What do grandparents mean to young people?

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
What do grandparents mean to young people?
Credit: Belga

Rather than ask: “What do young people owe their grandparents?” – we must wonder: “What do grandparents mean to young people?”

One of our misunderstandings during the pandemic lies in the alleged antagonism between the elderly and the youth. The injunction “Save Grandma” in our policymaking vocabulary shows how our conception of young people is both progressively alienating (it’s them!) and yet still conservative (family first!). It is simple to look at the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren as two extremes of the same spectrum – but if our media communications to these distant generations have failed, it is precisely because of that monolithic perspective on elderly-youth relations.

There is a reason we are so incapable of talking about the ethics attached to grandchildren: religion, philosophy, and later psychoanalysis, had all been too concerned with the relationship between children and their parents. It was honour thy father and thy mother which was specified among the ten commandments. Later, the medieval Arabic philosopher Ibn Rushd mused how respect for our parents was one of the few universal values. Of course when we got to Freud it became the opposite – we had the unconscious wish to kill our fathers, and possess our mothers.

It is this active search for universal laws from Moses to Freud that explains the absence of grandparents in popular ethical literature: how could we pin down what young people owe their grandparents, if we are still disciplining them at a local level, meaning under Mommy and Daddy? But this active search for universality is also to blame for our general antipathy for the lives of others.

When we accused young people of not caring about grandma, we were of course preaching hypocrisy, for we have not yet check-listed love thyself to start loving thy neighbour. All these loops! Morality is always elsewhere – a few streets down the block, a generation away, the countries south of the border – and that distance is counter-intuitive given that we are ourselves moral agents. No wonder the first hooligans are said to be Irish – they had to come from over there.

So what if we enter those underground parties and zoom into these young hooligans with no seeming regard to their grandparents? Could we find within them, ex nihilo, dwelling on its own, a thread binding them with their grandparents? There is a lot of sarcasm here – I don’t believe young people don’t care about their grandparents – rather, I am pointing the moralizers toward a more effective route for their rhetoric; much more effective than wear a mask to save x, y, and z.

My problem is with the causality involved, with x, y, and z: that young people must respect the elderly because the elderly are different than young people; meaning, x does not equal z. Yet every good observant of family ties will say otherwise, that grandparents and grandchildren are often alike; that there is a form of complicity between them. “What is that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?” the riddle of the Sphinx mused thousands of years ago, alluding to how growing old was a step backwards toward childhood.

Yet the reason philosophers since Ancient Greece have rarely paid attention to the elderly’s renewed childhood is their long dismissal of childhood itself (Descartes paired kids with the crazy), and their well-founded but unacknowledged fear that the wisdom of old-age might amount to no more than that of a child (very few philosophers rightly accepted the wisdom of childhood, and most of them were women).

Elderly and youth are alike

What I am saying is that the elderly and the youth are alike; and that’s the essential component missing in the discourse around saving our grandparents. I could go further and argue that this likeness between grandchild and grandparent constitutes the very motor of history. The religious, philosophical, and psychoanalytic literatures are misguided because whereas they wish to show us how children may or may not become like their parents, and therefore prolong continuity, it is truer that history is cyclical and that history repeats itself only because grandchildren became or didn’t become like their grandparents.

That grandchildren can have no insight about their grandparents’ youth is a matter of great historical relevance. For history is written by the blind, meaning those who act without knowing that their actions are not entirely new; that something similar happened once before, when their grandparents were their age. It is different with parents whose own childhood should never be accessed by their children – the uninterested teenager who echoes sarcastically back at their father, “when I was your age!” tells us as much.

But the gates of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, are open to grandchildren… most of whom, once old enough to reflect on their own lives, will not be able ask their grandparents about the time of youth. There is a sense in Freud that the behaviour of man runs on something we just faintly know – that Oedipus both recognized and didn’t recognize the father he killed. It is the same with grandchildren, whose life will unfold with knowledge and not-enough-knowledge about their grandparents; as though knowing too much would desacralize the very meaning of grandparents.

The delight of the impartial observer who could see the young imitate the old! Yet us watchful observers are too close to events to see the likeness, and we choose to drive a wedge between the elderly and the youth, Boomers and Gen Zs. I do think the gap is larger than it was a few years ago – not least because the uncertainty of the pandemic is generally driving people to latch onto their egoism, for it alone is certain.

Yet the archives know of many generations that felt completely disconnected from their grandparents, meaning disconnected from history itself. Perhaps one day someone will write a book on the relationship between history and grandparents. Perhaps the Nazis, them, knew more than Oedipus; perhaps their grandparents’s past was thought to be clean and understood; meaning, misunderstood.

Yet how great is a generation of grandchildren who were allowed to know just enough; whose love for their ancestry remained loyal but also accurate, and therefore conducive to peace, not war. Let us muse over what George Sand poetically said, she who was part of an exceptional generation:

“Pushed to the discovery of truth by an invisible temptation, by the destiny of our century, we stopped at every instance to mourn the naïve faith of our childhood and to claim back our Empyrean Heaven, our apocalyptic skyline. We suffer a pain and misery that is reserved for generations who are yet to take out the spikes and extract the poison from the uncultivated fields of the truth.”

A complicated context! Yet all we must remember is what George Sand’s grandmother said to her on her deathbed: “You are losing your best friend.” The best friend who told her about the bloody days of the French Revolution in 1789, without so much sparing her granddaughter from contributing to the next one in 1848.

All this to say: how ignorant we are about the way knowledge passes from one generation to another! Today, we live in the only century whose grandchildren could learn about their grandparents through Facebook – let us not ruin how far we have come, let us not alienate further those who already belong to the same heart, and let us understand what people mean to each other before dictating what they owe.


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