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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Grandparents Day, Sept. 9, 2012: "Do Something Grand"

I’m usually cynical about a day a year supposedly dedicated to a specific group of people, but it seems that Grandparents Day (on Sept. 9 this year) can be much more than a brainwave of the greeting card industry. The organization Grandparents United ( is proposing that grandparents celebrate their status by Doing Something Grand for children in their communities.

Grandparents United provides an infographic ( that shows how many grandparents are already doing Grand Things for their own grandchildren, ranging from savings for college education and payment for medical and dental treatment to permanent day-to-day care. But their Take Action Guide suggests a wide range of activities for those who are geographically or otherwise separated from their grandchildren or who do not have any yet (or possibly ever). The guide addresses the importance of intergenerational connections for all older adults as well as the benefits to the community when older people turn their energy and experience to helping rising generations, to working for all children, not just “my child”.

As is so often the case, people in the grandparent generation can count on the satisfaction  of giving real help to others, but perhaps not on any other reward. They do not necessarily receive direct thanks or enjoy authority, unless they are children’s guardians and caregivers. Grandparenting in the United States is usually a very different matter from parenting, and grandparents may need to focus on the privilege of helping rather than on any rights that they might expect to be associated with their positions.  

The question of grandparents’ rights is a complicated one in the United States, where every state has different statutes about contact between grandchildren and grandparents when families are in disagreement. Grandparents have some stated rights for visitation with their grandchildren, but those rights are applicable only in terms of the best interests of the child, and there may be powerful arguments against grandparent contact in some cases. In addition, of course, many grandparents who are denied contact cannot afford the legal representation which would be needed to challenge the denial; others may simply decide that it’s better not to further raise the child’s stress level by fighting the situation.

The U.S Supreme Court in 2000 heard a case from Washington State, Troxel v. Granville, in which a state statute which gave third parties (not just grandparents) a right to file a request for visitation with children had been declared unconstitutional by the state supreme court. The U.S Supreme Court affirmed this decision and repeated the common position that fit parents are the appropriate people to make decisions because they can be presumed to know and act in their children’s best interests. (The term “fit parents” most often applies to a married couple.) In cases of divorce or death of a parent, or if the child was born to unmarried parents, grandparents are much more likely to petition successfully for contact with a grandchild. In February, 2012, the Court refused to hear an Alabama case that involved the denial of grandparent visitation by both of the children’s parents.

The important legal principles that apply in these cases have to do with a constitutional right to freedom from government interference in personal life and with the “family veil” principle that excludes government from intrusion into child-rearing unless there is evidence of harm to a child. Although there is every reason to think that involvement with a larger number of  interested and caring people is advantageous for children, and that stressed-out parents can benefit from knowing they have back-up from the older generation, it is difficult to argue that there is usually actual harm as a result of absence of grandparent contact. Disturbing as it may be to the estranged grandparent, denial of contact may not be contrary to the best interests of the child.  

As divorce and remarriage stay at high levels, and as the rate of births to unmarried couples rises, it may be necessary for more grandparents to accept philosophically a period of estrangement from their grandchildren. Perhaps the best way for all of us to go is to think in terms of Doing Something Grand for the future community and the future world--  perhaps through  baby-sitting our “own” grandchildren, perhaps through reading to “other people’s” children, perhaps through working to assure a clean and wholesome environment for all. Such acts are our privileges as older people and our ways of living on when we are gone from this world.  


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