Generational Learning: What We Lose When We Lose Our Connection to Extended Family
Millennials are now taking life skills classes to learn basic skills we once learned at home. Why is this happening? A look at the importance of intergenerational connections and what we lose when they disappear.
“Why are you crying, Jeanne?” My grandmother beckoned me over to her wheelchair where she watched the Yankees beat the Red Sox.
I held out my blue plaid uniform school skirt. “The hem is ripped, and Mom doesn’t have time to fix it. I can’t go to school like this or I’ll get in trouble!” Getting in trouble was the worst thing that could happen to my seven-year-old mind.
“Why Jeanne, can’t you sew it? Don’t you know how to sew a hem?”
“I’ll teach you,” my grandmother smiled. “Fetch your mother’s sewing basket.”
I hauled my mother’s heavy basket from the linen closet that smelled like Dial soap. My grandmother chose a needle from the tomato-shaped pincushion and snipped a length of navy thread. I watched with astonishment as her hands, gnarled with arthritis, threaded the needle with alacrity.
She knotted the end of the thread and showed me how to pin the hem in place. Then with quick, sure motions, she sewed a perfect chain stitch, tacking the hem into place.
She handed the skirt to me. “Now, you try.”
I caught on quickly, glowing under her unexpected praise. Within minutes, my skirt was mended, but something more important had happened. I had learned a valuable life skill.
Today, I can fix a hem, mend a ripped seam, and sew a button onto a shirt thanks to my grandmother. Because I learned the basics of cooking, sewing and household management from my parents and grandparents, I can learn more from books, videos, and other resources, building on that knowledge. The basic life skills taught to me during everyday connections set the stage to help me become a functioning, self-reliant adult.
Life skills were naturally passed down through such simple, common everyday interactions. None of us gave much thought to them or to what they would mean to our future selves.
My father’s Sunday afternoons spent washing and waxing his old 1962 Blue Ford taught me how to detail a car and care for what I owned, even if it was old; teaching me how to fill the tires on my bicycle taught me the value of proper tire inflation, which serves me well as an adult car owner (and also taught me what would happen if you overinflate tires. POP!). The pleasures of making applesauce by hand, hanging laundry out to dry, and tending a garden were all simple tasks shared during the everyday moments of family life.
Contrast this with today’s youth. Millennials, it seems, are so clueless that companies and entrepreneurs are launching life skills classes to teach them basic cooking, cleaning, laundry, auto repair, home repair, and maintenance tasks.
How did we move in the space of only one generation from a woman like my grandmother to millennials so clueless they can’t even plan a meal for themselves?
Now, of course, not all Millennials are clueless. Many are just fine. I am not hating on Millennials by any means. I know plenty of self-sufficient, functioning young people. But the fact that there’s actually a market for adult life skills classes tells me that the kids I know are the exception rather than the norm.
I could blame helicopter parenting. When Mommy and Daddy do everything for you, you don’t have to learn how to do it yourself.
But there’s more going on than just coddled kids. There are wholesale changes in society and culture that are contributing to a generation clueless about how to handle basic, everyday life skills.
One thing I left out of my story is the fact that my grandmother, my mother’s mom, lived with us. My parents bought their home with the requirement of a bathroom and bedroom on the first floor for my grandmother. A widow crippled with arthritis she was unable to maintain her own home but was still independent enough that she could maintain her own room and personal grooming.
Today, many people in this situation look for a nice, safe, comfy nursing home for their elderly loved ones. Assisted living has taken the place of extended family sharing a home under one roof.
There’s a time and a place for assisted living, nursing homes, and other care facilities. Patients with memory loss, dementia, Alzheimer’s or severe physical disabilities may need skilled nursing care and round the clock supervision that a family can’t provide.
Many of our elderly, however, are like my grandmother — fragile, frail, unable to care for a large house or apartment, or unsuited to live by themselves. The risk of falls is enough to terrify anyone; at age 70 or 80, a fall can kill you. Living with a family unit enables the elderly to maintain their independence, assist with the care of children and family needs, and be both valued and valuable.
According to the National Health Institute (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK235450/) the rate at which people over age 65 enter nursing homes is around 43%. Some need to be there for quality of life issues or quality of care, but others?
Maybe they could be teaching their granddaughters how to sew a hem.
Living within a reasonable distance from your extended family also helps keep the connections — and the transmission of knowledge — alive.
My family of origin all lived within two to five miles of where they grew up. My paternal grandmother had a house one town over, and my dad dropped by every weekend to ensure her banking was taken care of, her bills were paid, and everything was all right. My brothers rode their bikes to her house to cut the lawn and perform odd jobs.
Because my maternal grandmother lived with us, we welcomed many of my mom’s extended family to holiday meals, Sunday afternoon visits, and other events at our home. My grandmother was one of about many children, and her sisters and brothers often visited. There was Uncle Clarence, whose visits we welcomed with glee since he usually arrived at Easter carting enormous chocolate bunnies for us kids; there was Aunt Flossie, Aunt Alice, and Aunt Bernadette who brought laughter to Sunday gatherings.
Surrounded by these elders, we sat at their feet on the living room floor and listening to their stories. We learned who we were, what we were about, family traditions and stories that knit and bound the generations together.
By observation, we learned rules of hospitality. We developed social graces and learned manners. The elderly were offered the best chairs in the living room; children sat on the floor. Do not interrupt someone when they are speaking. Offer refreshments and use the best china.
Many life lessons were shared during these visits; today hey are often missing from the lives of children because the generations live too far apart for casual visits.
Without spending time together, those little life lessons are lost. The online world is but a poor shadow of the richness of what close-knit families and communities once shared.
The street where I grew up in a small, suburban town on the border with Queens, New York, was a little community. Growing up in the 1970s meant freedom to go where we wanted without parents hovering over us. We visited then, too.
My favorite people to visit, aside from kids my own age to call on for games of tag or kickball, were two elderly people on the block. Mr. Hoffman, who lived next door, was a retired high school chemistry teacher who was good friends with my parents. He loved to garden and had quite the vegetable patch growing next to his house. I’d hop the privet hedge separating our lots and follow him like a puppy, absorbing life lessons along the way. Here how to shell peas, here’s how to tell when a tomato is ripe, this is what rhubarb looks like.
Down the block lived Mrs. Anderson. She was in her seventies and had a house crammed with antiques. Every nook and cranny in her house was filled with china, porcelain ladies, ornate clocks, colorful rugs. I’d sit on a stiff Queen Anne chair in her living room and “visit” with her while she told me stories of growing up in New York City in the 1930s. She’s serve me stale butter cookies from a blue tin on fancy china plates and weak tea in matching china cups and saucers.
Can you imagine letting your child roam the block now and ring doorbells and visit with people while you remained at home reading a book? Of course not. That’s not the world we inhabit today.
But it’s another link in the chain of generational knowledge that is broken today. Many people move so frequently they don’t get to know their neighbors. They don’t want to ‘bother them’ with get-togethers, potlucks, visits. Parents are terrified of the child molester lurking somewhere just beyond their vision. Communities have even enacted laws prohibiting kids from playing by themselves or walking alone to school, two insane ideas if ever I heard them. We used to call that life; now if you’re not guiding, watching, and monitoring your child’s every breath, you can be accused of child neglect.
We’ve lost that connection to the community in many places throughout the United States because of fear. Fear of our neighbor instead of charity. Fear of being unwanted, of intruding. Fear of what we may find on the other side of the door.
Many of these elders want to be loved. They’re lonely because their children and grandchildren live hundreds of miles away. They have life lessons to share, but no one to share them with.
Meanwhile, you can learn life lessons as an adult by paying someone for the privilege of teaching you how to sew on a button or plan meals.
Kids in daycare don’t observe adults performing daily chores. They’re involved in scripted activities. Then, they move into the school system, where an adult tells them exactly what to do all day long and where activities are limited to the sterile confines of the classroom. The messy life skills we once learned — how to change a baby, how to fold a fitted sheet, how to clean a toilet — are not things you learn in school.
We’ve separated an entire generation from their natural classroom, the home, and then wonder why they don’t know how to do anything. In daycare, you won’t learn how to sew, bake a cake, or clean a floor. You may learn your ABCs or how to count, which are important to be sure.
But those pesky life skills? Who has time for that when you’re a daycare worker, nursery school teacher or a classroom aid watching a dozen or more active children to be sure little Johnny doesn’t stab Suzy with the blunt scissors or Tommy doesn’t eat the paste?
Who has time?
With both parents working, no one has time anymore to bake cakes, plan menus, or cook full meals. Cooking from scratch seems absurd when supermarkets stocked full frozen meals. Pop a Sarah Lee frozen lasagna into the oven and a few slices of Texas toast and you’ve got dinner; add a bagged salad and you’re already eating better than more than half of Americans.
Fast food has now become ubiquitous. My parents made fast food a treat. We ate out once a year. I know because it was such an event.
I was seven years old when I had my first milkshake. My mom and I were driving home from a dentist appointment when my mom’s car, a 1974 Pinto (shudder), stalled on Jericho Turnpike. We called a tow truck and went to the Mineola Diner to wait for a ride home.
When we got to the diner, my mother asked me what I’d like to order. I just shrugged. “How about milkshakes and cheeseburgers?” she asked.
I shrugged again. “Haven’t you had a milkshake and a cheeseburger?” she asked.
Actually, I hadn’t. We didn’t make them at home. We didn’t even eat like that on vacation. That milkshake (vanilla — I can still taste it — made from real ice cream and served in a tall glass) and the cheeseburger at the Mineola Diner, when I was seven years old, was my first ever hamburger and shake.
I drove down the Main Street in my adopted hometown of Farmville, Virginia, on Sunday on my way home from church. I could pick up a burger and shake at any number of restaurants: McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Cook Out. No shake required? Well, there was a Hardee’s and an Arby’s. Not in the mood for a burger? Long John Silver’s, Bo Jangles chicken, and of course, Taco Bell were all open for business with lines several cars deep at the drive-through.
Fast food, fast lives, no time to cook from scratch or stop and share a leisurely meal with our family. We don’t even put down our cell phones long enough to meet the eyes of the person sitting across from us at the dinner table.
Do we really lack the time even for simple things like sharing actual meals? Do we no longer have time to cook a hamburger? It takes me five minutes to cook a burger on the Foreman grill. A milkshake, if I’m really craving one, takes 1 minute to make in my blender, start to finish, pour in the milk and add the ice cream, blend.
A young Millennial and I were talking about health, eating out, and food. She asked me what I had for breakfast. “A scrambled egg and breakfast sausage.”
“Oh, I had that. I got the Value Meal from [Big Fast Food Restaurant.] Did you get that too?”
“No; I’m scrambled the egg on my own stove, in a pan. I microwaved the sausage.”
“Wow.” She paused. “Doesn’t that take a long time?”
I’ve learned that with these youngsters I need to be gentle when I answer. “No, not at all. How long did you wait for your sandwich?’
“Um, five minutes?”
“It takes less time to cook an egg from scratch,” I explained. I walked her through the process while we talked. A frying pan, turn the stove on to medium-high heat, add two pats of butter, crack the egg, stir with a fork until done. One minute, start to finish, and while the egg scrambles you can heat your breakfast sausage. It’s fresh, it’s healthier and cheaper.
“How much was your breakfast?” she asked. “I paid $2 for the breakfast meal.”
“A dozen eggs at Walmart is 98 cents. The breakfast sausage cost $1 at Aldis.”
“So about the same as the Value Meal.”
“No, about one-tenth of the price of the Value Meal,” I said. “You get 12 eggs for 98 cents and 10 sausages for $1.”
“Wow,” she said again.
Home economics is now out of fashion. Schools pitch teenagers on STEM careers as if they were the only thing that matters in life. Don’t get me started on that — we need artists and musicians, poets and historians just as much as we need scientists and engineers.
But we also need good homemakers, too, men and women willing to create, build, and nurture a home with warmth, care, and love. To plan healthy meals, to make sure clothes get cleaned, to make sure homes are clean and fresh and ready to welcome all. To transfer those daily life lessons to their children in natural, easy ways that build lasting skills.
Millennials today lack basic life skills because their foundation is warped. They were shuffled off to daycare and nursery schools with strangers; they came home to exhausted parents who taught them the value of shortcuts. They grew up in a time when fast food became the norm instead of a healthy, home-cooked meal. They live too far away from extended family to learn from other elders who could teach them and they have little connection to elders in their own communities.
We’ve taught them to value fast, cheap, and disposable instead of slow, excellent, and nurtured lifestyles. Then we wonder why they can’t boil an egg or sew on a button. We’ve pushed them to excel academically without valuing how they excel as people.
Then we wonder why they can’t figure out how to plan a weekly menu.
It’s time to bring back extended families and communities. It’s time to put away the cell phones and video games and pick up the sewing needle and the frying pan again.
It’s time to ask ourselves what we value, and what we are willing to lose as society marches forward. I’m not sure that learning to tat lace, a skill my grandmother taught my older sister, is necessary today, but I am sure that learning how to sew on a button has saved me a few bucks in my lifetime.