Why Jon and Kate Need Grandparents

As the hit show returns, Dr. Georgia Witkin argues, grandparents need a bigger role

By Georgia Witkin

Update: Jon & Kate Plus 8 is now off the air.

Jon and Kate Gosselin are the parents of eight children, but their own parents are almost completely absent from their TLC reality show, Jon & Kate Plus 8.

Jon, 32, has said that Kate’s parents, Charlene and Kenton Kreider, who, like the Gosselins, reside in Pennsylvania, "are just not involved," and that they wanted to be "drop-in grandparents," which neither he nor Kate could accept. Tabloid reports have claimed that the Gosselins are bitterly estranged from the Kreiders and that the maternal grandparents disapprove of the way the children — 8-year-old twins and 5-year-old sextuplets — are being raised.

Jon's father passed away several years ago. His mother, Pamela, who has remarried, prefers to stay off-camera. "She moved far away and wants her privacy," Jon has said. "She sees how our life is. We've benefited from the show but I have no private life. She doesn't want any part of that." But Gosselin insists that his mother is still very much involved with the family and that he talks to her every day. Once asked about the apparent lack of grandparent involvement in the children's lives, Jon said, "The cool thing is, we have so many people that love our kids that they're their grandparents."

Links in the Chain of Love

I know that if I had eight children, I'd ask my mother, my mother-in-law, and all my grandmothers to move in and help! Or, at least, take the kids for a visit once in a while! I'd want all my children to know that there are grandparents in their "chain of love" — others who can care for them and take care of them if anything were to happen to their parents.

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And now something has happened to their parents — and to them. Divorce. Kate, 34, and Jon are splitting up after ten years of marriage, and so, as the show returns to the air with a completely new spin, fans ask, more than ever, "Where are the grandparents?" In a survey of children I conducted for my book, KidStress (Penguin, 2000), divorce was one of the top three stresses for children. This year, 10 million children will go through what Jon and Kate's eight are going through, but the ones with grandparents in their lives will have an easier time of it:

• In times of family change or separation, grandparents provide stability to their grandchildren. They maintain routines, drive car pools, and ask about school.

• Grandparents can help the family buffer the financial stresses of divorce by helping to pay for children's school, clothing, camp, or activities.

• Grandparents can be there when working parents are not at home or are just feeling overwhelmed.

• Grandparents can give kids more undivided attention than their parents and have more patience than their older brothers or sisters.

Who Could Help Kids More?

The influence of grandparents is so significant that a large-scale survey of adolescents between 11 and 16 found a strong connection between involved grandparents and teen well-being. In fact, adolescents who had daily contact with at least one grandparent were less likely to use recreational drugs. Why? Most likely it's because grandparents offer conversation, encouragement, and help with solving problems. Grandparents boost kids' self-esteem and help them stay focused on their future.

We humans are built for family life. In a crisis, or after a disaster, it's family that gets us through. Seeing our families reduces isolation and depression just by forcing us to have face-to-face contact with other people. The routines and predictability of family life reduces stress. And nurturing, researchers have found, triggers innate biochemical stress-antidotes.

And no matter how strained the relationship between parents and grandparents may be, don't give up on it: Intergenerational support is as old as human history, and reasserts itself every time we face difficulty or disaster. In a Grandparents.com poll, 45 percent of grandparents said that if they were the Gosselin kids' grandparents, they would insist that the parents let them come and help the children; 36 percent said they would use whatever influence they had to persuade the couple to pull the plug on the show; and only 18 percent said they would stay away.

So, Jon and Kate, if you want to get through this time, even while living in a media bubble, take some advice from a divorced and remarried psychiatry professor, TV shrink, and grandmother who's been there and done that: The night you announced the unfortunate news of your separation was the most-watched episode of your show, with 10.6 million viewers. Bring those grandparents we're so curious about into the house, and watch your ratings climb even higher, at least among the most important eight members of your audience: The kids.

Whatever's come before, when times are tough, families come together, survive and thrive together. Bring on the grandparents.

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