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Why We Should Foster Intergenerational Friendships

Learn what the importance of an intergenerational friendship is and why we should foster them.

She walked into my office and shut the door. “I have some news: I’m pregnant!”

I jumped out of my chair, congratulated her, and hugged her. She was my best friend, and she and her husband had been struggling with infertility for a long time. There were times when she seemed almost resigned to living a life much different than she had imagined. It clearly weighed heavily on her. And when our dear friends bear such wounds, we suffer with them.

And then suddenly everything was flipped. As she told me the news, sharing this secret that so few others knew (it was very early), she radiated joy. And the sense of communion that was deepened through shared suffering magnified the depth of the moment. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.

Our culture is not structured to foster deep friendships with intimacy and vulnerability — it values individualism more, and the result in recent years has been increased isolation and loneliness. One of the questions that we are facing with the coronavirus pandemic is whether our communities will be able to overcome this individualism and come together around a common good.

Parenting in such an environment is difficult. If it takes a village to raise a child, the burden placed on parents in an environment of autonomous individuals becomes acutely challenging. New parents who do not have many family members around experience a deep need for new, strengthened connections and communal bonds.

These can occur between parents. The shared experience of parenthood can create bonds and mutual understanding, even from the moment of that initial announcement, as I experienced with my friend. We can give each other advice. We can develop the sense that we are all in this together. But it does not need to stop there.

Parents can and should look for ways to include single people in their family life. And single people who are looking for greater community should not be afraid to reach out to parents and develop relationships across generations. This can enrich the lives of the parents, friends, and children alike.

One of the great joys of parenthood is seeing my kids interact with their aunts and uncles. Even though we live far away, there remains an incredibly strong bond and the kids have so much fun the minute they see them. But it is also special when I see my son happily climbing on his godparents’ laps at Mass or my daughter peering through binoculars at a cityscape as she is held up by another close friend.  These experiences create a richer and warmer world for all of us.

And these intergenerational relationships can make a real difference in kids’ lives. When an adult gets involved in a child’s life — as a godparent or role model or mentor — their personal witness and guidance can help the child find the right path forward. Adolescents often squabble with mom and dad, so it’s incredibly valuable for them to be able to talk with an adult whom they genuinely like and trust.

And for young adults who don’t yet have kids, these kinds of connections are easily overlooked. But in an era when families are often stretched across the country and people are settling down later than they once did, these types of relationships can provide something that is missing in their lives: a richer sense of community and broader experiences.

There is something truly special about a good friend bringing a child into the world. You get to share in their incredible joy. You get to meet this brand-new person and watch their little personality develop over time. It creates and deepens strong bonds and awakens something within us.

But it can also strengthen relationships that had not been particularly intimate. On a number of occasions, people have said how much they love seeing photos of my kids on social media and how they feel like they are watching them grow up. For some, I had no clue they were following our lives, as they weren’t interacting with those photos online, and a few even sounded embarrassed, as though they weren’t close enough to be so invested. In those cases, I felt regret that I did not think to include them more in our lives and that they did not feel comfortable reaching out. I know that these relationships can be meaningful and perhaps bring something unique to all of us.

Children are vulnerable and honest and authentic. They are often quick to express their need for assistance. So being around them invites us to live differently — perhaps to access parts of our personality that typically lay dormant. And this can be very fulfilling and rewarding.

Ultimately, there is no finite limit on love. We should look for ways to foster these intergenerational friendships — to be engaged in the lives of our friends’ children, or to share our family life with those who are in single life. It’s one way we can help build the stronger, thicker communities so many of us desire.

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