Back in the 1970’s and 80’s, there was a Family Planning Association (FPA) bumper sticker which reminded the world that “The challenge is not in becoming a father but in being one.” After all, all it takes to have a child is a little rudeness, a little luck, (good or bad, depending), a nine-month wait and voilà, congratulations, you are now a dad.
But if you think that makes you a father, you have another think coming!
The FPA’s continuing efforts notwithstanding, massive destruction has been wreaked on the family unit in recent times. Today’s truth is that teenagers are comfortably becoming fathers. And relatively young men, not yet 50, are waking up one morning and finding that they are grandfathers.
So the social realities of the times being what they are, although I am not yet a septuagenarian, I could conceivably become—perish the thought!—a great-grandfather any day now. I have a grandson who turned 16 a month ago.
If that were to happen tomorrow, his mother, an attorney, would probably half-kill him, secure in the knowledge that his grandmother, a nurse, would more than likely finish the job.
Attorneys and nurses tend to be very conscious of what is on the law books and what is in the genes respectively. Irrespective of their profession, fathers and grandfathers tend to be more sympathetic to what is in the jeans—which, I think, is part of the problem the FPA has.
But although there are resemblances, it probably is not fair to equate fathers with grandfathers; there are, I think, several important differences in the essential attitudes adopted by these two groups.
“My grandpa is the smartest man on earth!” an eight-year-old wrote. “He teaches me good things but I don’t get to see him enough to get as smart as him!”
There are many grandchildren out there who could have penned those 27 words. The quote in fact comes from a collection of opinions on grandparents written by a group of schoolchildren, all eight, in the US of A. None of mine is eight so I am definitely not the “my grandpa” referred to.
“Grandparents are a lady and a man who have no children of their own,” one wrote. “They like other people’s children.”
“They are the only grown-ups,” opines another, “who like to spend time with us.”
“They don’t mind if we ask for the same story over again,” says yet another. “And when they read to us, they don’t skip.”
Despite the implication of that last comment, fathers and grandfathers are pretty much agreed on the importance in a child’s education of the three Rs—Reading, ’Riting and ’Rithmetic. But here is another comment that gives an insight into why grand-parenting is one of the world’s true success stories.
“They don’t say ‘Hurry up!’ When they take us for walks, they slow down past things like pretty leaves and caterpillars.
“And they show us and talk to us about the colours of the flowers and also why we shouldn’t step on cracks.”
Yup! The secret of success lies, I submit, in the older generation’s attitudes to three other Rs: rainbows, restrictions and rope.
Active parents rarely enjoy the leisurely lifestyle of the retiree. No surprise then that they remain constantly conscious that time is money. And so they tend to be in a great big hurry to get everything finished, over, done asap.
Not so grandparents. They know—often from hard experience—that if you are too busy to take the time to show the child the rainbow in the sky, there is no guarantee that it will still be there when your work is done.
The result is an enhanced awareness of abstracts like beauty (“the colours of the flowers”) and mystery (not stepping on cracks) and courtesy (not stepping on corns) that feeds curiosity and gives body and substance to values education. Ultimately, it gives the lie to Oscar Wilde’s lament about a generation that “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
R number two is Restrictions. As a father, I was already aware of the need to make rules that are fair to the entire family but to apply them to one child at a time. But I was already a grandfather when the potentially pernicious protectionism of parents came starkly home to me.
Discussing with me recent developments related to R. Kelly, a friend quoted the lyrics of the controversial American singer’s huge hit of a few years ago:
If I can see it, then I can do it; if I just believe it, there’s nothing to it.
“So I rarely tell my children ‘Do not…!’ And I don’t ever tell them they ‘cannot,’” he continued. “Sure there are things they’re not able or allowed to do; they just don’t hear the negativity from me.”
Let me be clear that no one expects parents to abandon the concern for supervision of their children that comes almost instinctively to real fathers. Far from it! But equally clear is that excessively close supervision smothers; it is an impediment to discovery and, therefore, to organic development. More than conscious thought about the subject, it is probably simply the vast experience of grandfathers that makes them acutely aware of this.
And so to the final R, Rope. Like my generation and those that preceded it, I grew up hearing that if you give a man enough of it, he will hang himself. And believing it. That myopia persisted for many years until the scales were finally removed from my eyes.
Now, the guiding grandfather principle is this: if you give a child enough rope, (s)he will never reach the end of his tether. The control remains but (s)he is still free to explore his/her full potential.
It puts me in mind of one of the lessons of Greek mythology. What if unbidden, Clotho, the first of the Three Fates, simply kept spinning out the thread of your life but sisters Lachesis with her tape and Atropos with her shears were made to wait on your command to measure and cut that thread?
Would the world not be an infinitely better place for us all, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers?
Happy Father’s Day, all.