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An interview with James Webb, Ph.D. Grandparents and Gifted Children

By Michael Shaughnessy.

Question by Dr. Michael Shaughnessy: Jim, I understand that you are doing an on line chat about gifted kids and their grandparents. When will this take place?

Answer by Dr. James Webb: My Webinar on Grandparents and Gifted children, which is sponsored by SENG (Supporting Emotional needs of Gifted) was held Sunday, September 20 at 4:00 p.m. (Eastern time) until 5:30 p.m.

Question: Why are grandparents important?

Answer: When I became a grandparent, I quickly came to appreciate that the role is different than parenting, but yet is one that can be quite important and influential. Grandparents, because of the breadth of their life experiences, often recognize high potential and ability more quickly than the parents. Grandparents can help parents nurture a child’s learning opportunities, and they also can provide learning opportunities and special time with their grandchildren. Grandparents generally have something that parents do not–time. Parents these days, with all of the modern day stresses, so often find it difficult to make time for their children. Yet we know how important it is to give focused attention to children.

Question: How do they serve as mentors?

Answer: Grandchildren generally look up to their grandparents, even during the teen years when parents have “lost their credibility” with the youngsters. Part of this may be because grandparents are less often the disciplinarians than are the parents, as well as that the grandparents potentially have more time to spend with the grandchildren. Grandparents can take grandchildren on special outings and trips that may not be affordable for the parents. And grandparents, having lived a long time, often have connections with other people in the community or elsewhere in the country which can lead them to provide mentoring opportunities. If we think about it, we realize that grandparents are ones who hand down family traditions. They are the ones who, openly or subtly, say, “In our family we expect….”

Question: How do they help emotionally?

Answer: Grandparents can help put matters into perspective. They have experienced life and they have lived through great times and significant traumas. As a result, they can more easily step back from what seems to be a major crisis and help the parents and grandchildren to see the situation as a lesser crisis and a learning experience. Of course, all of this assumes the communication that comes from a good relationship between the grandparents and the children and grandchildren. I am hoping that this webinar will provide inspiration as well as practical tips for grandparents to develop and maintain good relationships in this way. Schmitz (2003) noted that there are three types of grandparents: (1) Been There, Done That, and feel their job is over, (2) Help When Asked grandparents who remain mostly uninvolved, though they are willing to help if asked, and (3) Parents Forever Grandparents who actively participate in the lives of their gr and children and who believe that all adults in a family share responsibility for raising the youngest generation. I advocate for the last style of grandparenting. Our grandchildren are simply too important, I believe, to do otherwise.

Question: What do you recall about your grandparents?

Answer: I only knew my grandparents on my mother’s side. My father’s parents died when he was quite young. I remember having a sense of awe at all of the things that they knew and how they seem to seamlessly glide through daily tasks that they had done thousands of times, but which seemed mysterious and challenging to me. I recall how forgiving they were when I showed the poor judgment that characterizes childhood. I also remember how they stood firm with my parents when a true crisis arose. Perhaps most of all, I remember the values of kindness, compassion, and generosity that they modeled. They passed along an important legacy that I hope, in turn, to pass along to my children and grandchildrnen. One of the important things we talk about in our book is the importance of an Ethical Will. We all know about wills that are written to disburse tangible assets. However, a longstanding, but little known, tradition is that of an Ethical Will where one writes up a statement of values and achievements and hopes for the succeeding generations. It is a more formalized way of passing along traditions.

Question: I can’t help but recall, the loving, nurturance I received from my own grandparents. How much do they impact gifted kids?

Answer: Gifted children, with their intensity, may need the safe haven of grandparents more than other children. High achievement, for example, is not necessarily valued by age peers of gifted teens, and there is much pressure to camouflage and hide one’s abilities. Grandparents can play a major role in helping gifted children appreciate the long view–how peers change, how important education is, and that one can largely determine one’s role in the world.

Question: What have I neglected to ask?

Answer: Sometimes, Grandparents are the parents. The 2000 U.S. Census showed that more than one in every 20 children under age 18 was permanently living in a home where the grandparent was the family head.

In other families, children live with grandparents temporarily because the adult children are in Armed Services, traveling, seriously ill, incarcerated, etc. The role of grandparent becomes very different when you are now also the parent.

Question: What else have I neglected to ask?

Answer: Another aspect that we will talk about in the webinar is the problems that often arise as a result of divorce. How active can and should the grandparents be, particularly when the grandchildren are with the ex-spouse? And remarriage brings additional challenges. Now the children have even more grandparents. In such situations, it is important for the grandparents to know that they can provide a needed sense of stability. Just because your son or daughter got divorced does not mean that you need to divorce the grandchildren! It is important to try to maintain at least some contact, even if only by email or Facebook.

Question: How can they be useful in the schools?

Answer: Grandparents can be advocates in local schools. I want to point out that grandparents are sometimes treated with more respect by school authorities than are parents. Often, the grandparents personally know the principal or superintendent or school board member, and they can pick up the phone and talk to these people about their grandchildren. It’s okay to do that. Grandparents, too, can provide financial assistance to their grandchildren, which can be particularly important if the parents are not that financially comfortable. For example, they may underwrite the cost of a music camp or summer computer lab or other special educational experience. Grandparents can also establish educational trust funds, Coverdell accounts, and the like. Some grandparents, too, have established foundations or provided funding through estate planning to help support educational opportunities for gifted and talented children. We talk about all of this in our book, Grandparent’s Guide to Gifted Children.

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