Of Course Katherine Jackson Can Do It

So many of the talking heads question whether 79-year-old Katherine Jackson is “too old” to raise Michael Jackson’s children.   What they don’t take into account is that  (a) Katherine’s been co-parenting those kids since they were born;  (b) 79 isn’t what it used to be;  and perhaps most important, (c) she’s not going to do it alone.  

Grandma stepping in when parents are incapacitated or no longer in the picture isn’t exactly new–and it’s on the rise.  Between 1970 and 1997, grandparent-headed households increased from 2.2 million to 3.9 million; in the late 1990s these households included 5.5 percent of all U.S. children, typically aged five and under. Predictably, most of these are minority households, and the single greatest problem they face is poverty. Even so, as a  2006 study reported, evidence suggests that grandmas are able substitutes–indeed, a far better alternative than a household in which a single mother has a live-in boyfriend:

“…grandmother headed households may be promoting stability for children because they represent more long term arrangements: 56 percent last for at least three years, and nearly 20 percent last for ten years or longer. Moreover, evidence suggests that children who live in a grandparental home have better developmental outcomes (education, delinquency, and sexual behavior) that are on par with those observed in two parent married families.”

Katherine Jackson doesn’t have to worry about money, that’s for sure.  But she also seems to have the right stuff. Besides equal measures of love and limits, what makes a “good” parent or grandparent is knowing the child.  I don’t have first hand knowledge of this, but from listening to people in the inner circles of the Jackson family, it’s clear that Katherine has been there from the beginning. She knows the kids’ temperaments, their likes and dislikes, their strengths and vulnerabilities.    Is  another woman better equipped to raise Michael’s children simply because she’s younger

I once heard the late Tracy Hogg–aka “the Baby Whisperer”–tell a new mother to “use” her own mother–the baby’s grandma.  It didn’t matter if Mom did things differently in “her day.”  Tracy, who adored and often turned to her own “Nan” for advice, lamented the irony that in the face of so much expert advice, modern mothers often second-guess their own judgment and are unreceptive to the older generation. Certainly, there are inept and uneasy grandmothers, just as there are inept and uneasy mothers, but Katherine Jackson doesn’t seem to fall into that category–nor does she appear to be too “old” for the job.  She’s active, healthy, and stable.  And let’s not forget that she raised nine children of her own and understands all too well what it means for children to grow up in public.

And, to repeat: She won’t be doing it alone.  She is surrounded by a loving family–her children, their children, and her  close friends will be there with her.  She’ll have a cadre of consequential strangers to rely on, too: cooks and nannies and the kids’ friends’ parents. She’ll have teachers, coaches, lesson-givers, and teenagers who can climb the monkey bars and play video games with the kids. And if needed, she’ll have doctors and therapists to help the children and her deal with Michael’s death and whatever other challenges they face.

Katherine knows she can’t do it alone; every mother and grandmother does.

We Need Child Consequential Strangers, Too

Spending a few days with my daughter and her family, it occurred to me that one of the reasons parenting is so hard is that the adults have no frame of reference. Do other kids act like this at the dinner table?  Do other parents feel so frustrated at times that they want to cry?  Do they cry? One way of getting those answers is by talking to other parents. Another way is to connect with your child’s friends–the youngest consequential strangers in your convoy.

Child consequential strangers provide a window into a different world: what kids are into, how they talk, their fears. And it’s easier to listen because you don’t have the same emotional reaction when they lobby for a Wii or complain about their own parents’ insistence on a 10 o’clock curfew.

Ron Taffel grasped this reality nearly a decade ago when he began to invite teens’ peers into therapy sessions. Whether the guest was a good friend or a teammate of the client’s, his or her presence enhanced Ron’s understanding of his client’s daily habitat and the forces that weighed on him.  Along similar lines–and this is a subject of some debate–teachers who connect with students on their Facebook pages see a potential for information, connection and mentoring. (An excellent discussion of these issues was sparked by Dana Boyd, an authority on teens’ online social habits, in a post on her blog.)

The truth is, even if you’re not a parent, teacher, or therapist, you probably already have child consequential strangers in your life–your cousin’s children, your friend’s grandchildren, the kids next door.  And it’s a good idea to connect with them. I have a 14 year old “handy man” who waters my plants, shovels my walk when I’m gone, and helps me with gardening and heavy lifting. In our occasional conversations, I’ve heard about his track meets, his efforts to raise money for an African village, his summer plans. And when I wanted to find some “hip” music, I asked him. He naturally suggested a group I’d never heard of. Still, I’m enriched by our relationship, and I’d like to think he is, too.

Not so incidentally, such intergenerational connections might help change young people’s minds about their elders. As I report in Chapter 6 of the book, of all the unconscious attitudes that we harbor–white over black, skinny over fat, straight over gay, able-bodied over disabled–the bias against “old”  is the strongest!  (Test your own “implicit attitudes.”)