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Making connections across generations

“Connections between generations are essential for the mental health and stability of a nation."

- Margaret Mead, anthropologist

Are you familiar with the sweet story of the grandmother who, thinking she was texting her grandson to confirm his attendance at her Thanksgiving dinner, invited a stranger instead? Five years ago, Wanda Dench welcomed Jamal Hinton, then a teenager, to join her family at the table and every year since, he’s returned. Even in the midst of the pandemic Jamal and Wanda reunited – a few days early – for a meal together. (Sadly, this year there was one less chair at the table as Wanda’s husband, Lonnie, died last spring of COVID-19. He’d developed a great relationship with Jamal.)

This story has captured the collective heart of our country, not just as a quirky once-a-year reminder of hospitality, but because it highlights how a friendship can cross generations. Research conducted at the Stanford Center on Longevity at Stanford University shows that older adults play critical roles in the lives of young people, especially the most vulnerable. Both parties benefit from these meaningful relationships in finding a sense of purpose, making social connections, and promoting mental health and emotional well-being.

There’s also an impact on a kid’s broader world as relationships improve with family members, peers, and in school. A study at Harvard University indicates that kids who have a bond with supportive adults develop resilience and do well in the face of challenging circumstances.They are also less likely to engage in risky behaviors.

Our population is getting older

Today 100 million Americans are over 50, outnumbering kids under 18 by 33%.  Baby boomers are living more vibrant lives than their counterparts in prior generations because they’re healthier, wealthier, and better educated than their parents were at this age. With more time on their hands and less focus on upward mobility, they have a lot to offer, but kids and older people don’t often connect. As a society we’re self-segregating into age-specific communities -- young families living in neighborhoods with young families and older people in 55+ communities. This means there are fewer opportunities to interconnect. 

A survey of 2000 adults conducted by The Eisner Foundation reveals,

  • 53% of respondents said that aside from family members, they rarely spent time with people much older or younger than they are.
  • 93% of those surveyed felt that kids could benefit from building relationships with elders in their communities and 91% agreed that the elders could benefit as well.
  • 77% of respondents wished there were more opportunities in their own communities for different age groups to meet and interact.

Generating Generativity

Having navigated decades of life, older adults have attained a level of wisdom they eagerly want to share with others. Their perspective has been polished to a fine glow by surviving economic downturns, turbulence and violence, and a host of everyday problems like acing an algebra test, finding a first job, and choosing a life goal. They can inspire, encourage, and support kids who are exploring new interests and adventures. 

Psychologist Erik Erikson studied personality development and determined that older adults, aged 40 – 65, want to make a mark on the world through creating or nurturing things that will outlast them. It’s called generativity and includes investing in, caring for and developing the next generation. According to Encore CEO and president, Marc Freedman, older adults who do this are three times as likely to be happy as those who did not.

UNBOXED curriculum designer and Founder of ThinkCERCA, Eileen Murphy Buckley constructed the UNBOXED digital learning kit, The Book of Time as a great way to connect kids with older adults; “Kids take lessons from listening to people’s stories. They really begin to see the person they can relate to behind this adult figure that they’re speaking to.”

She adds, “When a kid creates connectedness to someone whose life experience might be different in terms of age and the things they’ve lived through, it gives that kid a really important empathy and perspective that makes them a better leader, a better classmate, and a better learner.”

Here are four ways to connect intergenerationally.

1.     Make an oral history video

People have wonderful stories that they would love to share. They just need to be asked. Eileen explains, “When a kid says ‘I’d like to honor you by documenting your story,’ they’re telling the person their story is important and will live on. And when the kid looks back on the video they’ve recorded, they’ll be really happy to have captured the voice, the gestures, and the facial expressions that are all part of that unique moment of remembering. That’s special.

Download The Book of Time to learn how to make an oral history.

2.     Read together

A study conducted on the impact of adult volunteers reading with kids concluded that the students made statistically greater gains over the academic year on reading comprehension and on assessments of reading skills than other kids who did not participate in the study.

Whether in person, on the phone, or through Zoom, both the adult and kid can share a book. Kids who are read to at least three times a week are almost twice as likely to score in the top 25% in reading compared to children who are read to less than three times a week. 

3.     Get curious

Is there a skill your kid wants to learn and an older adult who can teach them? Explore a hobby or interest together. Make it reciprocal. Your kid probably has some skills of their own they’d enjoy showing. Both are learning something new while building a friendship.

4.     Share life experiences

Psychology professor, Laura Carstensen who led the Stanford study says, “Young adults require emotional skills to succeed in life -- the types of skills and experiences that older adults have in abundance due to their life experiences. Critical thinking, problem-solving, social interaction are key to success in school and work, and they enable people to contribute meaningfully to society.”

Find opportunities for your kid to hear an older person’s story. Listening to a story will help them focus, remember information, develop empathy, and navigate some of life’s challenges. Eileen adds, “Often people who have had rather extraordinary lives don’t realize it and don’t always recognize they’re part of an important historic event.They think of it as just part of their regular person life and who would care?”

When the story is about real people and situations, it can also give kids a sense of direction about how to resolve a personal situation. Encourage your kid to be vulnerable and open with the older adults in their life and ask questions. This mentorship will create a safe space for your kid who may be more comfortable talking to a non-family member about an issue or concern.

Kids need as many as four to six involved and caring adults in their lives to fully develop emotionally and socially. The loving support of multiple individuals fosters a kid’s sense of belonging and that leads to positive social skills, successful relationships,  a clear understanding of emotions, and a love of learning. It really does take a village to raise a child.