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Grandparents in 1986 provide `extra loving'

`LET me tell you about my grandchildren!'' The bumper-sticker message, plastered on everything from aging pickups to spanking new sedans, rings out across America these days.

And this coming Sunday, the affection behind those words will re-echo along countless telephone lines -- and in the notes scrawled on some of the 4 million Grandparents Day cards sold each year.

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Sunday, after all, is Grandparents Day -- the first Sunday after Labor Day, so designated by Congress in 1978.

But just who are today's grandparents? What do they think about grandchildren?

``I'll tell you about grandparents. They do some extra loving,'' a 70-year-old black grandmother told her interviewers at an inner-city senior citizen center. ``You don't have [the] responsibility, so you have more love to spare.''

``My grandmother was a matriarch,'' said a woman at another senior center. ``There's no comparison between the grandmothers of the previous days and now. Our grandmother was the queen of the family, we looked up to her. . . . There was love, an awful lot of love and respect, whereas with my grandchildren, it is companionship. I'm their pal.''

From comments such as these -- and from hundreds of hours of survey polling and personal interviews -- sociologists Andrew J. Cherlin and Frank F. Furstenberg Jr. have now assembled a profile of American grandparents. Their book, ``The New American Grandparent,'' is to be published (fittingly) this Sunday. And some of what they've found has been surprising.

``What stood out to me,'' says Professor Cherlin, who teaches family sociology at Johns Hopkins University here, ``was how deep and profound have been the changes in American family life over the last 20 to 30 years.''

``Grandparents now are interested in pursuing self-fulfillment, pursuing personally pleasing independent lives in the same way the husband and wife and even the teen-age children are,'' he said over a lunchtime interview here earlier this week.

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To Americans accustomed to seeing well-kept and energetic older couples in airports, restaurants, churches, and automobiles, that may seem an obvious conclusion.

But Professors Cherlin and Furstenberg (the latter teaches at the University of Pennsylvania) explain just how recent this phenomenon of the independent grandparent really is.

``Grandparenthood -- as a distinct and nearly universal stage of family life -- is a post-World War II phenomenon,'' they write.

Part of the reason: increasing longevity, allowing more children to know their grandparents. Statistics from 1870 show that only 42 percent of all females born that year survived to age 65. By 1980, the average 40-year-old woman could expect to live to age 80.

Part of the reason, too, is a higher standard of living for the elderly, due in part to the advent of social security, medicare, and other social programs. The result: more independence for senior citizens and a greater financial capacity to enjoy their increased sense of health and well-being.

The authors also cite simple matters of supply and demand. ``In 1900,'' they write, ``there were only 27 persons aged 55 and over for every 100 children 14 and under; but by 1984 the ratio had risen to nearly one-to-one.'' Census figures now project something of a grandparent glut after the year 2000, as the decline in the birthrate makes itself felt.

The changes have produced tough choices for many grandparents. They are caught, says Cherlin, in ``a conflict between [their] desire to lead independent lives and [their] desire to have meaningful family ties.

``The real dilemma for grandparents is found in those who want to move to `Sun City' but keep in touch with their grandchildren [in the Northeast].''

How do they handle the dilemma? From their telephone survey of 510 grandparents, coupled with follow-up interviews in dozens of grandparents' homes, the authors have concluded that there are three different styles of grandparenting:

Remote. Usually living at a distance from grandchildren, these grandparents have little chance to develop anything more than ``a ritualistic, purely symbolic relationship.'' The greatest determinant of the relationship, the authors conclude, is distance: Living at more than 100 miles from one's grandchildren, they say, does more than anything else to inhibit close relationships.

Involved. At the other extreme are grandparents who have very close relations with their grandchildren -- often because they live with them or even raise them. One grandmother, asked how she felt about the intense, loving, but sometimes burdensome relationship that arose from living with her grandchildren, summed it up for the authors in a single phrase: ``It's heaven and a hassle.''

Companionate. Between these extremes lies the most common style, in which grandparents and grandchildren behave almost like good friends. ``The grandchildren really do love their grandparents more today than ever,'' one grandmother told her interviewers. ``You know why? The social status is almost the same. They're interested in what you're interested in.''

Probing this middle style more deeply, Cherlin and Furstenberg have given a name to something that other students of grandparenthood have also nodded at. They call it the ``norm of noninterference'' -- which, they say, is one of the most powerful laws governing the grandparent-grandchild relationship.

However much American grandparents may wish to exercise some authority over the raising of their grandchildren, write the authors, they generally ``subscribe to the widely held belief that grandparents ought not to interfere in the ways their children are raising their grandchildren.'' Interfering, they write, ``is seen as one of the worst sins a grandparent can commit.''

What, then, do grandparents provide? In some families, it's a sense of continuity with past traditions. ``We have an awful lot to offer,'' one grandfather told Cherlin and Furstenberg. ``What we have to pass down to each generation is a sense of values; and if we don't have values, we're going to butt our heads against the wall of destiny.''

In other families, it's a sense of security that is both emotional and financial. Grandparents don't often provide month-by-month payments. But they do appear to help out in some of the big-ticket items of family life: providing the down payment for a house, footing tuition bills, or the like. And they are, the authors write, ``ever on the lookout for trouble and ready to provide assistance if a family crisis occurs.''

Through it all, however, the typical grandparents preserve a ``noninterfering'' distance. ``Grandparents in America,'' the authors write, ``are like volunteer firefighters: They are required to be on the scene when needed but otherwise keep their assistance in reserve.''

But the overwhelming thing grandparents supply their grandchildren, apparently, is simply love -- love so ``unbounded'' that the authors liken it almost to romantic love. Many grandparents had difficulty verbalizing it -- and some even broke down in trying to talk about it.

``I wonder why grandparents love their grandchildren like that,'' mused one grandmother in the presence of her much younger interviewers. ``When you get to be a grandparent you'll understand, but I don't think it can be told to you in words. You'll understand; you don't know where that love comes from.''

Was it difficult, then, to write the book? At the outset, says Cherlin, ``we were nervous about whether you could call a [grandmother] up and interview her over the phone successfully.''

What they found, instead, was that the grandparent interviews threatened to wreck their modest telephone budget. ``Our major problem,'' recalls Cherlin with a smile, ``was training our interviewers how to keep the interview [moving ahead] without being rude.''

The grandparents, it seems, were simply living up to the bumper-sticker sentiment and telling everything they could think of about their grandchildren.

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