I saw a meme one day that I immediately forwarded to my unmarried daughters:
“Before you marry someone, find out if their family starts out holidays with mimosas or 5Ks.”
Clearly, this isn’t the most important thing to look for in a life partner, but it speaks to something that is sometimes overlooked as we navigate becoming a grandparent: family culture.
Every family has its own culture, its own customs and values. When our adult children choose partners, even if they are marrying the boy next door, they are stepping in to a new culture.
Sometimes this culture is vastly and noticeably different, such as when my blond, protestant cousin married a woman of Indian descent. Just the moving marriage ceremony, with its emphasis on the joining of families, showed that he was entering a new culture.
But even when your child chooses a partner who isn’t from another race, country or religious background, they will have to navigate cultural differences.
Their partner may have different team loyalties, different holiday traditions, different ways of making French toast. They may place a higher or lower value on making the bed, filling the gas tank before it’s near empty, or Emily Post’s table manners.
There will be a constant dance as these partners work out compromises and form new traditions to incorporate what is most important to each of them and create a new family culture.
What does this mean for us as grandparents?
It means that we must always remember there is more than one right way to do anything. We must always remember that what is vitally important to us may not be to the mother or father of our grandchild—even if they are our own children. Our grandchildren are being raised in a family with its own new culture, one that is being established as the family grows. As grandparents, our role is to embrace this new culture and celebrate it!
Respecting cultural differences
It’s one thing to welcome a Yankees fan into a loyal Mets family. You know the exact dates and times when you will be faced with potential conflict, and can figure out ways to bridge the gap. But when entire cultures are different, grandparents may be faced with a slew of issues they didn’t expect. Some of these include:
Each of these situations can be worked out with a willingness to be open, curious and respectful.
If your grandchild’s name is hard to pronounce, don’t be tempted to make up a nickname that’s easier to say. Practice their given name until you can say it correctly.
If your grandchild is being raised in a kosher household, don’t assume you know what that means. Educate yourself by asking questions and doing research.
If you don’t agree with piercing a baby’s ears, find out more about why your grandchild’s parents feel it’s important. In the article What White Families Don’t Understand About Piercing a Baby’s Ears, Latinx author Priscilla Blossom says “Considering the times we’re living in, when a lot of our cultural traditions are being whitewashed, appropriated, and belittled by the white majority, it can often feel important to maintain some of our people’s old ways.” Look for similar articles on unfamiliar practices in your own family.
Should you learn to speak another language to support your grandchild’s cultural heritage? That depends on many factors, including whether the other grandparents speak English (it’s nice to be able to at least exchange pleasantries when you meet), how much time you’ll be spending with your grandchild (the more time, the more important it would be to know at least a few words), and whether learning languages is something you enjoy.
To learn more about your son- or daughter-in-law’s culture, read! Read novels by authors from their culture, histories of their people or country, and (if pertinent) travel books. When there is something that is foreign to you, ask questions to understand it better. Make it clear you want to understand their perspective by being open and non-judgmental. The line, “I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t know much/anything about X” is a great way to start a question about an unfamiliar practice.
No matter what the situation is, keep in mind that your grandchild is being raised in the culture her family is forming. It is bound to be different from your family’s, whether your son or daughter’s partner is from across the world or across the street. Our job as grandparents is to respect their choices and support them in any way we can. The payoff for us is a closer, more meaningful relationship with our grandchildren.
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