Intergenerational communication is an important aspect of many, if not all, relationships, especially for grandparents raising their grandchildren. According to research, the communication that takes place between two or more people may help to define their relationship1. In grandparents raising grandchildren (GRG) families, there is often uncertainty and tension accompanying changing family circumstances. Communication is important as a means for making family members aware of each other’s changing needs and helping them support one another. Communication is also key for helping family members learn how they can better function as a cohesive family.
One factor that differentiates grandparent-grandchild relationships from parent-child relationships is the greater difference in age. The "number" that makes up a person's age is not necessarily the issue; it's the experiences of the person throughout their lifetime. Without knowing about a grandparent’s experiences during past times of personal or national financial crisis, for example, a grandchild may not understand the family finance choices the grandparent makes today.
Intergenerational understanding goes both ways – older adults need to learn about the experiences to which grandchildren are exposed on a daily basis such as drugs, violence and sexual relations. Without understanding each other’s life experiences, it becomes all to easy to attribute differences of opinion to age-related stereotypes. As noted in a related article, age-related stereotypes can have a very negative impact on intergenerational communications and relationships.
Intergenerational program developers and researchers offer various insights about how to promote positive intergenerational communication within families. However, it's important to understand that communication is complex and may need to "start slow and move forward gradually." In other words, start with something safe - an "ice breaker" - and build a dialogue, continuing toward finding similarities and achieving rapport2. As grandchildren and grandparents get to know each other better, deeper levels of involvement in each other’s lives will seem more natural.
Whether talking about intergenerational communication between non-family members or family members, some of the same principles for strengthening relationships apply. When people do not know each other very well, it is good to think in terms of "warm ups" or "ice breakers," when they first come together, and, over time, move toward more in-depth activities to get to know each other better and explore common interests. The type of communication and the kinds of activities that work best for strengthening relationships will change over time.
Another basic point about building intergenerational relationships is that they do not just happen -- they require time and careful planning. Activities such as watching a movie together do not tend to provide needed discussion and “getting to know you” time. However, with some planning, such activities can be modified to facilitate discussion. For example, an idea for transforming movie time into an interactive family experience is to create “movie kits,” i.e., collections of items that relate to a scene or theme from a movie that is being watched. Some examples are provided in a fact sheet from Penn State Cooperative Extension’s “Ideas for Intergenerational Living” series: http://intergenerational.cas.psu.edu/Docs/Article11.pdf.
For the movie Men in Black, you can pass around a bag filled with black items – ties, hats, gloves, socks, belt, wigs, etc. – before the movie begins. Halfway through the movie, call “swap” and watch everyone clamor for the most provocative items. If you’re watching Miracle on 34th St. or one of the more recent Santa Claus movies, a movie kit might contain the traditional Santa Claus paraphernalia – white beards and Santa hats – as well as postcards addressed to the North Pole and pencils so that, during intermission, everyone can write a card to Santa. After they are written, share them with each other for extra laughs3.
Some activities provide better venues for intergenerational engagement and relationship building than others. A trip to a zoo can be a great vehicle for a grandparent to become aware of the curiosity and unique personality of their grandchild. However, some attention should be paid to how this trip is planned. A trip to the zoo that is set to a highly structured plan is less likely to provide opportunities for interaction and communication.
Communication serves a variety of functions in GRG families, particularly when grandparents step in at a time of personal and family stress and dysfunction. Various questions and issues may arise regarding household membership rules, roles, responsibilities, and expectations. There is much to be discussed and resolved. Also, remember that there is great diversity among GRG families and one set of rules or strategies may not work for all situations. Activities that emphasize common interest and promote bonding could be tied to anything from cooking, kite flying, looking at photographs, to singing in the rain.