I grew up with the privilege of being close to my grandparents. Among the many benefits that this relationship conferred was a vast body of knowledge about things from previous eras. I learned how to predict the weather by looking at the sky, something my friends surely didn’t know how to do. I also learned how to find and cook mushrooms that wouldn’t kill me or give me a “bad trip.” I learned how to talk to horses, how to sew a button on, when to speak and when not to speak, and how to save (and wisely spend) money.
My relationship with my grandparents wasn’t all about learning specific skills like those mentioned above, however. It was also about more subtle things. For example, I learned how to converse with ease and eloquence with people of all ages. Being around my grandparents was different from being around my parents, who were much younger, and from being around my friends, who were much younger still. My close relationship with my grandparents (and by extension with some of their friends) allowed me to become a much more well-rounded and refined person as a teenager and, later, as an adult.
I wonder if kids today still have this kind of relationship with their grandparents. Surely some do, but I also believe that many kids lack a substantial connection with older adults. We seem to be more secluded in our cohorts today. Kids hang out with kids. Adults hang out with adults. Old people hang out with other old people. This trend is unfortunate, as so much benefit can be had for everyone when it comes to intergenerational connectedness.
I wonder if schools could facilitate relationships between generations. Perhaps schools could match up surrogate grandparents with kids who don’t have close connections with older family members and find ways to create inter-generational communities in schools. Let’s explore a few possible benefits.
Knowledge (Including Wisdom and Common Sense) from Previous Eras
Many schools do a great job when it comes to teaching history, geography, and even life skills like investing or cooking. What we don’t do as well is teach more ephemeral things like predicting the weather by the colour of the sky, or how and when to plant trees, vegetables, and flowers. Other things are less ephemeral and more “common sense,” like always using a turn signal when driving, or not pumping gas with the car running (yes, I do see this here in NYC far too often). Older generations are good at this kind of knowledge for various reasons, chiefly because they have experience. Many things in life really do come (or are perfected) from gaining experience.
Perspective on the Past, Present, and Future
Perspective is another thing that is often fortified with experience. Unlike how to sew on a button, or pile firewood so that it “seasons” properly, perspective is more subtle and elusive. Older people have been through many life situations and events that younger people have not. The recent Covid 19 pandemic is a good example. For people with limited life experience, the pandemic may have been overwhelming and disproportionately frightening. It is not that older generations were not frightened, but with a wealth of experience to draw upon (including possibly other pandemics or world wars) they had more perspective—a handy thing to have when the world appears to be ending. For example, when the pandemic happened, I had a strong impulse to sell stocks, lots of stocks! My father-in-law, however, cautioned against such a move. He encouraged a “wait and see” approach. It was easier for him to both suggest and follow this advice, as he had previously experienced severe ups and downs in the market. Perspective allowed him to have faith in the market’s long-term resilience.
The prospect of the future can be daunting. Indeed, anxiety is fear of the unknown future. Mental health is a growing concern among younger generations. I know, I teach in a therapeutic school where we treat, with increasing numbers, students with anxiety and depression. Although certainly not a silver bullet against anxiety, perspective can be incredibly useful. Hearing from older adults and listening to their life stories of perseverance can ease and bring relief from overwhelming anxiety. In fact, one of the aims of talk therapy is to gain perspective. Hearing from older generations and how they too struggled with and overcame uncertainty is reassuring. From wars and pandemics to smaller things like uncertain career prospects, hearing the stories of people who lived through similar situations to go on and prosper is important for younger generations. When kids insulate themselves from these stories and perspectives, it is easy to imagine how their anxiety may amplify. Grandparents are often a source of comfort and stability for their grandchildren and for very substantive and good reasons.
Sense of Community and Belonging
A weakened sense of community and belonging can also be a significant contributing factor to anxiety and depression—and not only among younger generations; older generations are also experiencing similar issues. An important study in The Lancet in 2020 found that social disconnectedness was a predicting factor for depression and anxiety symptoms. And, perhaps more importantly, the same study also found the reverse pathways to be statistically supported. This means that increasing a sense of community and belonging reliably alleviated the symptoms of affective disorders. Taken together, these findings allow us to believe that both younger and older generations may benefit from increased interconnectedness. Other studies support the idea of diverse social relationships in improving mental health through multiple pathways, suggesting the added benefit for both groups from not limiting these social interactions to only their peers—another key finding. Why not find ways to create inter-generational communities in schools?
Any good article promoting something should also look at possible drawbacks. One that comes to mind immediately is a potential clash of values and mindsets. Younger and older generations are not always on the same page when it comes to matters like social progress and political ideology. This may be more pronounced or entrenched when the age difference is significant. Additionally, although more subtle, a general inability to relate may interfere with good progress in a setting that promotes cross-generational socialization. Put another way, teenagers and senior citizens may simply not easily understand one another. Technology is an obvious area that may present barriers. However, these challenges also present an opportunity for learning for both parties. Teenagers may be able to help familiarize seniors with social media, for example, and seniors can explain to kids the fun they had talking (or listening) on a “party line.” Putting teens and seniors in a room together may not prove instantly or exclusively beneficial—thoughtful planning is necessary for successful interactions.
In conclusion, if we move forward convinced of the multiple benefits of having younger and older generations in closer contact, the question then becomes how schools might foster this connection. I believe one obvious way schools can be of help is by being a “moderator” of sorts. That is, we can help to connect young people with older people and prepare both for a positive and informed experience. Opportunities like temporarily relocating a classroom to a senior living facility, having reading circles that include senior citizens, or even a simple Skype conference may prove effective as a starting place for schools. The ultimate aim is to promote cross-generational socialization that is bidirectional so that everyone benefits.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Sweet is a teacher and writer. A recipient of both a Canadian Prime Minister’s Award and a Queen’s Medal, Michael taught for the English Montreal School Board for twelve years. Currently, Michael is on the faculty of the Robert Louis Stevenson School, a private therapeutic school in New York City.
This article is featured in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Fall 2023 issue.