How Can We Celebrate (and Support) Grandparents?

Today’s Grandparent’s Day – a day which, believe it or not, did not just start as a Hallmark card holiday but actually has real roots in valuing the role grandparents play for children.

I wrote about this last year for at my organization’s blog, and it’s a huge piece of the

GaGa/Kieran bonding on board an Irish tour boat

work I am doing around extended family engagement – grandparents (and step-grandparents, and honorary grandparents) are among the most widely acknowledged family members playing a role in children’s lives.

It’s also a role I think about every day, as grandparents on mine and my husband’s side make our daily life with K possible – and it’s an absolute treasure to watch K develop a loving relationship.

You can read more on grandparent’s as a policy issue here:


We can work to embrace two-generation strategies in our programs for families – and then push further to ask how we can make these three- and four-generation strategies, as Senior ICS Fellow Janice Gruendel did in a recent presentation on opportunities for extended family involvement in evidence-based home-visiting models.

We can learn more about opportunities to fully include “grandfamilies” in our safety net programs, as highlighted by Generations United.

We can continue working to improve access to early care and education programs, so families have more quality choices for young children, which can complement nurturing care from grandparents.

We can continue to support research and resources to ensure quality of life for seniors and foster healthy intergenerational relationships.


August Newsletter: Lessons from the animal kingdom, and stealing advice from “Parents”

Each month, I share what I am learning and writing about the importance of extended family in US social policy and – when I can – add some cute animal pics and pop culture references. Reach out by email or follow me on Twitter. If you enjoyed this newsletter, subscribe here!

Here comes Peter Cotton-Top Tamarin…

I recently had a high school friend visiting, which is a great excuse to be a tourist in your area. We had the chance to check out Liberty Science Center, a fantastic interactive experience in Jersey City. While I’ve been there on a handful of trips when I was younger, it was my first time going with our toddler in tow. We got there just in time to watch the staff feed what we thought were monkeys – but were actual cotton-top tamarins.

If you start reading up on extended families in the animal kingdom (what, you haven’t?), it doesn’t take long to learn cotton-top tamarins are kind of a big deal. Eminent anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy writes in her riveting book Mothers and Others that while many species collaborate to raise young, tamarins are among the very few species – along with humans – that she defines as “full-fledged cooperative breeders.” Elsewhere, she explains that when female tamarins give birth – a task generally done by just one or two dominant females – help is not far behind:

“Fathers and alloparents of both sexes are unusually eager to help mothers rear their young. Babies are carried throughout most of the day by one or more adult males, which expend so much energy doing so that they actually lose weight. Other helpers, typically but not exclusively kin, voluntarily deliver even prized animal prey to youngsters.”

These alloparents – kin and other tribe members who are  not the biological parents – step in to lighten the  load, to the well-being of the whole tribe. Blaffer Hrdy notes that “immature” – or, pre-reproductive – females often play the role of eager alloparent, which helps improve their own fitness for reproduction down the line, though they are “concerned lest their charge’s cries attract a competing allomother.” I always get a laugh out of that image – a very scientific way of summing up that younger cousin every family has who is unboundedly excited to help out with a new baby, and hesitant to share them with anyone else.

Tamarins are just one of the fascinating species I’ve learned about as I’ve dove into the alloparenting research, and I’ll share more soon. In the meantime, I definitely encourage you to visit some in person or at least bookmark these images if you’re having a bad day.

Impostor syndrome? Fight it by focusing on someone else

I was quoted in a piece on Hello Giggles where professional women shared their moments of breaking through “impostor syndrome,” where I reflected on how growing into the role of mentor helped reshape my view on my own development:

“When I started shifting from being the one asking for letters of recommendation and connections to getting to play that role of connector for other talented early career professionals, I started seeing my status in a new light. No one tells you that you have become a mentor—I sure didn’t tell my mentor when I picked her, it just naturally happened.”

I felt like an impostor even responding to this reporter’s query, which sort of shows you how deep this all goes. Fighting my own “impostor syndrome” as I shift from an early career professional to a leadership and management role has been tough – plus the shifting dynamics of my own ego and my changing work-life balance as I parent. I firmly believe mentoring – having a mentor yourself, mentoring others, and creating a climate for success – is key. I went a bit deeper on this on my blog, drawing inspiration from both writer Ann Friedman and soccer star Abby Wambach.

Fostering learning, for Parents and other adults
I also had the pleasure of being a contributor to the “Ages & Stages” section of this month’s Parents magazine, on ways to foster early literacy, math, and social-emotional development. Talk about impostor syndrome on this one! I was delighted to find out this piece would be not only online, but also in print. This is Parents! Every pediatrician I know has it in their office! And now that I’ve seen the other contributors – including Roberta Golinkoff, whose work I’ve long admired – I’m even more excited to have my voice represented.

While the publication is obviously geared towards parents, I feel strongly that the guidance works for any adult in a child’s life. I almost wish we could reprint the article in something called Aunts and Uncles and Godparents Too! – lots of parents already get great advice on how to incorporate learning and skill development into their home life, but many other adults who are deeply invested in children they love lack guidance on making the most of their role.

You can snag a copy of the Back to School issue for this and other great articles on Amazon.

The Whole Tree: Extended Families in Education
It’s almost here! I’m heading down to Florida in a few weeks to present on extended family engagement in education, which has been a key area of my research in the last few months. I’ll share the slides when I’m all done, but here’s the key takeaway: family engagement has increasingly become a priority in schools, but most state and local education agencies continue to gear their engagement around nuclear families – and that’s not a model that works for families today. Empowering extended family members, who are already deeply invested in a child, can improve child outcomes, but schools need examples of how to do this in a realistic way. I won’t have all the answers at this conference – but am looking forward to starting the conversation with practitioners to better understand their experience, and helping to shape a new model.

Impostor syndrome? Fight it by focusing on someone else

I was thrilled to recently be included in a round-up via Hello Giggles of professional women discussing the moment they broke through their “impostor syndrome.” Impostor syndrome (and let’s just clarify here that both the “-or” and “-er” spelling are grammatically correct), in case you are incredibly secure and/or living under a rock, is helpfully defined in a Harvard Business Review piece as:

“…a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence…High achieving, highly successful people often suffer, so imposter syndrome doesn’t equate with low self-esteem or a lack of self-confidence. In fact, some researchers have linked it with perfectionism, especially in women and among academics.”

So how have I conquered mine? Well, for one, I haven’t. Not 100%, and that’s okay. I want to feel comfortable, confident, and secure in my work, and in my ability to lead – but it’s also thrilling and important to find yourself in over your head once in a while.

For me, my mindset began to shift when I saw how others saw me – in particular, younger staff members or students I worked with through my time at Rutgers. It surprised me to get validation of my experience from those lower on the ladder, rather than those above me, but it definitely aligned with my experience in how I admired others in the field as well. Read the full Hello Giggles piece for my take on this, but here’s a teaser:

“When I started shifting from being the one asking for letters of recommendation and connections to getting to play that role of connector for other talented early career professionals, I started seeing my status in a new light. No one tells you that you have become a mentor—”

I have been thinking a lot about mentoring, leadership, and developing capacities for the future lately, as my leadership and management role has increased over time. It truly is an odd shift to move from focusing on building your career and reputation to helping foster it for others, and you never truly feel like you have the resources to focus on both. Abby Wambach’s remarks this commencement season at Barnard College were particularly compelling for me – pushing through her feelings of anger and humility on being “benched,” and instead embracing that role. It’s quickly given me my new motto:

Image from Insight of the Day:

Mentorship is extraordinarily powerful in career development, and anyone from an underrepresented background inn a field particularly stands to benefit. It’s not enough to wait for someone to ask you to serve as a mentor – that ask may never come – so I charge everyone in their professional lives to identify and create opportunities to foster the next generation of collaborators and gamechangers as part of your daily work. And, if you find yourself in need of a mentor and not sure where to turn, don’t focus on looking up the ladder – yield this advice from Ann Friedman and tap into your peer network.

Newsletter: Extended Families at the Borders & In the Classrooms

Each month, I send a newsletter sharing what I am reading, thinking, and learning to help catalyze an American society that embraces the extended family in children’s lives. You can subscribe here. Want to join the conversation? Reach out by email or follow me on Twitter.

It was a marathon of a month for our family, with a three-night work trip as my job hosted #pfs4ec, our largest event of the year. There was lots to do in the lead up, including session planning and logistics, but the biggest challenge for me was being away from Baby (okay, Toddler) K for three nights – the longest we’ve been apart.

So it was a trying few days for everyone, logistically and emotionally. Like 1 in 4 American families with a young child, we count on grandparents for child care. It is a joy to see my mother and mother-in-law develop a deep bond with K (and, of course, the financial benefit as child care in NJ costs $9,000 on the low end for a toddler).

But suddenly the grandmas were logging longer days with K, as my husband tried to juggle his own start and end time to relieve them. There were minor medical concerns, of the kind you seem to always experience with a toddler. There were travel delays, the kind that leave you schlepping back from LaGuardia at rush hour when you were supposed to land in Newark.

All to say: the “para-parents” in K’s life, and in ours, continue to make the difference between a life of chaos and a life of positivity. I am tremendously lucky to have our extended family and friends play this role, and this month was a lightning bolt reminder to work towards a broader society that fully embraces the power of extended family.

Beyond the nuclear family in immigration

While three days apart from my child was emotionally draining, it pales in comparison to the abrupt, indefinite separations facing families at our borders. If you already follow me on other social media channels, you know this issue has been my top priority since May. I was proud this weekend to attend the #FamiliesBelongTogether rally in Newark with K in tow, along with  mom friends who brought their littles. Holding up a sign, of course, isn’t enough – we all need to be making calls, donating when we can, and raising awareness of the situation still facing families – but I will note that the psychological benefit of being out in the pounding heat with hundreds of others in support of families was huge. I got chills when an 18 wheeler drove by and leaned on his horn the whole block in support of the rally. Toddler K enjoyed that one too.

Less discussed in this complex topic is the specific ways that extended families matter in our immigration policies. This was brought into light in the story of Alison Jimena Valencia Madrid, the six-year-old girl held in detention who was recorded asking repeatedly to call her aunt and providing the phone number. While knowing her aunt’s phone number helped staff make contact, it doesn’t provide an easy path forward for the family, according to Pro Publica:

“The aunt said what made the call even more painful was that there was nothing she could do. She and her 9-year-old daughter are seeking asylum in the United States after immigrating here two years ago for the exact same reasons and on the exact same route as her sister and her niece …The aunt said she worried that any attempt to intervene in her niece’s situation would put hers and her daughter’s asylum case at risk…”

Extended family members have been playing a role in the situation for unaccompanied minors since before this administration’s broad policy changes. Previously, unaccompanied minors in the immigration system were teens (and tweens) crossing the border on their own. It was reported earlier this spring that about 1,400 children were “lost” by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (though “lost” may be more of a methodological issue than we’ll get into here), but that many of these minors had been released into the custody of a family sponsor,often a grandparent, sibling, aunt or uncle already in the U.S.

And yet, extended families are not generally considered families as they cross the border together – a brief from three major immigration advocacy groups explores the implications of family separation on different family types, providing real-life examples. Because Customs & Border Patrol defines a family unit only as parents/legal guardians and their children, “families composed of spouses or partners, adult children, siblings, aunts, uncles or grandparents traveling together not only do not receive the designation of a ‘family unit,’ but they would receive no special consideration for the preservation of their family.”

It is difficult to imagine, right now, a proactive vision of family preservation for migrants which takes into account unique structures of families. But as Americans across the county voice our opposition to our current system,  we need to push for a system which respects the humanity of all seeking a new life within the U.S. borders, and this means thinking about what families truly look like on the ground.

Filling a Research Gap

I mentioned last month that I’m presenting in September at the Families Learning Conference in Fort Lauderdale (tough assignment, I know!) on extended family engagement in education. When I submitted the proposal, I didn’t already have a slide deck ready to go – in many ways, this is the push I need to get the material researched and together. As I’ve dug in deep on the topic, I wanted to share some early findings with you:
There isn’t a lot out there.
I’m not deterred. An undergrad professor trained me for this very moment, that the lacuna – the hole in the research – is often as important as what the research already tells us. This is an opportunity to figure out what we can learn from existing research to apply to other family members, and push for a new lens through which to consider family engagement.

Reading something I should know about on the topic? Doing something in your own practice that works for families? Drop me a line!

“Extraordinary and Terrifying” – Motherhood and the need for a new village

“I do a lot of this professionally. I read about parenting, I read about education, I read about child development, and its still really hard…We’ve moved away from this village society that supports each other to, you know, maybe you partner can take off a couple weeks to help with the baby or you mom lives nearby. I was very lucky to have both.

The biggest challenge is just learning that our society puts the burden on individual families to handle this on their own and I would love to see us moving way from that more.”

Last year, I had the opportunity speak to Rose Wood on her podcast – since renamed The Smart Parent – about the world of early childhood policy and my experience in early motherhood. I did this interview when baby K was 10 weeks old (you can hear him cry in the background at one point!). Listening to it a year later is a bit like opening up a time capsule to a really stressful time – I actually wasn’t even back to work yet when this was recorded.

A year later, my remarks still seem pretty spot on. Motherhood continues to be “extraordinary and terrifying,” and we make it through parenting every day thanks to an amazing network of loved ones who contribute as “para-parents” in K’s life. I still struggle to ask for help – but I think I’ve gotten better! – and now we’re in the position to start “paying forward” the help that we got.

And I have never been more fired up about the need to re-conceptualize extended family engagement in our policies and every day life to ensure families take advantage of every resource available as they dive into this wonderful adventure of raising the next generation.

You can listen to the podcast here. A happy mother’s day to all honoring the amazing women and para-parents in your lives, regardless of their official title!