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Can We Talk About Family?
A Family Puzzle
Latoya Roberts, a 25-year-old, African-American, first grade teacher, arrives at school thinking about Keon, a strong-willed and helpful boy who is being raised by his grandmother. Early in the school year, Keon was sure to let her know “my grandma takes care of me.” Just yesterday Keon blurted out that his mother lives “on the streets” and then quickly covered his mouth saying, “I shouldn't have said that.”
Latoya realizes that in the past two weeks she has heard family “news flashes” from Keon almost every day. Keon told her that he has two little brothers Kory and Dedrick that do not live with him whom he visits every other weekend. During the conversation, Keon called Latoya “Mom.” Keon refers to her as Mom all the time now. This feels different than when another student occasionally slips and calls her Mom. Keon seems eager to share and be close, and is somewhat embarrassed by this at the same time.
Latoya knows that children's primary attachments are to family, but attachments to teachers seem to provide additional security for some of her more vulnerable children. Aware that Keon was retained in kindergarten, Latoya is determined that he have the best year he can in first grade. “If he knows he can tell me what's on his mind, and if I can talk with Grandma, will this help him succeed?” She also wonders to herself, “why I am so hesitant to ask his grandma if it's okay to talk with him about his mom and family?”
Reaching out to Grandma
Latoya sits among the kids in her class as they come together for meeting time. Just as the kids are quieting down, Keon starts rolling on the floor and having a tantrum. Frustrated, Latoya wonders if she should call his grandma about this and Keon's other recent tantrums. Latoya knows that with a call Grace Harris, his grandmother, will respond and provide backup on class discipline. She thinks to herself, “then I can ask her about other issues and clear my mind as to how to approach Keon's sharing and family confessions.” Ultimately, Latoya decides against an immediate phone call, as Keon responds positively to her reinforcement of the meeting time routine.
Though Latoya is usually someone who feels self-sufficient in figuring out the kids in her class, towards day's end she is overwhelmed and wants to talk about her day to someone. Latoya tells Lisa, a second grade teacher who stops by her classroom, some of what Keon has shared recently.
Before Latoya finishes, Lisa is already shaking her head. “Latoya,” she declares emphatically, “do not get too involved with family business. You have enough to do just working on discipline and your curriculum, you know ... reading and math.” Lisa, a seasoned teacher, senses that Latoya is not satisfied with her response. She gives Latoya a “be careful” look as she walks away. Lisa's advice makes Latoya even more hesitant to call Keon's grandma directly. Instead she decides to write a note to send home with Keon tomorrow.
Grace Harris is a 55-year-old mother and grandmother living in a predominantly African-American urban community. Grace's two teenage sons live with her along with Keon and his 12-year-old sister Keona. Her sporadic contact with Keon's mother Jada, her oldest daughter, is in part due to Jada's unstable living situation.
Keon and his teenage sister see their two younger brothers Kory and Dedrick, who are in foster care, every other week during family visitations. Keon is close and protective of his brothers, and has seemed happier since the visits have become more regular in the past year. Keon also talks to his mother, Jada, from time to time though she rarely comes by to visit. Grace does not spontaneously talk to Keon about his mother, believing that Keon is not overly focused on her and that it is easier not to support their relationship because Jada is so unreliable. Grace does more comfortably encourage Keon's relationship with his younger siblings and often wishes she could care for them as well.
Keon has not seen Eddie, Grace's former partner and his grandfather figure recently. Eddie visited Keon at school often during his kindergarten year, but is no longer involved. Keon visits Eddie rarely now and seems to ask about him less. Grace is also very close to her own mother, Keon's great-grandmother, who lives within walking distance and whom they visit regularly.
Keon's family lives in one of the poorest and most stressed public housing communities near the school. Grace permits a relatively wide range of exploration within his community; however, she does not permit Keon to go freely into others' homes. She is well aware of the social dynamics of the community and the influence this bears on raising her sons and grandchildren.
Grace supports independence and encourages “streetsmarts” for all her kids. As she does for her teenage sons, Grace sets a curfew for Keon and consistently reminds him to stay safe. She feels they are a close family unit. She tells her kids, “Remember there is only one gang that you belong to and that's our family.”
Grandma Grace After a Long Day
Grace Harris is tired at the end of her workday. Taking classes, working, and caring for her kids at the same time has been tough, especially after the family's summer move to a larger apartment. She and Keon have just walked home from the community senior center where she works as a social worker. Keon meets her there every day after school. After school time at the center gives Keon time for homework and activities, so Grace lets him play outdoors for long periods after they arrive home. The new apartment, though better in many ways with more bedrooms, has limited playspace.
Keon talks about his school day with Grace's encouragement, and most days she remembers to ask him for a report. Grace is well aware of the new focus on academic standards at the school and wants to learn more about the new program. Having a strong desire for Keon to succeed this year after being retained for both learning and behavioral concerns in kindergarten, she kept Keon in his school despite their recent move. Grace works hard and studies as well, and she hopes that her work ethic offers a role model for Keon and the other kids.
Today Grace thinks to herself about Keon's new young teacher Ms. Latoya Roberts. “With the number of kids in her class how well can she get to know Keon? Only so much a new teacher can do.” Grace also feels Ms. Roberts is a teacher who “goes by the books” and is still learning herself.
As Keon puts his coat on to go outside, Grace reads a concerned note from his teacher, Ms. Roberts. Keon has been calling the teacher Mom often. Grandma wonders why that would worry Ms. Roberts, it just means Keon likes his teacher. Keon's young uncle Terry comes in just as Keon is growing restless to have his playtime outdoors. It is fall and getting dark earlier now, but Grace allows Keon to have outside time until almost 9pm.
Later, after Keon comes in from outdoors at his designated curfew, he rolls around on the floor in anger and disappointment at having to end his day and get ready for bed. While Grace and Keon's relationship is close and often playful, by the end of the night, Grace appears tired, strained, and overwhelmed.
Keon, Latoya, and Grace Harris at School
A few days after Ms. Roberts sent a note home, Grace Harris comes to pick up Keon in his class after school. She sees Ms. Roberts interacting with the other kids, and observes her as energetic and positive. Grace is also glad to see that there are more African-American teachers in the school since it restructured last year.
Grace Harris gives a friendly hello, but Latoya also picks up on her sense of hurriedness and privacy. Latoya never did hear back about the note she sent home and wants to ask about all that Keon has shared. But she wavers. Perhaps she should not talk in front of Keon, who has already shown a need to protect his feelings. He may already view his world as precarious or untrustworthy. Then again, all she wants to know from his grandma, who is his legal guardian after all, is whether it is okay for Keon to tell Latoya what's on his mind. “If I approach Ms. Harris will she pressure Keon to be less open? Will this make it harder for him?” But in Latoya's mind she wants to offer support to Keon every way she can. She even entertained the idea of engaging a male aide to mentor Keon after learning that he does not see his grandfather anymore.
Another child distracts Latoya. Keon and his grandma leave class together and the opportunity is lost.
This work was supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as part of its Research Network on Successful Pathways Through Middle Childhood. The people and events in this case are partly based on real-life accounts, but have been disguised to protect confidentiality. We would like to thank ethnographers Carol McAllister and Jane Dirks for conducting the in-depth interviews with the family and teachers, and their early analysis and review of this teaching case.
Grandparent Caregiving and Family Structure
Berrick, J. D. (1998). When children cannot remain home: Foster family care and kinship care. Protecting children from abuse and neglect. The Future of Children, 8(1), 72–87.
Casper, L. M., & Bryson, K. R. (1998). Co-resident grandparents and their grandchildren: Grandparent maintained families. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America, Chicago, IL.
Ehrle, J., Geen, R., & Clark, R. (2000). National survey of America's families. Children cared for by relatives: Who are they and how are they faring? Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.
Jarrett, R. L. (1999). African-American mothers and grandmothers in poverty: An adaptational perspective. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 29(2), 387–396.
Jarrett, R. L., & Burton, L. (1999). Dynamic dimensions of family structure in low-income African-American families: Emergent themes in qualitative research. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 30(2),177–187.
Pruchno, R. (1999). Raising grandchildren: The experience of back and white grandmothers. The Gerontologist, 39(2), 209–225.
Smith, A., & Dannison, L. (2002). Educating educators: Programming to support grandparent-headed families. Contemporary Education, 72(2), 4–51.
Social Emotional Development and School Adjustment
Howes, C. (1999). Attachment relationships in the context of multiple caregivers. In J. Cassidy & P. R. Shaver (Eds.), Handbook of attachment: Theory, research and clinical implications. New York: Guildford.
Pianta, R. C., Steinberg, M., & Rollins, K. B. (1995). The first two years of school: Teacher-child relationships and deflections in children's classroom adjustment. Development and Psychopathology, 7, 295–312.
Jarrett, R. L. (1998). African-American children, families, and neighborhoods: Qualitative contributions to understanding developmental pathways. Applied Developmental Science, 2(1) 2–16.
Schools and Grandparents
Smith, A. B., Dannison, L., & Voch-Hasse, T. (1998). When grandma is mom: What today's teachers need to know. Childhood Education, 75(1), 12–16.
Timbers, J. (2001). Educating schools on behalf of children in care. Connect for Kids website. Available at www.connectforkids.org/node/295.
Woodward, R. S., & Fron, M. (1999, May). I like being safe and loved: Words and pictures on life with Grandma and Grandpa from children being raised by their grandparents. Washington, DC: American Association of Retired Persons. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED425792)
To request instructor notes for this teaching case, send an email to FINE at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Philip Olson is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Missouri in Kansas City and Director of the Grandparents as Parents Outreach Program in Kansas City, Missouri since 1998.
This case study describes a scenario involving a relatively new elementary school teacher, and a child being raised by his grandmother because of his own mother's problems.
Two fundamental issues are at the core of this case: (1) false assumptions made by both teacher and grandmother about each other; and (2) teacher lack of knowledge about households in which grandparents are raising their grandchildren, and the larger family context in which grandmothers are most often enmeshed. I will discuss each separately.
False Assumptions by Teacher and Grandparent
Throughout the description of this case the teacher keeps asking questions about what to do, and then either answers them herself through her actions—doing nothing or writing a note to the grandmother—or asks a teaching colleague what to do. In this latter case she falsely assumes that an older, more experienced teacher will give her good advice. As we see, the older teacher comes from a traditional educational background that dictates that one should keep school and home separate, not “getting involved” in family matters. We know today that such advice is essentially wrong in two ways: (1) characterizing it as “getting involved” falsely implies that one is letting their emotions dictate their behavior rather than the principles of educational performance, and (2) it is based on very limited knowledge of the child, his family situation, and the presenting problems, as well as the strong likelihood that the older teacher has no experience with or understanding of households in which grandparents are raising their grandchildren.
The note sent by the teacher to the grandmother addresses an issue that is not problematic to the grandmother who believes that Keon calling his teacher “Mom” probably means he likes her. In this case the grandmother's assumption is wrong: Keon's behavior may be symptomatic of deeper problems of family disorder that the grandmother may be incapable of processing without some outside help. Despite her education (she is a social worker), the grandmother further assumes the teacher doesn't have time for Keon and probably “goes by the books.”
These false assumptions that seem to drive the behavior of teacher and grandparent lay the groundwork for an everyday tragedy that parallels the early Greek tragedy plays: the outsider sees the tragedy coming and is helpless to do anything to change it, while the participants are unable to see it and thus do not do anything to change it. In real life, however, we are often able to learn from such tragedies and make preparations to see they do not happen in the future with other players. I will discuss below how we might lessen the chances of this “tragedy” from recurring.
Lack of Understanding of Grandparent-Headed Households
Although “grandparents as parents” is not a new phenomenon in our society, it has been exacerbated by a number of economic and social factors. For the black community the decline in economic opportunity for young blacks, especially black males, has fueled the drug economy by making it the easiest and most lucrative business for black males to enter. Of course it has also made it the most dangerous—leading to jail or death in more than two-thirds of the cases. Some hypothesize that the growth of the drug business and the use of drugs has affected black and white youth cultures with an increased focus on “me” and the glacial decline in optimism about the future of our society. (Persell, 1997, p. 152). Indeed the GSS nationwide survey done over several decades has seen an increase in those who agree “the lot of the average man is getting worse” (Persell).
It is thus extremely important to understand the conditions within which children live if their primary caregiver is a grandparent or other relative serving as surrogate parent. Keon's case is not atypical: the lack of an adult male figure, an unreliable mother, two brothers placed in foster care, living in poor housing conditions, and living in neighborhoods containing extremely dangerous personal living conditions, temptations to join the underground economy (drug trade), and a great deal of physical disorder. This kind of situation contributes to severe psycho-social uncertainty.
There are few certainties for Keon in his present life. School is one of them and his grandmother is the other. Her desire for Keon to succeed in the larger world is not uncommon among grandparents in the black community. Her sense of failure as a mother is also common and thus her desire to raise Keon with all due diligence is common. Financial exigencies lie at the core of most “grandparents as parents” because their work and life circumstances make it difficult to have much saved for retirement. Even in cases where they are working, as many do, their standard of living does not allow much latitude for adding family members to the household. Some states have provisions for grandparents to qualify for TANF and others have special “grandparents as parents” provisions for support. But learning what the system will provide is no easy task, because few areas have well-advertised programs to give assistance and support to this population.
Elementary school teachers especially need education to understand this growing population and how to work constructively with them. It is clear that Ms. Roberts, the young school teacher, would have handled this case very differently had she known some of the basic conditions surrounding this type of household; she surely would have “gotten involved” appropriately with the grandmother for the benefit of Keon. She likely would have been surprised at the educational level of his grandmother, and would have quickly understood that to mean she could work directly with the grandmother at a professional as well as personal level to help Keon get the professional help suggested by his behavior. She would have contributed to his development by simply “being involved.”
Persell, C. H. (1997). The interdependence of social justice and civil society. Sociological Forum, 12(2), 149–172.
Linda L. Dannison is Professor and Chair, Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, Western Michigan University. Andrea Smith is Associate Professor, Department of Teaching, Learning, and Leadership, Western Michigan University. Their research focuses on the custodial grandparent family and developing resources for grandparents, grandchildren, and educational professionals.
Grandparents are returning to the role of parents in ever-increasing numbers. Currently, 6.7% of families with children under 18 years of age are maintained by grandparents (U.S. Census Bureau, 1996). High rates of teenage pregnancy, incarceration, alcohol or other substance abuse, parental death, HIV/AIDS, divorce, child abuse and neglect, mental illness, and other economic and social conditions are contemporary problems contributing to the increase of the custodial-grandparent family typology (Minkler & Fuller-Thomson, 1999; Smith, Dannison & Vacha-Haase, 1998).
Children living in grandparent-maintained homes differ in several ways from those living with their parents. A study of American grandparent-headed families showed that children are younger, have an older household head who is more likely to be unemployed, live with a caregiver who has not graduated from high school, reside in the South or central cities, and be poor (Casper & Bryson, 1998). Grandchildren are more likely to be needy due to a combination of congenital and environmental facts. Often they experience prenatal exposure to drugs and/or alcohol (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1990) and may have a history of living in an abusive or neglectful home environment. Grandchildren frequently have difficulties forming attachments (Minkler & Roe, 1993; Dannison & Smith, in press; Smith & Dannison, 2002). While many act out inappropriately, others may cope by becoming withdrawn, non-verbal, or “too good to be true.” Grandparented children often deal with many troubling and confusing emotions. Common feelings include grief and loss, fear, guilt, embarrassment, and anger (Smith et al., 1998).
Keon has experienced many changes and losses in his young life. Relationships with his mother, two younger brothers, and his grandmother's male partner have been inconsistent. His behaviors indicate how strongly these multiple losses have impacted his life and how Keon struggles to control his emotions. Immature social behaviors and poor academic performance during kindergarten are consistent with increased levels of emotional and behavioral problems among children living in grandparent-maintained homes (Dubowitz, Feibleman, Starr & Sawyer, 1994). Thirty percent of grandparented children exhibit learning disabilities and/or mental impairment and over 60% repeat at least one grade in school (Sawyer & Dubowitz, 1994).
Keon, like other children in grandparent-maintained homes, has benefited from a consistent relationship with a nurturing adult. Grace's intergenerational parenting provides a unique opportunity to influence Keon's developing self-concept positively. Children living with grandparents often realize how deeply they need stability, love, and care and benefit from the associated feelings of belonging and consistency (Altshuler, 1999; Kopera-Frye & Wiscott, 2000). Despite challenging early circumstances, Keon demonstrates an ability to adapt to change. Keon's close, protective relationship with his younger brothers illustrates the importance of supportive family interactions in his life. Grace and Latoya can work together in implementing strategies aimed at increasing resilience and capitalizing on Keon's helpful nature (Smith & Dannison, in press).
Although most grandparents do not actively seek out their new role, they are strongly committed to providing a nurturing and consistent environment for the grandchildren in their care (Dannison & Smith, in press; Smith et al., 1998). They have the benefit of a historical relationship with the family and a strong desire to keep the family as intact as possible. Grace's commitment to her family is evident in the daily sacrifices she makes in order to raise Keon.
However, Grace also struggles to meet the constant challenges associated with the custodial grandparent role. She, like many other caregiving grandparents, is isolated from sources of support. Many grandparents experience feelings of failure, guilt, and anger over their own child's inabilities to effectively assume the role of parent (deToledo & Brown, 1998; Smith & Dannison, in press). Grace seems unable to communicate with both family members and educators about Keon's mother and their family configuration. Grace is the main source of instrumental and emotional support in Keon's life while playing the major role in maintaining her family unit. She would benefit from opportunities for personal respite and increased access to positive feedback about the role she is fulfilling.
Latoya, Keon's teacher, appears to be a very caring and effective educator. She recognizes that Keon has some unique needs and is concerned about developing strategies to more effectively connect with his family. Custodial grandparents often desire increased information about parents and child development (Smith & Dannison, 2002). Latoya can capitalize on Grace's caring and commitment by providing her with information, support, and access to resources which will enhance and refine her parenting skills. A major goal for Latoya would be to identify frequent opportunities to interact with Grace, perhaps focusing on developing shared strategies for enhancing Keon's resiliency. Developing this reciprocal home-school partnership is a critical step in meeting Keon's academic and emotional needs.
Many educators teach children from grandparent-headed families. One study indicated that while the majority (86%) of teachers were interacting with grandparented children, most (96%) had little formal knowledge about this family typology (Smith & Dannison, in press). Latoya's lack of knowledge about the unique challenges faced by grandparent-headed family members may contribute to her inability to establish a working relationship with Grace. Providing educators with information about both the strengths and needs of grandparent-headed families is necessary. Building sensitivity will increase effectiveness and enable teachers to begin to modify curriculum, make classrooms “grandparent-friendly” and become aware of available resources and programs to meet grandparents' and grandchildren's needs.
Schools are ideally situated for providing services to grandparent-headed families. School-based programs have the potential to recognize and reinforce the strengths inherent in multi-generational families. Holistically-based programs can effectively meet the needs of custodial grandparents, their young grandchildren, and the teachers who work with them each day.
Altshuler, S. (1999). Children in kinship foster care speak out: “We think we're doing fine.” Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 16(3), 215–235.
Casper, L., & Bryson, K. (1998). Co-resident grandparents and their grandchildren: Grandparent-maintained families (Population Division technical working paper, 26). Washington, DC: U.S. Bureau of the Census.
Dannison, L., & Smith, A. (in press). Lessons learned from a custodial grandparent community support program. Children and Schools.
deToledo, S., & Brown, D. (1995). Grandparents as parents: A survival guide for raising your second family. New York: Guilford.
Dubowitz, H., Feigleman, S., Harrington, D., Starr, R., & Sawyer, R. (1994). Children in kinship care: How do they fare? Children and Youth Services Review, 16, 85–106.
Kopera-Frye, K., & Wiscott, R. (2000). Intergenerational continuity: Transmission of beliefs and culture. In B. Hayslip, Jr. & Goldberg-Glen, R. (Eds.), Grandparents raising grandchildren: Theoretical, empirical, and clinical perspectives. New York: Springer.
Minkler, M., & Fuller-Thomson, E. (1999). The health of grandparent raising grandchildren: Results of a national study. American Journal of Public Health, 89(9), 1384–1389.
Minkler, M., & Roe, K. (1993). Grandmothers as caregivers. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Sawyer, R., & Dubowitz, H. (1994). School performance of children in kinship care. Child Abuse and Neglect, 587–597.
Smith, A., & Dannison, L. (in press). Building resiliency in children in the care of grandparents. Family Information Services.
Smith, A., & Dannison, L. (in press). Grandparent-headed families in the United States: Recognizing unique needs. Intergenerational Programming Quarterly.
Smith, A., & Dannison, L. (2002). Educating educators: Programming to support grandparent-headed families. Contemporary Education, 72, 4–51.
Smith, A., Dannison, L., & Vacha-Haase, T. (1998). When “Grandma” is “Mom”: What today's teachers need to know. Childhood Education, 75(1), 12–16.
U.S. Bureau of the Census. (1996). Current population reports: Marital status and living arrangements. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
U.S. General Accounting Office. (1990, June 28). Drug-exposed infants: A generation at risk (GAO/HRDl-90-138). Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
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