DAY: It’s Worth It - Grandparents

The purpose of this month's "It's Worth It" column is to suggest to grandparents that they actively engage in an effort to change teen alcohol/substance abuse by undertaking a long-term effort to address this with their grandchildren.

Each year in the U.S., tens of thousands of our children set forth on a path leading to destruction. Teen alcohol and substance abuse is almost invisible in towns like Guilford, but we should not tolerate it helplessly.

Grandparents have great power. It is possible for us to connect with our grandchildren in a way that even their parents cannot. My own experience is a possible example of a sustained effort to provide grandchildren with protective developmental tools. For six months in 2004, I sent a daily story to my 12 grandchildren via U.S. mail. This "true" story mingled humor and suspense involving the adventures of Beau Dog, a tiger, a mongoose, and a prophet. Superficially the story appeared to be pure entertainment, but my true objective was to share some words of wisdom and to teach some life lessons. Specifically I wished to open a line of discussion with the grandchildren at a young age about the scourge of drugs and alcohol that threatens all teens in the U.S.

In writing the story, I worked under a set of self-imposed rules. Each daily letter was a story in itself. It could be no longer than a single page. It required a touch of humor. Each letter had to end on a cliffhanger. Each page had to drive the overall story forward. It was a great success with the kids and also with adult family and friends who became interested in the effort. I compiled the 186 letters into a volume that I gave to each of my grandchildren.

Since then, my wife and I give an annual Christmas gift of cash and a letter to our grandchildren. Each year the letter contains the same six explicit character development lessons we wish the kids to build into their bones. Throughout the year, we watch for teaching opportunities to reinforce the six lessons. The purpose of the lessons is to give the kids tools to protect them from alcohol and drugs in their teens, but we believe the lessons will have a far broader usefulness for them throughout their lives.

That is not all. During the summer of 2012, our entire family spent a weekend retreat at Cape Cod at which our 12 grandchildren worked in teams to teach the six lessons to each other. The teams of children developed extraordinarily creative and funny ways to do this. We now find the brothers and sisters and cousins quoting the "lessons" to each other in their squabbles.

I have described this in detail to illustrate that a major effort may be required to have a significant impact. This certainly must be much more than a single discussion that warns of the dangers of alcohol and drugs. Our specific approach might not work for anyone else, but the idea is to undertake an ongoing effort over a period of years. It's worth it. My wife and I have found this to be a lot of fun, and a loving connection with our grandchildren.

Obviously parents should be and are giving thought and attention to this critically serious problem. All adults who mentor children, including aunts, uncles, coaches, and youth leaders can play an important role in the effort. I believe grandparents have particular power.

For survey data from Guilford's teens, please check the It's Worth It website,
www.itsworthitguilford.org. My wife and I have also agreed to post a few sample letters from Beau Dog, the Tiger, the Mongoose and the Prophet: A Grandfather's True Story, and our Christmas letter with the six character development lessons on the website.

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