Grandparenting Then and Now

A grandmother reconnects with her mother's old-school parenting approach.

By Adair Lara

While I had my two small granddaughters at my house on a recent Saturday, I stole guiltily into the kitchen for a moment's break. I was heading for my laptop and e-mail when my eye happened to fall on the black-and-white photograph of my mother that hangs on the wall.

The camera had found her in front of our old stove, wearing a kerchief over her tumbling black curls, leisurely making herself a cup of Sanka. She looks serene, and she was. Yet in 1952, when my sister Adrian and I were born, the Stinson Beach [Calif.] News profiled her for having five children younger than 5 — and she went on to have two more. My father, a carpenter, never changed a diaper (although in one picture he is playfully parading around in one).

What Has Changed

Parenting has changed, and grandparenting along with it. My daughter would have spent a day with the girls just as I had, taking them to the science museum and the park, and then coming home to play checkers and give them lessons on using a video camera.

Why was my mother so serene, with seven kids, no money, and no help? I know why: My mother never entertained a kid in her life.

Back then it was different. Kids followed adults around, not the other way around. If my brothers and sisters and I went anywhere, it was to the grocery store or the gas station. There was no "self-improvement" in our house, no talk about our self-esteem. My mother, and the other mothers in the Valley, had never heard of realizing one's potential. Or growing as a person. The only kind of growing you did was into your older sister’s castoffs. There were no lessons to drive us to, and no playdates to supervise.

Kids were actually allowed — in fact, they were often required — to be out of a parent’s sight. My mother believed that a kid who was sitting around in the house was a kid running up the light bill.

"There’s nothing to do," I’d sometimes whine.

"You could clean your room. That would be something to do," she’d reply as she turned the page of her library book, the cellophane around the spine crackling.

Of course she had plenty to do. There were Dad’s Big Ben jeans to mend, overdue books to return, noses to be wiped, endless dental appointments, a never-ending cycle of meals for eight to get on the table. But she also had long lazy mornings to watch the swirl of her cigarette smoke float toward the ceiling as she sipped a second or third cup of coffee. She had no e-mail to check. The phone didn’t ring much.

When Boredom Was Allowed

We kids roamed the neighborhood. Yes, we got sunburned, tetanus, and dog bites — and we fell on our heads a lot. We grew up dog-paddling instead of using the strokes you see at the Olympics. I once told my mother that I couldn't understand how she raised seven kids, then realized I'd happened upon the answer as I asked, "and by the way, why am I in a playpen in every picture?"

G.K. Chesterton said leisure has three meanings: 'The first is being allowed to do something. The second is being allowed to do anything. The third (and perhaps the most rare and precious) is being allowed to do nothing.'

Unlike many modern kids, we were allowed to do nothing. We were allowed to be bored. By the end of summer, the simple arrival of a meter-reader in the neighborhood could set off a stampede of my siblings. But we also knew the spaciousness of time, and how to make up games. Any one of us could spend five minutes watching a twig eddy in a stream.

I peeled buckeyes and watched the summer fog drip off the redwoods. I gazed at the colors swirling in the shaft of sunlight coming from the doorway, wondering if I was the only one who could see them. I assembled a pile of junk on a table and stared at it fixedly, determined to invent something. At night, we read, or listened to the radio. (My dad said TVs were for "morons," and wouldn’t have one in the house.)

Bringing the Past to the Present

As a grandmother, I sometimes feel like a divorced dad, running around in an effort to make the most of my time with the kids. On this day, though, as that photo of my mother caught my eye, I just stopped, and I listened to the girls in the next room. Ryan, 5, was giving the dollhouse a makeover, allowing Maggie, 3, to help by handing her the tiny couches and beds.

I had been planning to ask the girls if they wanted to try Jumpstart Kindergarten on my laptop. But I didn’t. I just let them play.



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