When our silver Odyssey, with its dents and Ohio plates, ambled up to the svelte Washington D.C. hotel front, I could tell by the look on his face that the valet wasn’t used to greeting minivans. Yet he was so kind and welcoming. Travel-worn and crumb-laden, we unbuckled car seats and walked inside conspicuously with our three boys, ages 5, 3, and seven months, passing a bowl with jumbo-size dog treats by the front door. In the lobby, they were serving complimentary wine paired with an array of gourmet olives and an Asian-inspired snack mix.
“This place is too fancy for me,” our five-year-old announced, a little too loudly while spitting out an olive because “it had a seed.” In reference to the dog treats he added, “Mom, why do they treat dogs better than kids here?”
Later that evening, our family took a walk in search of a park for the kids to run off some energy. A woman directed us to a park a few blocks away, but when we arrived it was an open field by the river, with about 15 dogs playing while their owners socialized.
“Where’s the playground?” our three-year-old asked. To our five-year-old, its absence seemed to confirm his earlier suspicion about dogs being the privileged ones in this part of town.
I don’t share my son’s grievance—our kids were treated exceedingly well by those we encountered on our trip—but his observation about the lack of “kid-friendly” spaces did strike me. When I lived in midtown Manhattan, I never thought much about the fact that most of the people I saw daily were of prime working age, disproportionately unmarried and without children. But after having lived in small town Ohio for the past five years, our trip inside the Beltway with its relative scarcity of children and elders was a bit jarring.
In contrast, our Midwestern town lacks ethnic diversity, but it is generationally diverse. Intergenerational bonds are held almost sacred. There is a deep love of children—having children is “what you’re put on this earth to do”—and a strong respect for the legacy of the elderly to the point of nostalgia for “the old-fashioned way.”
Significant resources are spent caring for the young and old. Late one night, I see Tricia sweeping the porch and working in her grandmother’s yard in the moonlight, the front light casting her shadow about as she works. Tricia is 25 and a recovering heroin addict who lost custody of her children, yet she now spends her time caring for her bedridden grandmother. Longtime neighbors pitch in, pushing Mamaw in her wheelchair around the block for some fresh air.
Tricia may be caring for her Mamaw, but throughout her life, Mamaw was the person Tricia came back to when she had nowhere else to go. Tricia’s children, too, have often relied on Mamaw’s love when much else was unstable.
Psychologist Stephanie Mihalas has discussed the benefits of intergenerational relationships, particularly the “deep mentoring relationships” that can be fostered between the young and old. Research suggests that high-quality mentoring can make a difference for young people facing an opportunity gap. Though resources have been drained from many small towns in America, perhaps these kinds of intergenerational relationships are one source of wealth that remains. They may be an overlooked asset, but I wonder if leveraging this web of intergenerational connections might be part of helping troubled towns bounce back.
I think of Rob, a 31-year-old roofer who grew up in the same town as Tricia, and whose mother struggled with drug addiction and was largely absent. He found himself in trouble with the law and “partying” too much as a teenager, eventually dropping out of high school. “I had other plans: party, party, party,” Rob said.
But then his best friend’s grandmother stepped in. Rob retells the story:
Well, pop up, and lo and behold, there’s a little old lady standin’ there, and ‘You’re gonna do this, this, and this!’ I’m like ‘Okay—easy does it!’ She was pretty much layin’ down the ground rules from day one—still that way today at 74-years-old, so…. Good lady.
She convinced Rob to get his GED and join the military. Today, Rob is married with three children and owns his own roofing company. His story is not unlike that of J.D. Vance, who writes of how his own relationship with his grandparents and other mentors were a key reason he was able to “escape the worst of my culture’s inheritance.” He asks, “Where would I be without them? Thinking about it now, about how close I was to the abyss, gives me chills.”
Both stories highlight the power of an attuned presence, something psychiatrist Daniel Siegel writes about in his book Mindsight. He describes individuals who, based on traumatic childhood experiences, were expected to have an “incoherent life narrative” as adults. Yet some of these individuals were exceptions and were able to thrive. What made the difference? Siegel notes that “if they had a relationship with a person who was genuinely attuned to them—a relative, a neighbor, a teacher, a counselor—something about that connection helped them build an inner experience of wholeness or gave them the space to reflect on their lives in ways that helped them make sense of their journey.” The elderly are often well-suited to provide this kind of presence for younger adults and children.
Struggling American towns may not have the hippest restaurants or the fanciest hotels, but they often have intergenerational diversity, an asset which could be developed in such a way as to encourage more relationships of the type that spurred Rob along his path from high school dropout to small business owner. More than changing the facade of a town, this kind of human development could be part of truly reviving communities.