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Why We Need Substitute Grandparents

Vaya Con Dios, Ken

By Chuck EtheridgePublished about a month ago 5 min read
Top Story - January 2024
Why We Need Substitute Grandparents
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

I don’t know if it takes a whole village to raise a child, but it takes more than just the parents. If we’re fortunate, as we grow, we’re guided by a rich network of adults who look out for us and help us along the way—relatives, teachers, coaches, youth leaders, and others. We need a whole tribe to look out for us, to guide us on our way.

All three of my boys have been blessed to have these kinds of adults in their lives. A series of teachers, scout leaders, coaches, music directors (all three were musicians in high school), neighbors, people from church. Some of the people I grew up with have become important figures in my boys’ lives; one, Allen has offered a place to get away to, advice and friendship to my boys, and another, Don, is the godfather to my youngest, Benjamin.

You’ll note something that’s not on the list: family members. Before you get the wrong idea, I have a great family, but my and my wife’s parents are no longer living, and we only live near one close relative, my wife’s older brother, Ray, who lives in Corpus. My father and my wife’s father were both “old dads,” and both passed when the kids were young. The oldest two, Lars and Parker, have some memories of their grandfather, but Ben, the youngest, doesn’t.

But kids, particularly sons, need those older adults in their lives. I love each of my sons fiercely and have good relationships with each of them, but, when you’re growing up, fathers and sons get cross-wise. They butt heads; fathers can demand too much or can get impatient, and sons can sometimes think their fathers will never understand them or what it’s like to be them. But other older adults can step in, provide a sympathetic voice, another perspective, and can help simply by being there and not being their parents. Kids don’t want to tell Mom and Dad everything, nor should they have to. And, as I said earlier, all three boys had other adults—teachers, coaches, music directors, scout leaders, and others, as role models—as different, positive examples of how to be in the world.

In the case of our family, many of these older adults have been people in our church. Even if you’re not religious or a believer, churches can be places where children and young adults find a rich network of substitute grandfathers and grandmothers, or tios and tias (uncles and aunts), of people who bear witness to their growing up, who buy Scout popcorn or ugly candles for school fundraisers, who offer advice, affection, and attention.

I’ve spent my entire life living and working in cities where I didn’t grow up and where I had little or no family. But we need family, and churches have provided my kids with the kind of extended family that people used to have when it was normal for life and work to keep people close to home.

A wonderful man named Ken Markert was such a person.

My youngest, Benjamin, is a great kid, but is a very different person from me. I will do my best, but sometimes I don’t explain things to him in ways that make sense. If I try to show him how to do something, he often gets frustrated or upset—sometimes because he gets down on himself for not getting it right the first time, and sometimes because what I say doesn’t make sense to him.

I don’t know why Ken took an interest in Ben, but he did. At first, it was just talking on Sunday morning, asking how he was doing, or buying whatever item Ben was peddling for scout or school fundraisers. Then, Ken began showing Ben how to do things—how to handle a shovel, or use a hand tool. Often, these were things that I’d previously showed Ben how to do, but when Ken demonstrated, it clicked in a way for Ben that it didn’t when I showed him.

Ken began hiring Ben to come over and do work. Sometimes it was a chore like cleaning out a garage. Other times it was yard work. He would show Ben how to do something, would keep an eye on him, and would offer suggestions, corrections, or encouragement, depending on what was needed.

More important, Ken supported Ben without coddling. If a job had to be done, he made sure Ben did the job right, even if it took him two or three tries. When he was younger, Ben also had a hard time focusing, and sometimes wanted to quit before the job is done. Ken would keep him on track, and would insist he finish before he got paid.

Ken also paid Ben for the work he did. Other than chores for Mom and Dad, working for Ken was the first time Ben earned his own money, funds he could save or could spend as he wanted. Earning your own money is important in your development. It creates a sense of pride and independence. This was yet another thing Ken gave Ben the opportunity to do.

Ken led by example. He was kind and funny, firm when he needed to be, and not afraid of work. One thing sticks out in my mind about him more than anything else. Our church parking lot is terrible and has been so for years. One particular pothole was getting so large that, if an elephant fell down in it, it wouldn’t be able to escape. People complained about it for years. A committee was alerted. A number of people developed plans about what should be done.

Ken showed up one Sunday at the end of church with bags of dirt in the bed of his pickup. He unloaded the dirt, got a shovel, and filled the hole in.

Problem solved.

Ken saw what needed to be done and just did it.

I can’t think of a better role model for any of my kids.

You probably noted that I’m referring to Ken in the past tense; I got the news today that he’d passed. Unfortunately, our family and his lost touch during the pandemic, and neither Ben nor I have seen Ken in some time. Now, we will only see him in memory.

But I’m profoundly grateful that he lived, that we knew him, and that he took a strong interest in my youngest son at a time in his life when he desperately needed an understanding role model to take him under his wing.

Ken, wherever you are, vaya con dios. Go with God.

extended family

About the Creator

Chuck Etheridge

Novelist, Teacher, Transplanted West Texan, Reluctant Poet

Reader insights


Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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Comments (2)

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  • Anna 4 days ago

    Congrats on Top Story!🥳

  • Andrea Corwin 30 days ago

    I loved this piece - you outlined why others outside immediate family help with giving kids guidance and values. We can all make a family of friends. Bless Ken for being a light in the world!

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