Grandparents commonly experience the humbling disappointment of being rejected by their children’s children. It is not because of any lack of love on their part. But when a baby is handed to grandma or grandpa, he or she sizes up the situation and insists, in the form of shrieks and squawks, on being returned immediately to either Mom or Dad.
Conventional love is not enough. The child wants something more – familiarity. And where does a tiny tot experience familiarity better than in a family?
The infant soaks up love like a sponge. He or she does this from irreducible wholeness. It is a process that is simultaneously natural and spontaneous. Thus, the infant comes to recognize love in relation to mom and dad who took the time to saturate him or her with their patient, protracted, parental affection.
For the infant, love is not a verbal declaration, a specific act or a kind look. It is foundational, administered slowly and lovingly to his or her whole being. The child responds happily to those familiar and personal sources that filled him or her with their love. Gifts from the grandparents do not cut the ice.
Rather than be humbled, however, grandparents should be pleased and proud that their young grandchildren reject them for their own parents. This means that grandma and grandpa must have done things right in administering love to their own children. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
The word "family" has been very much abused in recent decades. It has been stretched so far out of shape and applied to so many kinds of loose relationships that its primary significance has been nearly forgotten. Jean Bethke Elshtain has made the following comment in her excellent study of political and family life, Public Man, Private Woman:
"To call some abstract structure, or a loose collection of like-minded, unrelated peers ‘families’ is to treat our most basic human relationships frivolously, as mere historic accidents or as the excreta of oppressive relations having no deep inner logic or purpose of their own."
Professor Elshtain is not someone who has forgotten the core meaning of family. She dedicates her book to her four children, and appends the following words: "out of the mouths of babes comes noise – and sometimes wisdom –they gave me a generous share of both."
It is the "noise" and all that that word symbolizes that has aggrieved radical feminists. But it seems to be an axiom of nature that wisdom cannot be gained apart from accepting the noise. Wisdom, in its natural form, is an alloy. In Selma Fraiberg’s clinically detailed argument for the needs and rights of children, Every Child’s Birthright: In Defense of Mothering, she states: "The minimum guarantee for the evolution of the human bond is prolonged intimacy with a nurturing person."
Fraiberg provides clinical evidence supporting the notion that the diseases of nonattachment in an adult stem precisely from his or her lack of bonding as a child. Her remedy is the obvious one:
But to a very large extent the diseases of nonattachment can be eradicated at the source by ensuring stable human partnerships for every baby. If we take the evidence seriously we must look upon a baby deprived of human partners as a baby in deadly peril. This is a baby who is being robbed of his humanity.
Love, the willingness to bond with another, emerges from its more primordial form, the love that the child receives from his or her loving parents, one that may be expressed as familiarity. Institutionalized structures cannot adequately replace the family. As Dr. Bethke observes, "Children who grow up in institutionalized structures frequently have a diminished capacity for empathic identification with others."
The family continues to be under attack. Many of its critics refer to it as a systematic form of oppression that smothers individuality. These critics, however, should take note of the fact that the loving family, in which parents are willing to take the time to nurture their young properly, remains the context par excellence from which we can expect healthy people to evolve who, in their own turn, possess the freedom to be themselves as persons, to take their places in the world as responsible citizens and to love others in ways that are truly beneficial to them.
The grandkids will, in due time, come to love their grandparents. But first, they must feast on a main course of familial love. Grandma and grandpa can bring the dessert. The banquet of life is, indeed, a multicourse meal.
Dr. Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of HLI America, an Initiative of Human Life International. He is Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell. Some of his recent writings may be found at HLI America’s Truth and Charity Forum (www.truthandcharityforum.org).