The extra hug Wilhelmina Manns gives her 4-year-old grandson when she leaves him at nursery school each morning reminds her of the traditional image of grandmothers -- patient, loving, strong and wise -- and of the closeness she is missing with three other grandchildren living in distant cities.
Manns, a professor of social work at Howard University, said she is "extra-sensitive" to her role as a grandmother because she studied the importance of relatives and "significant others" in shaping the individual for her PhD thesis. Grandparents often were the most influential figures in her research subjects' lives, she said.
More involvement of grandparents and other relatives in families is critically needed because of more single parents, geographic dispersal of relatives and other changes in the family structure and function, according to mental health and child care professionals here.
Grandparenting is one of four topics on family issues that will be explored next week during the District's Family Health Week. Single parenting, self-esteem in children and handling predictable family crises are the other topics for evening workshops to be held Tuesday through Oct. 1 in local churches and synagogues.
A rapid increase in the number of children growing up in single-parent households, along with greater isolation from relatives by economic factors and geographic mobility, emphasizes the need to examine the family and develop strategies to strengthen and preserve it, organizers of Family Health Week said.
Family Health Week is an effort by the Psychiatric Institute Foundation to publicize the importance of family dynamics to the mental well-being of individuals, an idea long accepted in the mental health profession, according to foundation president Dr. Howard A. Hoffman.
The Psychiatric Institute Foundation is the nonprofit, educational arm of the Psychiatric Institute, a private hospital in Georgetown.
Manns, who lives with her grandson Bryan and his mother Shelly Johnson, said "single mothering probably underscores the need for the grandparent . . . for a strong support system."
Harriette McAdoo, a director of the National Council on Family Relationships, said persons not close to their extended families need to "recreate those relationships."
In the workshops, McAdoo, also a social work professor at Howard, will recommend that participants seek family-like bonds through "informal networks" with neighbors and friends and through churches and organizations.
"As families move or become geographically mobile, it is more difficult to maintain the physical contact," McAdoo said. "I point out the importance of recreating the extended family."
Persons need first to appreciate the importance of kinship by "looking at their own extended family system," said another workshop leader, Vivian Hopkins Sewell, an adult services social worker at the Psychiatric Institute.
Her discussions will evaluate the use of family reunions, "pulling out what extended family means to identity, values, philosophy about life" and taking inventory of family as "an emotional base" as well as a "practical resource for help with baby-sitting, financial loans, sharing of household space," she said.
Her main purpose, Sewell said, "is to uplift the importance of extended family as a concept and bring it back into a positive role. As a society, we have moved from a family orientation to a me orientation."
Among American Indians, Jews and black Americans, grandparents and elder relatives traditionally have been more influential and held in higher esteem than in other groups, said psychiatrist Eliot Sorel, the foundation's director of family studies. Each of these groups had "the similar experience of a generation that was decimated by political, economic or racist forces," he said.
Parents in these groups had emotional barriers to discussing the "cataclysmic events" with their children, but grandparents did not, Sorel said. Grandparents, who were needed more because of limited family resources, were the groups' "key to survival" and traditionally enjoyed "high esteem because of the knowledge and wisdom that is tough to replicate," he said.
"Although grandparents played a significant role in both white and black families" in the past, Manns said, among blacks they seemed to be more important as "carriers of dreams deferred" who had higher ambitions for their grandchildren than for their children.
In studying the "grandparent factor," she said, she was struck by images of strong and influential grandparents, especially grandmothers, similar to those described by black autobiographers.
Writer Maya Angelou wrote worshipfully of her "solemn, determined" grandmother who raised her after she and a brother were sent south as children. Singer Ethel Waters praised a woman "all heart and fury" who took her in as an infant when her 12-year-old mother, a rape victim, abandoned her.
Pediatrician Frederick C. Green, associate director of Children's Hospital, said the involvement of grandparents could help protect the safety of children in the increasing "single-parent, mother-headed" families that produce most child-abuse cases treated at Children's.
"Parents isolated and unable to ask for help are more apt to have crisis situations turn into abusive situations," he explained.
Green recalled his own Fort Wayne, Ind., childhood with a grandmother who cared for him while his widowed mother worked. He said he is concerned that his own and others' children are missing that feeling of closeness to grandparents -- and vice versa.
"Yes, she spoiled me, I guess, but she sure taught me the importance of not expecting something for nothing," Green said. It was from her that he "learned about who I am" through her songs and her stories of ancestors, he said.
At Shiloh Baptist Church's new $5.5 million Family Life Center, the aim is to provide opportunities for "persons of different ages and generations to interact with each other . . . so that persons who may feel very much alone can find brothers and sisters and persons who deeply care in the same way that blood relatives care," said the Rev. Henry Gregory, pastor of the church at 1500 Ninth St. NW.
Gregory said the rapid urbanization that has concentrated poor people in metropolitan areas and the "emergence of many female heads of households where single parents serve as breadwinners [cause] frustration and worries" over their effectiveness as parents. This produces a "creeping manifestation of lowering of self-esteem" in parent and child, he said.
Self-esteem in children, a workshop topic, is so easily influenced that parents may be unaware they are nourishing or discouraging it through small actions in their daily lives, child psychologist Marilyn Benoit warned.
"Parents need to look at how many times they say "don't, don't, don't," Benoit said. They should not expect specific achievements at certain ages but should "help their children find ways of achieving success" according to ability, she said.
Benoit tells parents of "little red flags" that indicate low self-esteem in children: "talking about how dumb, stupid, ugly they are;" poor posture, sitting "all slumped over;" or one who "gives you the impresssion that he has no right to expect to be treated well."
Self-image is so malleable in a youngster that "anything that affects a child's life has the potential for enhancing or damaging it," Benoit said.
Grandparents and other close relatives "can have a lot of positive input" into child rearing, Benoit said, but the "one thing that is absolutely necessary [to the child's positive self-esteem] is a parent who feels good about herself or himself."
Single parents are especially vulnerable to low self-esteem, according to hypnotherapist Charles Faulkner, director of the Center for Attitudinal Studies. "I treat an awful lot of young ladies and have a number of cases of women who [after divorce] have the kids and can't get a job and have a difficult time getting back in the social mainstream. . . . It's a terrible attack on their self-image," Faulkner said.
"The important thing is that you take care of yourself, too," advised family therapist Pat DeLorme, a single mother herself and director for social services for the Psychiatric Institute. "Parents are so afraid of the long-term psychological impact [on children] that they emphasize the parenting role, and many tend to neglect their own needs."
"In a healthy situation, there is more danger that the single parent will neglect herself than that she will neglect the child," said Phyllis Cooke, a clinical social worker in private practice. "It's hard to [be a single parent] because of the many demands. . . . There's the job, the housekeeping, taking the kid to the doctor. Finding time for yourself is very difficult."
Cooke suggested single parents "trade off things, like baby-sitting, with other single parents or relatives so that you find time to do things for yourself or just to be alone."
DeLorme advised single parents to help children maintain relationships with the other parent and "trust your instincts." Delorme said she has counseled single parents who are "doing very well . . . but they're never really secure. They just need some validation."
"One person can be a very good parent. You can raise a very happy, healthy child," she emphasized. "I consider single-parent families as whole family units. They're not broken. We want to help people see it is not a handicap and to give them some skills and tips."
Cooke said single parents should not ignore their signs of mental stress, such as continued depression, anger or frustration, "especially if they take it out on the child."
In the child, they should watch for "aggression in a child that may come out as listless behavior (in a preschooler) or fighting (in the school-aged child)," she said.
"Single parenting does have its joys," Cooke said. "You get a lot of time with your child, you develop a very close relationship . . . and there can be joys in being the only decision maker. And kids are fun."groups had emotional barriers to discussi