it can certainly be worth the effort to nurture the relationship. Aside from hopefully preventing ageism, intergenerational connections have plenty of other benefits for kids and adults. (My favourite study on the topic: Generation-bridging programs have been shown to increase the frequency of smiling among older adults.)
Here are a few things parents can do to support quality time between kids and their grandparents:
Make It Part of the Routine
Starting from when I was in about Year 5, my dad made me call my grandma every Sunday evening. At times, I slumped and protested. "I don't have anything to talk to her about," I'd say. But he insisted and eventually, the calls became part of the routine. I'd chuckle every time she'd shout into to phone, saying, "Hello? Who is this? Who? OH, MICHELLE! I HAVE BEEN THINKING ABOUT YOU!" No one ever has been as consistently enthusiastic about hearing my voice.
If your kids' grandparents live far away, it can be especially helpful to put a FaceTime or Google Hangouts chat in the weekly calendar. Make it a standing date as you would for soccer practice or taekwondo.
Be (Mostly) Hands-Off With the Relationship
I just found an old email that my husband sent to his parents the first time they babysat our daughter. He typed out an extraordinarily detailed schedule and list of instructions about how to care for her. (Real-life quote: "Bath: She sits on the left end of the tub. There's a fill line on the tub. Don't go past it or she gets buoyant and slips.") It's our first and only kid (and he has spreadsheets for everything), so I get it, but I think in general, we parents need to chill the eff out. Grandparents have - surprise - done this before, and should be given more credit.
Yes, parents are the parents and therefore get to make all the major parenting decisions such as whether to co-sleep, when to stop nursing, whether it's OK to put a Mona on a vegan diet, and when it's time to cut Wilder's long, shaggy 'do. But when it's the grandparents' time with the kids, let them have their own house rules, as long as it isn't harming the child (read: A little extra chocolate ice cream once in a while is probably just fine.) Here's how writer Denise Schipani put it:
I feel as though if I hand the grandparents a booklet of rules and instructions, I should also hand them a paycheck. Plus, by setting down rules for my parents, part of what I'm doing is trying to shape their relationship with their grandchildren. I don't want to do that. I want them to figure out how they get along and what they enjoy doing together, all on their own. That relationship is precious - because let's face it, who knows how long they will have it available to them?
Part of being a parent is welcoming other people into your kids' lives who are not you, and knowing that their lives will be more vibrant, and better because of it.
If Grandparents Aren't in the Picture, Look for Other Grandparent Figures
If grandparents or other older relatives aren't around, for whatever reason, there still ways to help your child experience the benefits of having a grandparent figure in their life.
There are all sorts of programs cropping up that help spark intergenerational relationships, such as day care and school visits to nursing homes. Where I live in Los Angeles, there's a program called "Sage and Seekers", in which high school students interview older adults about the life lessons they have learned.
It's also important to model kindness and empathy toward older adults, first as part of being a good human, but also to show your kids that they aren't weird and scary. If your preschooler makes a comment about the woman sitting at the park as being "old", you can respond with something like, "She must know so much about the world! Why don't we go say hi and talk to her?"
These connections have much to offer those in every generation, so find them, nurture them and celebrate them while you still have the chance.