Mary Renck Jalongo and Patricia Crawford, co-editors of the newly published book ‘Intergenerational Bonds. The Contributions of older adults to young children’s lives‘ (Springer) engage in a wide-ranging discussion with Margaret Kernan, co-coordinator of TOY. The interview covers the current status of IGL in education scholarship and teaching, the role of children’s literature in promoting IGL and the importance of volunteering in IGL practice.
Margaret: First of all, thank you for inviting Giulia Cortellesi and I to write the Foreword to ‘Intergenerational Bonds and for doing this interview. Can you tell us something about your background and why you were drawn to the topic of intergenerational relationships between young children and older adults?
Mary: The trend toward improved health care, longer life expectancies and extended years of retirement mean that many older adults are pursuing more active lifestyles. Greater involvement in the lives of young children within and beyond the family is therefore possible. The recent global pandemic has served as a stark reminder that the ties between young and old are a major source of support. When those ties are severed by loss or disrupted by isolation mandates, it can be damaging and difficult for the very young who rely older adults for support, care, and love.
Patricia: I have had a long-term personal interest in this topic. My own childhood was enriched by the presence of older adults, especially my grandmother. I spent my college years, learning to be a teacher of young children. However, I also spent my summers working as a nurse’s aide in a health care facility for older adults, then termed a ‘nursing home’ and was a regular volunteer in a program that brought youth together with older adults. These experiences had a strong impact on the way I thought about the lives of both the very young and not so young members of society. I was convinced then, and am more convinced now, that IG relationships offer something powerful, unique, reassuring, and utterly important to both children and older adults.
Margaret: What new perspectives does this book bring to the topic?
Mary: Intergenerational bonds between older adults and young children are everywhere and sometimes taken for granted, rather than the focus of research. Interpersonal relationships are difficult to define and study because they are extraordinarily complex and encompass many different fields. The major contributions of this book are a synthesis of the relevant research related to “together old and young” from the multiple perspectives of professionals with different areas of specialization.
Patricia: I hope that the book has a spotlight effect; that the diverse perspectives in the book illuminate the power and potential of IG relationships in so many different aspects of daily life and learning. A strength of the book lies in the way the authors highlight the deep variety of IG relationships. Some of these occur very organically, while others are nurtured through specific activities and events. The book provides access to a broad range of professional literature related to IG relationships, as well as implications for connecting theory and practice.
Margaret: Would you agree that IG relationships as a focus topic is still on the margins of scholarship and teaching in Education Faculties and in Teacher Education? Why do you think this is so?
Mary: In reflecting on decades of experience as a teacher of young children and university faculty member, I definitely agree that IG relationships are underrepresented, both in teacher education and in research. Perhaps it is attributable to the old saying “If fish were scientists, the last thing they would discover is water.” We are immersed in these IG bonds and acknowledge that they are important, yet neglect them as we prepare future teachers and in our research. Another reason, at least in the United States, might be the emphasis on youth and the attitude that older people are debilitated and/or a drain on resources. Ageism—the negative assumptions and biases toward older persons—might be responsible for some of the marginalization that occurs.
Patricia: Yes, I agree. In general, teacher education programs focus on learning that occurs within the bounds of school settings, with comparatively little attention given to the relationally-rich learning that takes place in family and community contexts. Thus, IG relationships often do not receive the time and attention they deserve within programs of study. Beyond this, we live in a youth-oriented culture. The age-related biases that accompany this culture often result in older adults being invisible or overlooked, across the board. This is not only a deep loss for all, but also a case of injustice; age is an important aspect of diversity that is worthy of attention, study, and engagement.
Margaret: Who is this book for?
Mary: This book is intended as a resource for college students pursuing degrees in early childhood education, both undergraduates and graduates. It is also a resource for faculty who want to rectify the relative absence of information on this important topic in courses for students, such as child development and teaching methods. While involvement with parents often finds its way into the curriculum, involvement with the child’s extended family or with older adults in the community tends to get scant attention. We need to bear in mind that many traditional age undergraduates enrolled in teacher education programs have older family members who are very involved in their lives. They are fully aware of the importance of those relationships, so it is not difficult to convince them that older adults can make important contributions in the educational context.
Patricia: The book may also be of strong interest to those who work in the field of gerontology and who are interested in exploring developmentally appropriate ways to nurture relationships between young children and older adults.
Margaret: Patricia, your chapter about the depiction of IG relations in children’s literature reads like an ‘Ode to Children’s Literature’ in general and IG themed literature specifically. I enjoyed it very much. Why are well-selected stories and picture books such a powerful medium for children to think about age, ageing process and the significant older adults in their lives?
Patricia: Thanks. I have a great love for children’s literature and am glad that came through in the writing. Stories are such a powerful medium; they are right at the heart of humanity. We are all engaged in the great drama of our own life stories and we enrich one another when we share these stories. Children’s books have frequently been celebrated for their likeness to mirrors and windows. On one hand, they allow readers to see themselves through plots and storylines similar to their own lives. On the other hand, they provide a transparent look into the worlds of characters and situations that are far different from their real lives. In short, quality children’s books allow readers to view a story safely through the eyes of different characters. Reading provides opportunities to wonder about the people, relationships, challenges, and joys of others presented in the book, and to ultimately, make connections with their own life circumstances. Picture books provide an engaging, attractive, and accessible springboard for children to learn about important life lessons, including those related to IG relationships.
Margaret: You write vividly about how age-related stereotyping in children’s books is beginning to change. Can you tell us about a few of your favourite examples of children’s books addressing age-related stereotyping?
Patricia: It is encouraging to see publication trends, in which diverse older characters are featured in positive, respectful, and accurate ways. My favorite books are those that are nondidactic. They are simply great stories that highlight healthy, reciprocal relationships across generations. I love Norton Juster’s The Hello, Goodbye Window that depicts active grandparents, a diverse family, and reassuring touchstones and traditions in a young child’s life. Matt de la Peña’s Last Stop on Market Street shows a lovely relationship between a grandmother and grandson, as they discuss important life issues. The grandmother shares her wisdom and both characters work together to serve others in the community. Mr. George Baker, by Amy Hest, is a personal favorite of mine, in that it depicts a very warm and mutual relationship between an older gentleman and his young neighbor. There are certainly many more that I could name.
Margaret: What is your goal for your students (future educators), attending your classes about children’s literature?
Patricia: Learning goals are always multifaceted. However, at the heart of it, I want my students to engage very deeply with children’s literature. I hope they will not just read the books but will also personally respond to them. I want them to consider literature’s potential to contribute to children’s aesthetic, socioemotional, and cognitive development. I hope that they leave the course not only with an understanding of literature, but also with a love of literature and a passion for helping the children in their care to love it, too.
Margaret: Mary, you include a wealth of research about older adults volunteering in your chapter. What about your life, your experiences, brought you to this area of (community) work?
Mary: Early in my career, I worked with young children whose parents were migrant farm workers in a federal program called the Teacher Corps. It was in some ways similar to the Peace Corps that others may be more familiar with except that it was limited to special populations in the United States and attached a teacher certification and master’s degree to the experience. During that time, we set up a cooperative nursery school and grandparents were a key resource in our success. They not only participated in planning but also became dedicated volunteers. I learned so much from them and we established reciprocal trust and respect. That early experience – I was 21 years old at the time – influenced my career. My parents were active volunteers during retirement—the opening vignette of my chapter about the woman who volunteered in a program that provided child care for the babies of high school students/mothers is about my mother. I have been a volunteer in my community for decades now and continue to do so. Young children who struggle with reading are of particular interest to me. They can reach a point where they lack motivation to try or even become very stressed at the prospect of having to practice reading aloud, referred to as reading anxiety. Since 2006, I have been volunteering in initiatives that bring young children together with trained, certified, and insured dogs as a way to encourage them to read and help them to enjoy it more. The research on this practice is a burgeoning field in human-animal interaction and the results are impressive. It seems as though bringing a dog into the mix has a novelty effect and a positive impact for many young children. As an advisor to the international program, Reading Education Assistance Dogs or R.E.A.D., we are seeing that the presence of the dog tends to reduce some of the stress that can be associated with the task of reading. Even the physiological indicators of stress can be reduced by interactions with a calm, friendly animal and children who dreaded reading often become willing to try in the nonjudgmental presence of the dog.
Margaret: Volunteering in programs involving young children is not for everyone and in our experience we observed that women are more inclined to do it. How can volunteering be made an attractive proposition for those who don’t fall into the dominant group of volunteers? What can early childhood services do to attract a diversity of volunteers?
Mary: Educators need to reach out beyond the traditional means of recruiting volunteers. Some of the chapters in the book describe early childhood programs partnering with residential facilities for older adults, for example. Educators need to look into the programs and organizations in their communities that include older adults. Something as simple as making a brief presentation at one of their meetings or distributing a one-page call for volunteers that outlines what is involved can help to recruit a diverse group of volunteers. The research suggests that people are more likely to volunteer and sustain the commitment if they feel that their goals are consistent with the mission of the group, they are adequately prepared for their role, their contributions are valued, and their other time commitments/scheduling preferences are taken into consideration. What I sometimes see is that educators take the “just ask a busy person” approach and overburden a few trusted volunteers rather than reach out and expand their volunteer group. At times, training/preparation for the role is lacking, which tends to result in dissatisfying outcomes for all. It is not enough to attract volunteers. Highly successful programs retain volunteers and increase their effectiveness over time.
Thank you, Mary and Patricia for this informative and inspiring interview. I strongly recommend our readers to discover more about your new book at this link.
Mary Renck Jalongo (Indiana University of Pennsylvania), firstname.lastname@example.org
Patricia Crawford (University of Pittsburgh), email@example.com