What do you call a parent with tenure?
A grandparent, of course.
Sure, it's an old joke, but it also contains a kernel of truth: Next to a parent, a grandparent can be the most important person in a child's life.
And with the increasing strain put on families by single-parenting, divorce and the demands of work, has there ever been a time when grandparents could be of more value to a youngster?
The challenge for many, though, is finding ways to remain close when hectic family schedules and physical distance often keep relatives apart.
Today is Grandparents' Day, a nationally recognized day to honor grandmothers and grandfathers. Whether family members celebrate by going to the zoo, visiting a museum or walking in the park, this much is clear: When grandparents and grandchildren have a bond, the whole family is strengthened.
"It's not only good for the child but the grandparents," says Arthur Kornhaber, founder of the Foundation for Grandparenting in Ojai, Calif., and author of "Grandparent Power." "It supplies for grandparents a meaning for old age. They're hard-wired to be tuned into each other, especially now when parents are involved with so much."
Gwendolyn Johnson, 76, lives less than two blocks from her granddaughter Gwendolyn White and 6-year-old great-grandson Charles Saunders in Cherry Hill. She knows about the magic of grandparenting. She sees her granddaughter every day, and she and her great-grandson have weekly dates.
"Tuesdays and Thursdays, it's his night to stay with Granny," says Johnson. "He sneaks in Saturday and Sunday, but he goes home by 4 p.m. He comes down, and I'll read to him.
Thursdays we might watch wrestling, but I always read to him."
Frequent contact between grandparents and grandchildren or great-grandchildren can help bind them together.
"The grandparent / grandchild relationship is second only in emotional importance to the parent / child bond," says Kornhaber. "Grandparents give lots of stuff, mostly this sense of adoration."
Some 60 million adults, or about 31 percent of American adults are grandparents, according to AARP. The U.S. Census bureau predicts the number will grow to 100 million in the next several years. Lucky are the children who live close to a grandparent.
Although telephones, faxes and computers are making it easier to stay in touch over the miles, most parents need to make a commitment to fueling the grandparent / grandchild relationship. Just because grandchildren are geographically close doesn't guarantee that grandparents will see them.
Staying close is a family affair, says Kornhaber, a child and family psychiatrist who has studied grandparents since the 1970s. "Parents are the linchpin," he says. Parents and grandparents should sit down and devise a plan and ways to keep the grandparents and children in contact. It may include discussing ways to allocate resources for trips or vacations or phone calls or e-mailing.
"Starting them young is vital to continuing a relationship when they are teen-agers," says Patricia Fry, author of "Creative Grandparenting Across the Miles."
That's what Lillian Weeks and her husband Aubrey did to keep in touch with their 15-year-old grandson Ho Young Sinn. They live in Carney. He lives in Killeen, Texas.
Ho is one of eight grandchildren. Their son, Thomas, met his future wife, Chong Suk, and Ho while stationed in Korea. Lillian and Aubrey first met Ho at age 3 when the family visited. The grandparents bought him toy trucks among other things and helped teach him English. His first word was "truck," Lillian, 69, recalls.
Although Ho is busy with school and sports and lives miles away, he keeps in touch. "We don't see him as much as we'd like," says Weeks, but they talk by phone about twice a month and he writes three or four times a year.
How do you get a 15-year-old grandson to chat with you? "Basically, if you talk about sports with him, you've got it made," she says. "He has a dog and we have a dog so we usually discuss the dogs."
Over the years, she's taken care of her granddaughters Lillian, 18, and Virginia, 16, of Carney, while their mother worked. She sewed most of their clothes when they were younger, appreciating the chance to sew girls' clothes after having five boys.
She still makes Halloween costumes and takes Virginia to her music lessons and shopping. She's also been involved with Lauren, 11, and Kevin, 9, who live in Havre de Grace, cooking dinner for them and getting them ready for bed. Two days a week, she watches Brooke, 3, who lives in Abingdon.
She's happy to help. When her children were young, her own mother had to work, and her husband's family lived out of town.
"I had no one who could baby sit for us...not even in an emergency. It made me realize just how hard it was. I decided I would assist my children if I could," she says.
Weeks knows that when helping the parents, she's giving her grandchildren a sense of security. "I give them stability that they don't have with mothers working. They know they can call us and they can rely on us," she says.
The Weeks don't see two of their grandchildren because of family disagreements and divorce. They've sent them letters and hope to reconnect one day.
Sue Johnson and Julie Carlson, authors of "Grandloving: Making Memories with Your Grandchildren," who are mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, offer tips on keeping communication open between grandparent and grandchild.
Johnson recalled that a grandmother was devastated because she couldn't see her grandchildren. For nearly a year she sent her grandchildren things in the mail with no response. It took a year before they reciprocated. "If somebody knows you love and care for their children, it's hard to ignore," says Johnson. "You have to have a little faith," adds Carlson.
Spending time with a grandparent gives kids some sense of security and family continuity, says Kornhaber, and boosts their self-esteem. Grandparents are a repository of knowledge, and the grandparents and grandchildren share a sense of wonder about things like fishing, baking bread or building something. He urges parents to give children time alone with a grandparent.
"If the parents are around, the grandparents' attention goes to his or her child," he says. "The grandparent and child need one-on-one individual attention."
Tips for grandparents
Keep the long-distance relationship strong between grandchild and grandparent with these tips:
1. Arrange a specific time each week to call your grandchild. That way, he'll be expecting your call, and you won't reach him just as he's coming in from soccer practice. Regular phone calls are something to anticipate, and a time to share the week's events.
2. Call the child directly. Don't talk to Mom and Dad first and then ask to speak to the child.
3. When talking on the phone, keep a notepad handy and write down things children are telling you so that in later conversations you can ask specific questions instead of general ones. Find out their friends' names and how they are interacting with them. Learn about their school. Keeping track of details shows you care.
4. If they are collectors, join in that. It can be anything from collecting pretty rocks to baseball cards or state coins.
5. Write letters. Both grandparents and grandchildren should make it a ritual. Parents can encourage their children by writing themselves. Grandparents can help by providing a box full of stickers, postage stamps, colored pencils or crayons.
6. Arrange visits and plan to do something together without the parent. If the children are coming to visit you, ask what they would like to do. Build something together, something that lasts and connects you. Teach them something they don't know how to do. Visits provide one-on-one time together and a respite for the parents.
7. Send a videotape of yourself doing something. It may be unwrapping something that the child has sent to you. That way the child can see the results of the effort made to send you a package.
8. Send an audiotape. You can read a story, sing, or read a list of "I love you because" statements or even talk as you make a favorite recipe and perhaps send a sample.
9. Send a picture of yourself with the child or a picture of you with your pet. The child can put it by the phone so when you're talking, the child can see your face.
10. If you both have a computer and an Internet service, use it to send e-mail, recipes, jokes or love letters. It's faster than regular mail and allows daily contact. If you aren't computer literate, get a relative or friend to show you or take a computer class.
11. If you both have a fax machine, fax pictures, recipes, drawings, awards and other things of interest.
* "Creative Grandparenting Across the Miles," by Patricia L. Fry, Matilija Press, $5.95, 1997 (800-325-9521).
* "Grandloving: Making Memories with Your Grandchildren," by Sue Johnson and Julie Carlson, Heartstring Press, $16.95, 2000 (800-262-1546)
* www.grandparenting.org: Web site for the Foundation for Grandparenting, includes lots of useful information about grandparenting issues.
* www.GrandparentsEdge.com, a new intergenerational web site launched along with www.KidsEdge.com, an educational and family fun site for children, parents and grandparents
* AARP Grandparenting Information Center, 601 E Street NW, Washington D.C. 20049 Phone: 202-434-2296
Action-in-Maturity events: 7 p.m. tomorrow: Dundalk Sweet Adelines perform. $1. 1:30 p.m.-4:30 p.m. Sept. 21: Free bone density screenings. Call for appointment. 11 a.m. Sept. 22: Toni Katz of the Baltimore City Commission on Aging speaks on long-term care. Reservations by Sept. 19. Events at 3838 Roland Ave. or 3939 Roland Ave. Call 410-889-7915.
Liberty Senior Center, 3525 Resource Drive, Randallstown. 4 p.m.-8 p.m. tomorrow and Sept. 18: "55 Alive" driving course. $10. Call 410-887-0780.
Volunteer your time: Join the Baltimore County Department of Aging's Home Team Program by visiting elderly neighbors, shopping for them, providing transportation to medical appointments and performing minor handyman chores. Volunteer training session 4 p.m. Tuesday. Call 410-887-4141 for information and location.
Bykota Senior Center, 611 Central Ave., Towson. 6 p.m. Tuesday: Shenanigan's Comedy Troupe. 1 p.m. Thursday: Gardening lecture. 10:45 a.m. Friday: Skin care discussion. 10 a.m. Sept. 18: Free blood pressure screenings. 10:45 a.m. Sept. 22: Learn to prepare for medical procedures. Call 410-887-3094.
Parkville Senior Center, 8601 Harford Road. 1 p.m. Tuesday: Celebrate Defenders' Day. 1 p.m. Thursday: Interactive storytelling. 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m., daily through Friday: Book sale. Bring your own bag. Call 410-887-5338.
Edward A. Myerberg Senior Center, 3101 Fallstaff Road. 11 a.m. Sept. 17: Cooking demonstration of heart-healthy soup by Donna Crivello. Also, "Baltimore's Best Bake-Off Contest." Reservations required. Free. Call 410-358-6856.
Senior television show: Learn about programs and services offered by the Baltimore County Department of Aging on "Senior Solutions," a new television show on Comcast Cable. The show airs Mondays at 9 a.m., Wednesdays at 11:30 a.m. and 9 p.m., and Fridays at 7 p.m. Call 410-887-2594.
Pikesville Senior Center: Bicycle rides are offered for seniors on Mondays and Tuesdays throughout the Maryland / Delaware region, starting at various locations. Call 410-887-1245.
Learn to play the guitar: The Catonsville Senior Center, 501 N. Rolling Road, is offering guitar lessons Fridays, 10 a.m.-11:30 a.m. Beginners welcome. Call 410-887-0900.
Overlea Fullerton Senior Center, 4314 Fullerton Ave. At 12:30 p.m. Thursdays: Crochet classes. At 2 p.m. Thursdays: Line-dancing classes. $1 a class. At 1:30 p.m. Tuesdays: Weight-loss classes. Call 410-887-5220.
Seven Oaks Senior Center, 9210 Seven Oaks Drive. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays: Line-dancing classes. Call 410-887-5192.