September 14, 1981 12:00 PM

This Sunday the nation will observe its third annual Grandparents’ Day, a national holiday created by Congress in 1979. But just how much the country will celebrate it is an open question. The fragmented family is a sad fact of American life in 1981, on which Grandparents’ Day itself is a commentary; this holiday would have been merely redundant in the days when Sunday dinner at Grandma’s was a national tradition. To Dr. Arthur Kornhaber, a Mount Kisco, N. Y. child psychiatrist, the decline of grandparenting is nothing less than a tragedy. With his wife, Carol, a potter and mother of their four children, ages 17 to 23, Kornhaber has spent seven years studying the subject, interviewing some 300 children and as many grandparents. The results of his study, which comprise a poignant plea for a narrowing of the generation gap, appear in his recent book with coauthor Kenneth L. Woodward, Grandparents/Grandchildren: The Vital Connection (Doubleday, $11.95). On the eve of Grandparents’ Day, he discussed his conclusions with Louise Lague of PEOPLE.

How are kids with a close relationship to grandparents different from other children?

Those who are emotionally involved with a beloved grandparent are more rooted in the family and have a sense of family history. Because they grow up seeing that old people can be vibrant, they aren’t so afraid of the aging process and of dying, which is a common childhood fear. And when these kids have trouble with their parents, they can go to Grandma’s house instead of seeking help from their peer group. Therefore, they are less vulnerable to trendy stuff, like pot. It’s not that these children are square, they’re just exposed to the more down-to-earth aspects of living. They become more homey and more outgoing.

And what do grandparents get out of their grandchildren?

On the emotional level, they get a deep sense of joy and pleasure. On the intellectual level, they get the satisfaction of imparting their own wisdom. They can play the role of doctor, lawyer and family historian. They can cook better than McDonald’s. They can bake the world’s best cookies. They can seem like magicians—you know, when the old man takes his teeth out and puts them in a glass at night, the kid goes “wow!” These are things children don’t learn in school or anywhere else.

Can a grandparent and grandchild be cronies too?

Oh, yes. They can be pals, hang out together, fish together. It’s them against the world, a kind of alliance between young and old. This close relationship often gives older people a role in life when they don’t have one.

The current generation of parents is a generation of nomads. How many grandparents today really live close enough to have a good relationship with their grandchildren?

The latest statistics show that about 70 percent of grandparents live within a two-hour drive of their grandchildren. Yet we found that 80 percent of the grandchildren we interviewed have an irregular and intermittent relationship with their grandparents. About 5 percent had a close constant relationship, and about 15 percent had no relationship at all. The children who feel most upset are the ones who really got attached to their grandparents before their grandparents moved away to an old-age home or retirement community. Those kids grew to hate old people because they were hurt so much when their own grandparents left them.

Do parents sometimes create barriers between grandparents and grandchildren?

Yes, unfortunately. If the parents had unpleasant experiences with their parents they may try to protect the children from this elder generation. Besides, both parents and grandparents have some crazy ideas about emotional independence. Parents say, “I’m a failure if I need my parents to take care of my child.” And then, the grandparents say, “I better not offer any advice. I don’t want to intrude.” Also, for the grandparents there’s a myth that when their children leave home, their days of parenting are finished. This is not true. We’re parents until we die.

How did things get to be this way?

During the Depression, most families were locked together for survival. People who were children then grew up thinking that for their kids things would be different. They would be independent. They would make it in the big world. Inevitably, this meant that their kids grew up and moved away to find better schools and better jobs. Families splintered, emotionally and physically.

What will happen, do you think, if the gap between grandparents and grandchildren persists?

You’re going to have a world that is emotionally sterile. The dimensions of our existence are going to shrink. Moreover, children who grow up without the presence of grandparents will assume their own lives will effectually end at middle age.

There’s a case in your book about a woman who can’t stand to have her mother visit because she puts everyone on edge when she comes. Isn’t this a very common situation?

Yes, and it happens because the isolation of a lot of grandparents makes them rigid. Some are narcissistic and self-centered. They can’t really handle the tumult of children disturbing the furniture and upsetting their routines. Once we have a society that has a role for grandparents, I believe, we won’t have this situation.

Will the process of bringing grandparents into the family unit be difficult?

Yes. Some old folk may feel that they are being exploited—providing free child care, that sort of thing.

Whose responsibility is it to initiate the process?

Ideally, it’s up to the grandparents to assert their role as elders. But realistically, in this transition period, the parent generation is the one with the power to do the initiating.

In your book you mention therapy as a way of bringing grandparents back. But can you really get the elderly into therapy?

Freud said that people past 50 weren’t treatable, but that’s completely wrong. And it doesn’t have to be only psychiatrists who help. Priests, counselors, teachers, consciousness-raising groups or grandparents’ clubs can also be invaluable in easing the rapprochement.

What should a grandparent do if he thinks his children are making serious mistakes in bringing up their children?

First, the grandparent should establish a direct relationship with the grandchild—without undercutting the parents—and foster and enlarge that relationship. Then, in a noncritical and supportive way, he should talk to the parents to suggest other means of doing things. If a grandparent feels a child is suffering because a mother works, for example, the grandparent should be willing to help with baby-sitting. Another thing: With a little financial help from the grandparent, the mother might be able to cut down on work time and be home more.

What rights and privileges do grandparents have when parents are divorced?

They have a vested interest in the grandchild and shouldn’t let the actions of the parents undermine that. The grandchild is a victim who doesn’t understand why he’s losing one parent, and certainly not why he’s losing his grandparents. Now, in some 30 states, a grandparent can actually get a lawyer and sue for visitation rights.

What about the baby boom generation—the people who are now young parents—what kind of grandparents will they make?

There is a hunger for emotion in this generation, and I think it will be expressed in a warm and loving approach toward grandparenting. Today’s baby boomers will enjoy longer, healthier lives. So we can look forward to very good multigenerational families in the years to come. After all, for 40,000 years we ran around in tribes. You might say we’re biologically programmed for that. So let’s allow nature to take its course.

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