How to teach, learn and care with extended family

At 89 years old, I found myself thinking with pride the other day about how amazing the experience and intellectual power of my extended family is. What a wealth of knowledge we are collectively.

I have learned about worlds far from mine from all of them.

There was a time when I might have learned of my family’s interests and dreams while we were sitting around the dinner table. I’ve always advocated for a culture of teaching and learning from one another, with knowledge and ideas spreading in multiple directions during our lively conversations that came naturally as were together in our day to day lives.

But today, I live alone.

No longer part of an immediate family, for teaching and learning to continue, we must seek it out across our extended family. We must make a concerted effort to connect and engage in a meaningful, purposeful way.

 A Symptom of USAmerican Culture

On the good side of USAmerican culture, we are fiercely independent. A primary goal in raising our children is to grow adults who can live and survive independently. Whereas in some cultures it “takes a village to raise a child,” in the US, parents lay strong claim to the right to correct and guide only their own children. That can even include excluding grandparents. The phrase “close mouth open wallet” is embedded in the dynamics of our individualist culture.

“In western cultures, and particularly in European American culture, families typically follow a nuclear model comprised of parents and their children,” says Marcia Carteret in her article, Culture and Family Dynamics. “This is markedly different from collectivist cultures that adhere to an extended family model. In cultures such as American Indian, Asian, Hispanic, African, and Middle Eastern, individuals rely heavily on an extended network of reciprocal relationships with parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and many others.”

To me that is a shame and a loss of opportunity to learn.

In our family I created the Witkovsky Living Legacy Foundation years ago to keep the siblings and cousins connected as they age. They and they alone make up the board of directors. They are able to apply for “grants” (aka projects or ambitions that Grandpa will fund), but they must first explain to the others what they hope to achieve, and upon completion, they must share what they have learned with the entire family.

When one grandchild recently applied for job search training courses, another who had been through a similar experience was able to provide support. We have seen pictures from African safaris and shared in the joy of another’s completing his Master’s. This process has allowed each individual success to be a joy for the entire extended family.

It makes me wonder where “interdependence” fits in. Can we cultivate a new cultural norm that lets us live independent lives while also embracing our need for one another?

Time and distance can get in the way of natural, ongoing connection.

Our family is spread across the country, literally, from New York to Los Angeles. My adult children are still driven by robust careers that keep them busy. My grandchildren range in age from teens to young adults, with one himself now a father of an eight month old boy, my first great-grandson.

I realize they all are busy–emotionally, mentally and physically–developing or managing their careers.  At the same time, the connection with my grandchildren and my adult children is critical to my mental health. I must let them know that so they understand my world.

I had this conversation recently with Kathryn, one grandchild who is 27 years old and finding success in her job at a top online hotel booking company. Kathryn said she understood my desire to maintain a rich connection. She said she will try to honor that request. And she has. With this open dialogue she also felt comfortable to set parameters. She found time by getting up early to visit me on a Sunday, but we discussed at the outset what time she would leave–which train she would need to take to get back to the City. I didn’t think “she doesn’t love me, already planning when she’ll leave.” I thought “how wonderful that she heard me and is making time.”

Shifting the Paradigm to Enter Each Other’s World

What if we, the grandparents, shook up the answer to the rote question, “How are you?” when we answered the phone. What if, rather than the expected “why haven’t you called,” “I’m fine,” etc., we responded with a conversation opener? “What’s the most interesting new thing you learned this week?” I could ask. The answer might give me new ideas and expand my mind while also shedding light on my loved one’s world.

Even if your family hasn’t grown up in a teaching and learning culture, it is never too late to make a change. Especially when you “own” the change. When you as a grandparent change what you are doing, the world around you will change in response. Here are some ideas that can shake up your family relationship dynamics and open the door to deeper connections.

Ask them to tell you a story

Going back to the intercultural model, one thing that often confuses visitors from other countries is how USAmericans constantly ask “how are you” without waiting for or expecting an answer. “How are you” is akin to “Hi,” in the US. So why ask? Instead ask for a story….”Tell me a story about school.” “Tell me the oddest thing your boss did today.” “Tell me a story about something funny that happened since we last spoke.” And then be quiet and wait and listen. What’s especially fun is that after a few weeks, you may get a phone call saying “hey grandpa…I have a story that I though you would like.”

Leave judgment at the door

Of course we have opinions and it’s hard to break the old pattern of embracing everything as a teaching moment. But as our children and grandchildren age and become adults…well, they have the right to their own opinions, even if we don’t agree.

How can we control the knee jerk reaction to respond or express doubt? Ask more questions. “Tell me more about that.” “I have some experience in that area, would you like my opinion?” Or, you may have to just agree to disagree. And also refrain from saying “I told you so” when they finally realize the nose piercing was not a good idea. (But it is okay to commiserate and get sympathy and advice from your weekly coffee klatch!)

You may mean well by asking about your adult child’s finances. But they may interpret it as you doubting them. Know that you raised them well and now they are responsible for their decisions.

Own Your Own Feelings

Ask for what you need. Own your feelings. Don’t be afraid to “need.” We can inadvertently put ourselves in a catch-22. With our cultural emphasis on individualism, we may not express ourselves and our needs, not wanting to impose on the other. But silently we think they should simply know what we need.  But no one can read your mind. If you want your family to know what you need and feel, you have to express it. Give them the opportunity to help you and each other.

Sometimes all generations are afraid to ask because we fear an obligation that we can’t fulfill, or maybe even more work—that if we ask the need will be something that may cost us time or money. But what if we looked through a lens of love and just listened and acknowledged the other?

As a Psychiatrist, my son might appreciate this “start with ‘I’ sentences” approach. How do I share my world, express my needs, knowing that I can’t control the response? What I know is that I won’t be afraid to share my world. And, when a loved one shares a glimpse into their world, I will take it as the gift that it is, and imagine with them to experience that world together.

Extended Family Inventory

Have you ever considered taking an inventory of the knowledge and experience of your extended family? You will get a WOW feeling as well. And that includes spouses, too.

It starts with a desire, a willingness to truly try to understand what the world of those we love is like. We may stand in the same space, but we don’t have the same realities. But when you add those different world perspectives up, the inspiration will take you to the moon and back.

Gratuitous Kvelling Below (and please share yours too, in the comments.)

My son Michael is a psychiatrist. I’ve learned so much from him about the power of stories to deepen communication. Daughter Ellen is the senior vice president and COO of a private social service agency. Grandson Ethan, a Rabbi, sends the entire family his sermons with so much insight into our religion and how it guides us with current ethical challenges. His brother Benny is a teaching assistant working on his Masters and PhD in sociology. Another granddaughter, Jessica, is a wild animal trainer and manager (also called “The Snake Lady” when she is hired by movies and TV shows to clear natural settings of rattle snakes before filming). Her sister Kathryn is in marketing for an online hotel booking website.

Ethan’s wife Erin is a brilliant Jewish educator and director of a religious school; Michael’s wife Julie is also a psychiatrist; Ellen’s husband Don is in charge of human resources and benefits at a major corporation; Benny’s wife Corina is a social activist committed to helping others; Kathryn’s significant other knows all about the gaming industry. The two youngest grandchildren, Aiden and Merite are a freshman and senior in high school respectively, learning and exploring and imagining where their paths will take them.

Tell me about your family? What have you learned from each other?