I’m really pleased today to share a guest post by Annie Dye. Annie has written a lovely piece about promoting closer ties between grandparents and grandchildren, despite the distance and other obstacles that often affect families with bilingual kids. As my own family will soon be traveling to visit my parents in the United States—after a long five years without a reunion—this subject is now very much on my mind. Thank you for these important thoughts, Annie!
by Annie Dye
When Adam shared that he was taking his family to visit grandparents, it got me thinking about the special role that grandparents play in the lives of our bilingual children, and the role that we parents play (in the middle) to facilitate, integrate and even interpret between generations of family members.
In English, the word “grandparent” is a lovely extension of the word “parent.” Checking in with one of my favorite vocabulary sites, I find that “grand” is defined as “extraordinarily good or great; used especially as intensifiers” (Visual Thesaurus). Just thinking of grandparents as “extraordinary” gives us a wonderful lens through which to view these relationships.
Grandparents of bilingual children might have some extraordinary fears. In my case, when we announced to grandparents that we were going to have a daughter, each grandmother, within a week of each other said, “What if she never understands what I say to her?” (The grandfathers were a bit anxious, too, just not as verbal!)
Another concern is the geographic distance between grandparents and their grandchildren. The members of many bilingual/bicultural families live far away from each other. We can only meet once a year, or once every three or four years! This is an extraordinary challenge for grandparents and parents alike.
There are some other fears, too: missing piano recitals, lost letters that are subject to whims of international post offices, and loads of digital photos never printed or organized. These fears and concerns can be part of our bilingual family profiles, but they can be a motivation to do some incredible things!
Consider this: grandparents play extraordinary roles in the lives of their grandchildren—whether families are bilingual or not. According to Arthur Kornhaber, M.D., president and founder of the Foundation for Grandparenting and an expert on grandparenting issues, there are 11 roles that grandparents can play over the years with their grandchildren (Grandparents Weekly). Of these, some that might be most interesting to bilingual families—in terms of promoting family and cultural context—are “ancestor,” “mentor” and “role model.”
The ancestor role is that of being the link to your grandchild’s ancestors and representing the family’s common history. Where is the family from? What were some of the family’s big challenges and accomplishments? Who were the characters in the family story? Grandparents are the ones with access to stories about surviving hard times, solving incredible problems and helping each other out.
Another, the mentor role, goes beyond teaching a grandchild (yet another role) to providing unconditional support and encouraging learning, imagination and spirit in a future generation.
Finally, being a role model is showing how actions and decisions can teach grandchildren how to behave in society, take care of themselves as part of the family, and have someone to look up to. In bilingual families, grandparents who participate, interact and teach can share their attitudes and thoughts with their grandchildren about nearly everything, helping these children feel increased security with their own roles in their bilingual and bicultural families.
These unique fears and dynamic roles lead to extraordinary opportunities for grandparents, especially in bilingual families, to reach out to grandchildren in special ways. One opportunity is to rethink communication with grandchildren. Nowadays most generations have incorporated some forms of technology into their lives and have made things like emails and video calls part of their regular routines. (As I was writing this, my mom called me on Skype from her cell phone for the first time ever. We are still experimenting and learning, too!) Other options might include fax machines (I read about one grandma who bought each of her grandchildren a fax machine so they can send drawings and report cards to her), family blogs, sharing photos, etc.
In spite of this amazing technology, having grandchildren far away is a wonderful excuse to write letters on paper and send them through the mail. My own grandparents were letter writers; each year I would receive at least a birthday card and a letter or two with words of wisdom, stories about life, weather updates or advice for a growing young girl. These envelopes would arrive full of family news. Squished margins. Slanted handwriting. Always with love. Even things my parents couldn’t or wouldn’t say to me. There were views from another time—and another place. Other lives. Those letters and cards are now among my most treasured possessions. For our children to have physical evidence of their grandparents, in the form of paper, ink and handwriting, is something to cherish.
In my work in a bilingual school, I conduct workshops with Spanish-speaking preschool parents about how to incorporate more English and bilingualism into their regular family lives. One of the things we talk about is how parents can “negotiate” between generations and even explicitly ask grandparents to send handwritten notes, cards or letters to the grandchildren, so the children can receive something from their grandparents. We might all be communicating more online, but we are seeing less of the handwriting of those around us. Parents, too, can easily and quickly write little notes to their children, so that children have meaningful words and messages around them, and so that children can see how their parents actually write!
Grandparents who are far away might have to make extraordinary efforts to reach out and share with their grandchildren. But by trusting the grandchildren, children, and in-laws in our bilingual families, by taking advantage of technology, by rethinking communication and sharing even a little, this generation can bring bilingual families closer together, and really touch the lives of our extraordinary bilingual children.
Annie is an English language education professional working in a bilingual school in Bogotá, Colombia where she is responsible for establishing a vision for the program and working with teachers to establish and implement language learning strategies for preschool, primary and high school levels. Interests include defining and promoting bilingual education, applying language learning theory to the classroom, working with parents of bilingual children, and helping English play a positive role for those who speak other first languages.
She has lived in Colombia for more than 15 years with her husband and daughter, the inspiration for her work with bilingualism.
Annie can be reached at: annemdye[at]gmail.com
Read more about strengthening the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren, and stretching the minority language, in 3 Good Ways to Boost a Bilingual Child’s Language Ability and Loving Bond with Grandparents.
For a unique way both grandparents and parents can “reach into the future” to touch a child—even after their death—see A Special Way to Impact Your Child Years From Now.
What an insightful article, Annie! I’m so pleased you’ve shed more light on all the additional roles grandparents play in the lives of bicultural children (and the adults they become.) Having had a close bond with one of my overseas grandparents I know what a huge role that had in gaining a strong sense of belonging in that culture and place.
Nicole — Thanks for your comment. Grandparents can teach us so many things—that parents might not have time for! A connection to place and culture is so important for everyone. With generations that will be traveling and living in so many places, too, I think it is important to have someone in our lives who represents roots and belonging. All the best! Annie
This article was particularly useful to grandparents who seek methods to link us to our flesh and blood. Anything that can be helpful should be seized upon urgently. I think the letter writing as it has written words would be really a legacy of love… I shall now instantly adopt this. Thank you.
Susan — Have a great time promoting letter writing between your parents and children. It is so exciting for kids to receive letters in the mail, and this is very inspirational for them to write back. Grandparents are terrific about writing back, too. Check out this company if you want your kids to have their own mailboxes: http://www.metamorphictoys.com/
All the best!