Geralyn Vilar and her granddaughter Trinity stood shoulder to shoulder at the kitchen counter, combining ingredients for cranberry orange scones. Vilar held up the recipe card for Trinity to read, then Trinity began zesting a fresh orange while waiting for the oven to heat, both of them smiling as they worked together on the batch. This is one of the many ways the Village of Glenbrook resident spends time with her 19-year-old granddaughter, despite the differences in how they like to spend their free time. Vilar said those in Trinity’s generation are on their phones with “fingers going a mile a minute,” while when she was that young, she didn’t even own a computer.
Vilar’s teenage years consisted of leaving the house to see friends and entertaining herself without a screen, while Trinity enjoys technology as a way to connect to the outside world.
When Vilar began home schooling Trinity a year and a half ago, she figured out ways she could connect with her granddaughter that wouldn’t require compromise or cause resentment in either of them.
They began to incorporate online language arts and history games into Trinity’s curriculum.
Vilar took Trinity out on a golf cart to learn to drive.
The two even wrote a book together about animals who forge friendships despite their many differences.
“Everybody needs to feel loved,” Vilar said. “It’s important for children to love their grandparents, but also that grandparents love them, too. Grandparents pass down family values and tradition. That brings families together. You remember who you are and what your heritage is.”
Close relationships like the one Vilar and Trinity have are becoming more common as the modern grandparent demographic has shifted over the years.
Grandchildren Need Their Grandparents
Not only are grandparents across the nation skewing younger, they are also taking a more active role in politics, education and recreation. At the same time, younger generations on average have different views from their grandparents in these areas.
With the divide among generations widening, this unique generation of grandparents is finding new ways to connect with their grandchildren and forge special relationships as they actively participate in their lives with more frequency.
As life expectancy continues to increase for Americans, more people are living long enough to become grandparents and even great-grandparents — and many are experiencing this joy at an earlier age.
This has created a more active and capable generation of young grandparents who have the means and energy to invest in their grandchildren’s lives, with the average age for someone to become a grandparent now at 50 years old, according to independent research group The Legacy Project.
Liz Grauerholz, a sociology professor at the University of Central Florida, said grandparents are playing an increasingly important role in children’s lives, especially because they are living long enough to watch their grandchildren grow up.
“People are living longer and have more time to establish that kind of relationship, where in the past you wouldn’t necessarily have had living grandparents after your 20s and 30s,” Grauerholz said. “Now, that’s pretty typical. There’s the opportunity of time that you can develop a relationship with adult grandchildren.”
Kim Diemand, of the Village of Fenney, is one of the many grandparents who are taking an active role in their grandchildren’s lives.
Diemand, a Vietnam War veteran, said he remembers his grandmother as a “terrific lady” but also that she acted much older than he does with his 8-year-old granddaughter, Stella. His memories of her are in a dowdy housecoat with stockings up to her knees and sensible shoes.
“It was just a different time and place. She was probably younger than I am now,” he added with a laugh.
Diemand calls himself a “cool, hip, happening grandpa” at 68 years old, and said he is incredibly invested in encouraging Stella’s curiosity.
For instance, Stella loves to read, so Diemand tracked down a poetry book his mother used to read to him as a child so the two can read poems at night over FaceTime. He said when he was Stella’s age, he was playing with little green army men in the mud with his friends while his granddaughter is learning new skills from YouTube videos and recently took up origami.
Diemand said that Stella’s knowledge of the world means he learns from her as much as she learns from him — something that may not have been as common between grandparents and their grandchildren in the past.
“I think there’s a level of sophistication in (Stella’s) generation that wasn’t present in my generation,” Diemand said. “I think for grandparents, the lesson is don’t even think about being condescending. You’ll lose your grandchildren making the assumption they’re less knowledgeable because they are less experienced.”
A Generational Divide
Sejal Mehta Barden is an associate professor at the University of Central Florida and executive director of the Marriage and Family Research Institute. Barden said relationships between grandparents and grandchildren are “foundational to passing on the narrative of families, giving context and examples of where the collective family has been, challenges the family has overcome and unique attributes of the family structure.”
Additionally, Barden said, older generations need to understand the cultural narrative of growing up in today’s world to understand the new challenges that young people face.
“We know that when we take time to listen and enter into someone else’s shoes, we can form deep relationships and connections,” Barden said, “Ultimately, we are all trying to make meaning of our life and our purpose. Connecting with our family that are in different generations is an invaluable tool in forming and sustaining relationships and making meaning.”
The social and political generational gaps are wider than ever when comparing the baby boomer generation — anyone born between 1946 and 1964 — to millennials, who were born between 1981 and 1996. Seventy-eight percent of baby boomers are Christian and a majority are White, unlike younger millennials who are 56% Christian, according to Pew Research Center. Additionally, Pew research shows that the number of Americans who identify as White is declining, with many more grandchildren being born biracial.
Determining A Grandparenting Style
Sandy Sweeny-Merkel, of the Village of Largo, is one example of a grandparent bridging social and political gaps between herself and her grandchildren. She has two sons on completely opposite sides of the political spectrum who parent their children very differently. One of her sons is conservative, home schools his children and doesn’t allow them to use the internet. The other is more liberal and encourages use of technology.
“My grandparenting to one set of children is very different than grandparenting to the other set of children,” Sweeny-Merkel said. “With one set, we play videos. They’re my artsy group and we paint and draw and do things like that. With the other group, we’re reading books, doing nature hikes and cooking. My grandparenting is determined by how my kids parent.”
Grandparents across the nation are finding ways to connect with their grandchildren and develop the relationships they never had with their own grandparents while they were growing up.
In The Villages, it’s especially easy to find common activities to enjoy with grandchildren, from Camp Villages events to family pools among many other offerings throughout the area.
Most importantly, though, these grandparents are imparting wisdom and spending quality time with the youngest generations.
“There are some things I don’t think I taught her that she maybe picked up from learned behavior from me,” Vilar said of her granddaughter. “Maybe some of that rubs off like planting a seed, not even needing to teach those things.”
Staff writer Rachel Stamford can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5254, or firstname.lastname@example.org.