Jerry Witkovsky, soon to be 86, has turned grandparenting into a career. Now, he has accumulated years of research and experience-he has six grandchildren of his own, ages 11-30-into his book The Grandest Love: Inspiring the Grandparent-Grandchild Connection.
Grandparenting "is a sacred trust," Witkovsky said, "because family elders have the opportunity to impact their grandchildren's lives forever."
After receiving his MSW at the University of Illinois, Witkovsky dedicated himself to Jewish communal service. He worked for 47 years with the Jewish Community Centers of Chicago, the last 18 as General Director. He also ran Camp Chi for many years.
Then one day after his 1997 retirement, he picked his 13-year-old granddaughter up and asked her, "How was school?" In response, she threw her backpack to the ground and admonished him, "I'm not just a student, you know!"
Taking the hint, Witkovsky began to research grandparenting. After 10 years, he felt he was ready to impart what he had learned, and wrote his book on the subject.
The Grandest Love is filled with the lessons he learned-practical, psychological, even financial. He suggests that families develop a mindset of "teaching and learning," in which every member has something valuable to share, and more to know.
Parts of the book are styled like a workbook, designed to help grandparents define their priorities and goals. The book offers step-by-step guidance in holding family meetings, developing a family "Vision Statement," and creating of a "Living Legacy Foundation" that can help families identify and underwrite their dreams. Witkovsky also provides sound advice from noted experts in family dynamics and child development, and provides links to informative resources.
And then there are the 50 wonderful letters he includes-from grandparents, grandchildren, and people who have been both! Some are from members of his own family. Telling stories about one's own family is crucial, Witkovsky observes, because "When a grandparent dies, a library burns to the ground."
While many grandparents plan on leaving certain material assets to their grandchildren, Witkovsky urges leaving "both values and valuables," and encourages grandparents to create a "living legacy, to enjoy while they're still around." As he tells his fellow grandparents: "Life can be so rich… don't die until you're dead!"
Witkovsky hopes the book will be read by grandparents and grandparents-to-be who are seeking meaningful, fun and affordable ways to connect with their grandchildren and to nurture bonds with their adult children. The book helps families stay connected-regardless of time, distance, or income-especially using new technology, to maximize communication and promote interdependence. All while maintaining boundaries, of course.
Witkovsky has put many of the book's lessons into practice himself. He has secured grandparental involvement in communities, in both Jewish and public schools, and at Camp Chi. He has spearheaded annual orientation programs- led by the students themselves- for grandparents in a growing roster of Chicago public and private high schools, designed to keep grandparents engaged with their grandkids during the crucial teen years. At these schools, grandparents are given a part of the school's website, where upcoming events, games, and reading assignments are listed. And grandparents can tutor students, following their progress even into college.
"Jerry initiated a marvelous program at our school that helps grandparents connect with their teenaged grandchildren during these crucial years of their development," said Judy Luepke, the chair of the science department at Deerfield High School.
Witkovsky says that his overall message to grandparents is that "Grandparenting can be one of the most fulfilling experiences of your life; and you can provide your grandkids with one of the most important experiences of their lives."