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The Baltimore Sun
Don't Call Me Gradma

December 24, 2006
Today's Hip Grandparents Spoil They're Grandkids and Themselves

I think about this: Just by waking up, you can be someone's hero. How lucky can you be? Every kid loves their grandparents. It's yours to blow.

Baka, Deeda, Oji, Gunga, Leelee, Uma, Zayda and Wahoo share something beyond membership in the baby-talk hall of fame: These Americans are allergic to the terms 'Grandfather' and 'Grandmother.'

Those well-trod names have become too old. At least for the 39 million baby boomers who are now exploring the even more youthful world of Babies 'R' Us.

'The name thing is an issue,' observes Chris Crosby, publisher of Grand, a magazine for grandparents. 'We all grew up in a culture that put a negative connotation on the terminology we used. Like 'Don't be such an old grandma.' You think of this old person hunched over in a rocker with a bun on her head. This generation is anything but that. So why should they want to be labeled as something they aren't?'

Especially when Glamma and GP (short for Grandpa) sound so much better. 'Goldie Hawn, who has graced our cover, is known as Glamma,' Crosby says. 'She picked that name, and that was that.'

Hawn, who narrowly missed being a baby boomer (she was born in late 1945), staked her claim in 2004. Since then, the new generation of grandparents has become known as 'grandboomers' and 'glamparents' according to marketers and trendspotters hot on their trails of spending.

After all, they point out, who could be less Granny Clampett than Whoopi Goldberg ... or Susan Lucci ... or Billy Crystal ... or Peggy Fleming ... or Donny Osmond ... or Uber Boomer Donald Trump, who's expecting a grandchild this summer ... or Cristina Rojas of Butcher's Hill?

Rojas, a 56-year-old Spanish teacher, likes to plunge her three grandchildren into the language, music and dance of her native Colombia. But they know better than to call her 'Abuela' - the Spanish word for grandmother.

'They never call me that because abuelas, they are old,' Rojas says. 'I like to do a lot of exercise, to walk a lot, to see a lot of the outside life with them. They call me 'Tata'.' While grandparenting has become more age-conscious, it has also blossomed - and collected a few issues. Consider the following facts, compiled from studies by the AARP and Social Technologies, a futurist research and consulting firm.

" The average age of today's grandparent is 48 - only two years older than the average Harley-Davidson buyer.

" This is the first generation who can expect to be grandparents for 40 years or so. (This, in turn, should produce the largest-ever generation of great-grandparents.) " Each grandparent spent an average of $500 a year on their grandchildren in 2002 - while 33 percent spent up to $2,500. (KB Toys, a national chain, recently started a grandparents' discount - 10 percent off all purchases on Tuesdays - available to anyone 50 and older.) " The majority of grandboomers are exercising and playing sports with their grandchildren. Many are taking grandchildren on one-of-a-kind trips designed to create lasting memories. These trips range from intergenerational elderhostel programs offering fishing, hiking and canoeing to high-end European tours designed by such travel companies as Grandtravel.

On the other hand, an increasing number of grandparents have also become the primary caretakers of their grandchildren - 6 percent, according to the most recent AARP study - because of problems in their adult children's lives. Many grandboomers are also looking after their own elderly parents. Fortunately, research shows few are doing both at the same time, says Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at the Johns Hopkins University.

'Grandparents want intimacy at a distance,' he says. 'They want to live near their children, but not with them. They want to maintain their own active lives.'

Sometimes, that means re-creating a grandchild's nursery in their own home for overnight visits, says Frank Foye, warehouse manager and delivery man for Bratt Decor, a children's furniture store in Belvedere Square.

'The grandparents now also have lifestyles. They don't want to come over to someone's house to babysit, they bring the grandchildren to their house so that they can carry on with their lives. If a child is used to their own bed, the grandparents get the exact same furniture for their home so that the kid will feel good.'

Cherlin, 58, notes another unexpected twist to American grandparenting. 'There's something of a grandchild shortage,' he says. 'Today's grandparents had fewer children than other generations. So there's a very large generation of grandparents and relatively low numbers of grandchildren.'

Some kids are already reaping the rewards of grandboomer abbondanza. Because of divorce and remarriage, Cherlin points out, many of today's grandchildren can have eight grandparents at the same time. He himself is a step-grandparent.

'And from what I've seen, grandchildren are quite happy to collect as many grandparents as they can!'

Such new family combinations have led to a surge in grandparenting instruction with weekend courses, organizations working to improve long-distance relationships, and special-interest Web sites. Self-help books include Totally Cool Grandparenting and The Nanas and the Papas: A Boomer's Guide to Grandparenting.

'Amazing new chapter' Some grandboomers are happy to figure it out all on their own. Over Thanksgiving, Baltimoreans Jan and Larry Rivitz, also known as Janny and Jeep, entertained Zack, age 3, and Eva, 6 months. The children were visiting from San Francisco with their parents Matthew and Blythe.

'I'm besotted,' Jan Rivitz says. 'We're losing our friends because Zack and Eva are all we can talk about.'

So one evening the 58-year-old foundation director invited everyone over for a glass of wine and a chance to get acquainted.

'Eva was in her little swing holding court,' she says. 'She's very outgoing and scary smart and adorable. Zack's very shy. He came and sat on my lap. He's very artistic. He's never going to have a friend in life because he's also smart and gorgeous and athletic.'

'Becoming a grandparent means I've been presented with this amazing new chapter,' she says. 'Now it's all about how can I structure my life so that my grandchildren will not only know me, but adore me the way I adored my grandmother.'

Her own grandparents, she remembers, were mostly homebodies when she knew them. 'My grandfather was older and he had a heart condition. He'd lie on the chaise longue and my grandmother would fuss over him. I was just kind of around,' she says. 'We're going to make tracks with these kids! Since my daughter-in-law and her parents are big skiers and golfers and boaters, we're going to be the city grandparents. I told Zack I can't wait to take him to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.'

She has already introduced him to yoga. While the kids were in town, Janny and Jeep arranged a three-generations private yoga session at their house. Rivitz says she's particularly fond of a photo of Zack lying on his mat with a lavender eye-pad across his face.

He also 'camped out' in an alcove in Janny and Jeep's bedroom. They provided an air mattress, a sleeping bag, a moose head borrowed from his father's old bedroom and a turtle that somehow projects constellations onto the ceiling.

More involved When Mary Dell and Chuck Harlan welcomed their first two grandchildren this year, Mary Dell quickly outfitted their north Baltimore home with a crib, a bassinet and a swing. She also bought the same kind of car seat their daughter has. 'I think the boomers have been more involved in their children's lives than our parents were. And we're more hands-on as grandparents too,' says Harlan, 58. 'One of our best friends said, 'It's like falling in love.' That's a wonderful way to put it. You just want to see this baby as much as you possibly can. You hang on their every action.'

Grandboomers in love rarely hesitate to share their emotion. Cristina Rojas sees Alexandra, 8, Sebastian, 5, and her new step-grandchild, 7-year-old Nathan, almost every day. She also teaches them Spanish at Patterson Park Public Charter School.

'Sebastian loves music and sings all the time. Alex is fantastic in art. They can both dance cumbia, the most important music of the coast of Colombia. When I think about my grandchildren,' her eyes begin to fill, 'I get tears.'

Jan Rivitz says there's one grandparenting tradition she's determined to carry on. 'As far as I was concerned, my grandmother could do no wrong. She could walk on water,' she says. 'I think about this: Just by waking up, you can be someone's hero. How lucky can you be? Every kid loves their grandparents. It's yours to blow.' .

Written by: Linell Smith


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