I am lucky. I have always had four generations in my family alive at the same time. Still, it wasn’t always easy. I remember watching my grandparents struggle to talk to my children. I remember having conversations with my parents about how my children “should” behave. And I recall my children wondering if they had to visit their great-grandparents because they had to dress formally and “act proper” when they were with them.

Our four generations were vastly different in many aspects of our family practices and our professional experiences. Our struggles were mostly attributed to generational differences around parenting styles, discipline, eating habits, and gender role expectations. And yet, we all lived in the same city by choice, had family Shabbat dinner together every week, and celebrated the chaggim together. In many ways, communication among members of today’s intergenerational families has become far more complex and challenging.

There is an abundance of information on communication in families, succession challenges in family businesses, and communication in general. But what do our sacred texts say about intergenerational communication? Turns out, communication between our matriarchs, patriarchs, and their offspring, is more about what not to do than what to do.

The exchange in Bereshit/Genesis 48 between Jacob, Joseph, Ephraim, and Manasseh presents some insights into intergenerational communication. In this passage, Joseph learns Jacob is dying and he wants Jacob to bless his children whom Jacob does not recognize and has never met. Jacob knowingly gives the blessing to the younger grandchild even though Joseph tries to have him give the blessing the traditional way — to the first born.

In fact, there are some positive values to be gleaned from this less than open and honest intergenerational communication. First, Jacob understands the importance of family and legacy. He also understands that sometimes family circumstances can be divisive and cause ill feelings and distance (physical and emotional), but that reconciliation and family continuity take precedence over these challenges.

The account also points to Jacob’s willingness to accept Ephraim and Manasseh for who they are. We might extrapolate from this how important it is to accept the diversity within our Jewish families — to be non-judgmental and to welcome the richness that diversity brings, while maintaining our traditions and values.

But here is another perspective: Jacob acted without the consent of Joseph. Ideally, grandparents will honor the wishes of their adult children. A parent recently told me that this can sometimes be challenging for both the parent and the grandparent. He understood that grandparents want to spoil their grandchildren, give them an extra cookie, or let them stay up later than usual. Most of these disagreements can be resolved through something that may at first sound simple enough but in practice is profound and often elusive: open dialogue between the parent and grandparent.

Here’s a personal example.  A few weeks ago, I was driving home from the beach with my adult son. We had uninterrupted time to talk about a number of topics, including parenting. With my recent focus on being a grandparent, I suddenly remembered that I am still a parent! It occurred to me, I didn’t know if I was a good parent now, to my adult children.

So, I asked my son, “How do you want me to parent you now?” He said, “Wow! Thank you for asking. I don’t know, but I will think about it and let you know.” My daughter told me that she might want different kinds of parenting at different stages in her adult development.

Then I asked, “how do you want me to grandparent your children?” I got lots of answers, after which my son turned the question back on me, “How do you want to grandparent?” I really appreciated that question and the conversation that followed.

Yet there was one voice missing in all of this — perhaps the most important — and that was my grandchildren’s. So, I texted my granddaughter (age 12): How would you like me to act as your grandparent?”

She didn’t hesitate for a minute before replying, “Spend one-on-one time with me and separate special one-on-one time with my brother. Then, time for all of us to do things together. And ask me what activities I want to do (rather than assuming that I want to do what you think we should do) in addition to suggesting some ideas.”

It was clear to all of us that asking the question was more important than the answer. The question strengthened our connection by demonstrating that I valued the opinion of my children and grandchildren.

Intergenerational communication is about connecting. About ongoing intentional conversations that build and strengthen the relationship. Listening, valuing and respecting each other. And it is about acknowledging the differences and celebrating the similarities of each generation. Of course, modifying our behavior to respect what our adult children and grandchildren prefer is important, lest the trust and connection weaken or break. Those of us working in Jewish organizations now understand that diversity of opinions, cultures, and lifestyles enrich our work. The same is true for our families.

Featured photo by Eugene Chystiakov on Unsplash

Get To Know The Author

Ilene C. Vogelstein is President of the Jewish Grandparents Network. With acknowledgement to the JGN team and her intergenerational family.