The Blessings and Benefits of Intergenerational Households

Steve Kurtzahn
August 28, 2022

When you were growing up, did you ever attend a one-room country school? My guess is, probably not. When I was in the 4tgrade, my family lived for a short time in rural Minnesota, outside of a small town, where my dad owned a hardware store. The closest public school where we lived was one of the last operating one-room country schools in the Gopher State. I still remember my teacher’s name and some of the stories she told. My brother and sister also attended, and I still recall some of the other children. There was no bathroom, but an outhouse out back. There was no running water, just a hand operated pump. We walked a mile and a half to school on a gravel road from the farmhouse we were renting. We had to pass a farm on the way that had a couple German Shepherds that, as children, we thought were vicious. So we would walk way out in a field of alfalfa so the dogs wouldn’t see us.

But the best memory I have of that school experience is that I was able to learn as I listened to the teacher instruct the other grades. We would be at our desks, working on homework or other assignments, while the teacher would have different grades sitting in chairs up front, teaching them how to do addition or subtraction, or drilling them on spelling words, or talking about famous Americans like George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. I know I learned a lot more by listening to the teacher instruct the other children than what she shared with my grade level class from our 4t grade textbooks.

So what does all this have to do with our title, “The Blessings and Benefits of Intergenerational Households?” Just as students in a one-room country school could learn by listening to the lessons of the younger and older children around them, even so we can learn some important life lessons from those who are older—and younger—than us in our own families!

When my ancestors first came to America from Europe in the 1800s, the first thing they did was homestead a farm and build a house. Those homes lasted for generations and are still standing. Living in the house would be mom and dad, and maybe grandma and grandpa. Babies would be born and grow up in those homes. Grandma would help babysit while everyone else would work in the fields during harvest time. Mom and the girls would make the meals for the thrashing crews. The children would learn how to milk cows, cut hay and harvest corn. Besides mom and dad, the children and the grandparents, there would sometimes even be grandchildren—all living under the same roof. And just like in the one-room country schools, everyone would learn from everyone else. Children would learn life lessons and things they would never be taught in school, and the older folks might even learn a lesson or two from the kids!

Unfortunately, we don’t have one-room country schools anymore. There are smaller private schools or religious schools in some communities where there might still be two or three grades in a single classroom. We usually don’t have intergenerational households anymore, either, where different generations of families all live in the same house. Mom and dad might live in suburban Chicago, the children might attend college in California or Connecticut, grandma and grandpa might be in a retirement community in Florida or Arizona, and great-grandma may be in a nursing home in Ohio. As a result, members of our families miss out on learning important life lessons from their elders, or experiencing their stories from days gone by that still teach important truths.

This is where recent immigrant families into the United States have an advantage over those who have lived here for generations. I’ve known families who have recently moved here from Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa.  They may have several people living in the same household—mom and dad, children, grandparents, maybe even some aunts and uncles. For many of us, this may seem rather cramped and crowded. But for these families, in many ways it is a tremendous blessing, because they can share their love and teach one another what they feel is most important for life.

So if you’re from a traditional American household where your relatives live far away from you, value the time you can spend with them when you go for a visit. Listen carefully to grandma and grandpa when they tell you about the past. Don’t ignore that aunt or uncle who tries to tell you how something used to be done years ago. You might just learn something, just like children would learn from the other grade levels in a one-room country school.

And if you do live in a household where there are several generations, be thankful for such a blessing! 

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