Ruth Westheimer

Dr. Ruth on ‘Grandparenthood’

VTR Date: September 15, 1998

Guest: Westheimer, Ruth


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. Ruth Westheimer
Title: Dr. Ruth on “Grandparenthood”
Recorded: 9/15/98

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind and the other evening I was going through the various programs I’ve done over the past dozen years and more with today’s wonderful guest. Their titles: “Good Sex with Dr. Ruth”; “More Good Sex with Dr. Ruth”; and “Dr. Ruth — America’s Significant Other”.

Well, something different has happened along the way to this forum today, not necessarily something funny, but surely something very nice.

For as I said in introducing Ruth Westheimer so many years ago, “I know that what looms even larger in Dr. Ruth’s life now than what I’ll call her national sexual prowess is the pleasure that she and I share respectively in her first grandchild and mine”.

And I went on, “I don’t think that you’d really want us to spend this half hour on the air sharing stories and snapshots of her Ari and my Alexander, so instead I’ll just ask Dr. Ruth … what happening besides Ari?”

Well, my guest wouldn’t be put off, and replied, “the first thing I have to tell … there’s no question but for you, Alexander, and for me, Ari, has already become a ‘significant other’. “What a pleasure,” said Dr. Ruth “to see another generation already growing up,” and when I look at that little child, I have to say something seriously to you, because with you here and at the Lake [where we both have country homes] I always talk seriously … then we talk about sex. I look at that little 15 month old boy and I say, “‘Hitler was wrong’, because Hitler didn’t want me to have grandchildren. He didn’t want me to be around in the first place. So the joy that I feel, Richard, with this new life that I see growing up, it’s just … I can’t even explain it! Now about sex”.

But now, actually, much more about Grandparenthood, the title of Dr. Ruth’s new volume written with Dr. Steven Kaplan. It’s about this phase of our lives that I want to talk with my guest today, along with her book last year written with Pierre Lehu and titled Dr. Ruth Talks About Grandparents: Advice For Kids On Making The Most Of A Special Relationship

First, however, I want to ask Dr. Ruth why she begins her new book Grandparenthood, “This is the book I have been waiting all my life to write”. Why, Dr. Ruth?

WESTHEIMER: First of all I wanted to get to this stage in my life when there are grandchildren and I now have three. And Richard, mine are the best in the world, in the entire world. And when…

HEFFNER: I have three … and I probably would say the same.

WESTHEIMER: I know, I know. But, mine are the best and yours are the best for you. Now, when I said I really waited my whole life that is serious. Because my grandparents on my mother’s side, and my grandmother on my father’s side, his father had passed away were very important in my life. And I my entire life … I knew that my joie de vive”, my lust for life my belief in the good in mankind, despite my very sad life history, that came from my grandparents. So my entire life I knew that one day I’m going to talk about that transmission of values from grandparents to grandchildren, and here you are the perfect partner for this.

HEFFNER: Well, because of my three grandsons. Ruth, the other day you and I were together and spoke … you spoke about grandparenthood, and I acted as a kind of foil. I was tremendously impressed with the facts that you stated and you state them in the book, too, about how many of us there are now and will be … what, by the year 2000?

WESTHEIMER: By the year 2000, ninety million — Richard, ninety million — grandparents in this great country, and I’m not even counting Canada. I’m not even counting Australia or other places, just the United States. Ninety million grandparents. All of those Baby Boomers, if they want to or not, because you know that some people don’t want to be grandparents. They think it makes them old, they think it makes them reflect on their own life. It makes them reflect on mortality, many, many other issues. There is no choice, ninety million grandparents in this country of ours.

HEFFNER: Good grandparents, Ruth. Let’s talk about that.

WESTHEIMER: You see good grandparents, maybe not all of them. Grandparents that can learn to be the best they can be, yes. For example, I had to learn not to meddle. I had to learn, and it’s difficult for me to keep my mouth shut. I had to learn that these are not my children. That these are my grandchildren. It’s a very different ball game. And I had to learn certain aspects about myself. I’ll give you an example. I’m not a good cook. Everybody knows that. My late husband was fortunate that I didn’t cook too much and I don’t bake. I have a friend who bakes. Marga loves to bake. She’s about my age, a little younger. She bakes birthday cakes with Ari, my grandson every single year for his birthday. Now I tell you something. To say that I’m not feeling a tiny little bit jealous when he goes over there to bake that birthday cake would not be telling you the truth. However, because being Dr. Ruth, talking to Richard, I know it’s okay to be a little jealous, but know about it and act accordingly in terms of saying, “how terrific, she’s baking the cakes, I don’t even have to be there”. I don’t have to clean the dishes afterwards and let that cake be her relationship with my grandson.

HEFFNER: The significant others, such people as those who bake cakes, and you think that’s important.

WESTHEIMER: Very important. You see, when my children grew up, I didn’t have parents. I was an orphan at the age of ten. I had to go out, and I was an only child. My husband, my late husband was an only child; his parents lived in Portugal. Very difficult to be significant others when you live so far away. I went out and looked … that’s another reason that I wanted to write this book. I went out and looked for significant others … I looked for people who could be grandparents to my children, who could be uncles and aunts, who could provide aspects … for example, sports … neither Fred nor myself were interested in baseball or interested in any of those American sports. But I have a friend who was very interested; he became the uncle interested in those sports, or electronics. My son Joel loved to build robots. That wasn’t particularly our expertise. We found a friend who went down to Canal Street where those electronic stores are … that’s what makes up that total experience of relationships.

HEFFNER: You say total experience. You see, because you’re so fortunate grandparents being integrated into the lives of their children and grandchildren. Is that is common as one would hope?

WESTHEIMER: No. Because we live in a society where very often grandparents are being shipped to Florida. Richard, do you go to Florida? I don’t go to Florida. But, seriously speaking because of jobs … very often children have to go to California. They have to go to other places, and that’s what I’m doing with common sense. Not so much sociological theories, but this professor/historian from the Hebrew University, Steven Kaplan and I, we give really practical advice. For example, we know the reality is that many grandparents are not nearby. Don’t miss out on that relationship. Today, after you watch me talk to Richard, go out and buy a camera … send a camera to that eight-year-old … far away. Say, “take pictures, send me the pictures, I’ll pay for the developing”. Draw pictures, send yourself postcards, where they just have to check off what … what’s you favorite thing to do in school. Do something about it, don’t just sit there, and complain that the extended family is not around you. Actively engage in planning of vacations. In actively doing something.

HEFFNER; You know when I listened to you the other evening advocating good grandparenthood … that fair enough to call it that? Good grandparenthood?


HEFFNER: And as I read Grandparenthood … intrigued by the suggestions that you have to make, I was intrigued particularly by that comment that Ari, your grandson, had made, “Grandma even if you weren’t ‘Dr. Ruth’, I would love you”.

WESTHEIMER: Yes, I love that sentence. Because what does it show. First of all it does show as part of the advice I say, keep your mouth shut. These are not your children …these are your grandchildren. So there are certain limitations. But it’s nice to be Dr. Ruth, I was in Jerusalem in a fancy hotel and with a fancy bathroom, they up-graded me. I invited my daughter and her family to use that fancy marble bathroom, and that’s when Ari said, “Omi, you know [it’s a German word for grandmother], I would love you even if you weren’t Dr. Ruth”. I am very proud of that. So, I’m four foot seven … you know that. But a sentence like this makes me feel six feet tall. And it makes me feel fantastic.

HEFFNER: Well, when I heard the story, believe it or not, Ruth, when I went home that evening, I wrote to Jeremy. Now Jeremy Heffner lives in California, as Zachary Heffner does. Unfortunately, and you’re right about the miles that separate us sometimes from our grandchildren. And I wrote him and I realized I want to do that fairly regularly. He had visited me and we were fishing together, his first time fishing … and I wrote him about the fisherman on our lake just this past week. What are some of the other things that you think most important when it comes to good sex, you have a lot of things to suggest. What are the other things you suggest a grandparent do?

WESTHEIMER: The most important things I do suggest is the communication with your children and their partners has to be open. Because you cannot have a relationship with your grandchildren, if you don’t have a relationship with your children. For example … I give practical advice. Make sure you don’t make that phone call during dinner. Make sure you don’t call them when the kids have to take a bath. I tell you a mistake I made. I love chocolate, so what better way than to spoil my grandchildren than with chocolates. I stopped doing that because I gave them chocolate before dinner. Oh, I said, “ask your mother if you can have that chocolate”. That’s stupid because it creates tension right away. So I stopped that. I would think of other things in terms of gift giving. There are many issues where you have to use, really, your brain and common sense, where you have to say, “if I would like to plan a vacation” you have to ask your children “when it is convenient for you?” If it is … if there are, I have a chapter there about divorce, about marriages, different ethnic groups, different racial groups. And I’m very fortunate because my co-author is much younger, just re-married, so he had a lot of experience. He married a woman from a different culture and adopted that child. So I talk about all of these things. But that most important aspect has to be that communication.

HEFFNER: You talked a moment ago about values and the role that your grandparents played in conveying certain values to you. Is that designed to bring about conflict between the grandparent and the parent?

WESTHEIMER: It could, but you have no say in the way your children bring up their children. Even if you see something you don’t like, you have to keep your mouth shut. When I talk about the values, that was … I’m just turned 70 … and those values in the olden days within a Jewish bourgeois middle-class family were more alike than different. My grandmother’s … my grandmother who lived with us … I am sure because I can remember that my mother cried sometimes. There must have been conflicts because she married the only son that my grandmother had. There must have been issues. However, the values in terms of honesty, the values in terms integrity, in terms of being a good Jew because she was a very observant woman. The grandparents on the farm who were so delighted with me … there was … there were geese and I decided the geese have to have freedom … I believe in that … you believe in that and I let them go all over the village. They didn’t hit me. I don’t even remember that I was punished. I do remember that everybody had to go out and look for those geese. You see there are certain things … I was certainly told not to do that again … but there are certain things that stay with you throughout a lifetime and maybe we as grandparents … like what you did fishing … that is going to stay with the grandson forever. That wasn’t a big, you know, taking him on a balloon ride, it wasn’t an issue of spending money. I hope that Ari will remember that I lost a chess game against him. It bothers me because I don’t let him just win … and I lost. So that’s what I think these values are made of.

HEFFNER: Ruth, you’ve mentioned the matter of divorce, and I know from the chapters in Grandparenthood that this obviously looms very large today when we’re talking about divorce rates that are extremely high. How does one dance that dance?

WESTHEIMER: Very often what happens is that the grandparents get involved, because they take sides. Most of the time with their own children, complicated issues. And I want to warn about that, I want to say “watch out”. Make sure that that child knows that you’re not divorcing the child. That the parents divorce because they have fights … I was divorced, I re-married, and my husband adopted my little girl, and I was fortunate, everything worked out fine. It doesn’t always work out fine. If the grandparents cannot get along with each other, then maybe one has to take, like a break in the relationship. But then I say to those parents, make sure that there are some other significant others who can be adopted. Not legally adopted, but who can play that role of a grandparent. We live in a society like that. That we do … and that will happen even more with those ninety million grandparents, that we have to discuss these issues. We don’t prepare for grandparenting. We now have some parenting classes. We need to prepare for grandparenting and we need to prepare for retirement. We don’t do that. Well tell somebody, “here’s a gold watch, good-bye”. We tell a grandparent, “here you’re now a grandparent” and we don’t prepare.

HEFFNER: Do you think that most of grandparents in this country play a significant role in the lives of their grandchildren?

WESTHEIMER: You see I’m such an optimist. I feel that hopefully, yes. But I’m also realistic. I know that sometimes grandparents are called upon to be the parents again. That’s a big problem. If it’s because of death or disease or drugs or whatever it is, that’s a big problem. Because these parents have raised already children. So, now to be the parents again. I believe that society has to provide some help in terms of day care centers, in terms of social workers, in terms of support. But I would think that most grandparents, maybe a few who say, “oh, my gosh, I never enjoyed my children, I’m not going to enjoy my grandchildren, all I want is my freedom and to be on the golf course”. To that grandparent I say “go”, don’t make believe that you’re interested because that child will feel it. If you want to play bridge, go and play bridge. Let that child find some other people who want to spend time with him.

HEFFNER: You’re a great one for the extended family, aren’t you?

WESTHEIMER: Yes, but that came out of necessity. If you can imagine what it meant for me to be living in a children’s home that became an orphanage. For six years I was not once in a family setting. Six whole years during World War II and I’m one of the fortunate ones because I’m alive. I was in a home; I didn’t know how to eat with a fork and a knife because we only had forks. I had to learn those things. So when I say extended family, it really does come from my own experience of having been very, very alone despite the fact that I was in a children’s home, and that the other children were in the same boat. So I want to make sure that what I missed is going to be not missed with people that I talk to.

HEFFNER: Ruth, in Grandparenthood you touch on the … more than touch on the subject of legal rights. On the subject of disputes. What are the rights that grandparents have?

WESTHEIMER: You see the rights are different in different states. And I do believe we have to talk about that also with the legal profession. And we must make sure that there are some rights, but they have to be used properly. If somebody just uses it by saying, “I have the right to visit my grandchildren” and then walks into the household and then is disagreeable and demanding and creates a lot of unhappiness, then I would rather say “that’s not a good situation”. But in terms of rights. The rights should not only be gift giving, the rights should be for a relationship with that child. Gift giving is very important. I’m all for it, and I’m all for helping. But you have to know that there has to be that relationship.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting that you continue to focus not on the rights of grandparents, except as they are filtered through the sovereignty of the parents.

WESTHEIMER: Absolutely. You know, grandparents, like with parents, … the love has to be earned. It’s not something that you can say you must love your grandparents. The respect has to be earned. And that’s why I say yes, there should be some laws, so that people can have that relationship even if it is difficult, but first they have to work on communication.

HEFFNER: You say that grandparents have to be taught. And in fact, the other evening you were talking about the need to organize…


HEFFNER: … grandparents. Don’t children, the parents of the grandchildren have to learn, too, and we’re not taught how to deal with our parents in their role as our children’s grandparents.

WESTHEIMER: That’s true …for example they have to know that grandparents have certain rights. If that grandchild wants to visit, then there have to be certain rules that that grandchild has to adhere to if it’s in the grandparent’s house. Don’t make them too rigid because otherwise it’s no fun to visit you. But make sure that you stand up and say there are certain things that you cannot do in my house. So the air is cleared and it’s open and everybody knows where the boundaries are. What can be done and what cannot be done.

HEFFNER: In the, in the few minutes we have remaining, clearly when you talked before about ninety million grandparents by the year 2000, that’s quite a mouthful to say. What’s your sense of our ability to absorb the needs, the challenges to deal with them correctly? What’s the direction in which we’re going?

WESTHEIMER: Very difficult because the younger generation is going to tell you, Richard, that they’re the sandwich generation … they have to take care of their children and of aging parents. In terms, I’m not only talking about money … I’m talking about emotionally. So one has to know that one cannot demand too much, don’t demand that they call you everyday, the children calling the grandparents … it doesn’t fit into their life. But make sure that there is some kind of understanding, what can be done to make it productive. There is no question that I do believe that society has to be in that picture. And, if we do need more nursing homes, then we should be able to pay for more nursing homes, for people who cannot pay. For assisted living, for example. So nobody should be sitting home lonely and worry about that nobody comes to see them for a whole week, for example. I think that more such things have to be instituted by society.

HEFFNER: Are we dealing more and more with surrogate grandparents. Are we really organizing as a society to help those who are alone, perhaps, and lonely, but who have the ability to be the significant others…

WESTHEIMER: Not enough.

HEFFNER: … to do so.

WESTHEIMER: Not enough.

HEFFNER: Are other countries?

WESTHEIMER: In other countries … in France, for example, there used to be a law, but it’s not there anymore. When you wanted to have a permit to build a house, you had to build an extra room for “le grandmere,” for the grandmother. Because they knew that men … that’s the way life…

HEFFNER: We die, right.

WESTHEIMER: … yes. And so that that grandmother should be taken care of by the family. But we have gotten away from that. First of all, many people live in apartments, so it’s not practical anymore. I think that the????, I’m the president of one, have an important role to play in terms of helping the family to keep that in touch. For example, for older people to come every day for lunch. So that they have somebody to talk to.

HEFFNER: Ruth, all I can say is that we’re blessed … you with your three grandchildren, I with my three. Thank you so much for joining me today and talking about this wonderful book on Grandparenthood.

WESTHEIMER: Thank you, Richard.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.