FARMINGTON — Zachariah George, 18, will never forget the day he got home from school after being suspended for throwing a textbook at a snippity teacher in seventh grade, and his grandfather spanked him five times with a horse hair whip.

"Honestly, that was the last time I ever got in trouble," George said.

Until recent months, George grew up in his grandparents' home with neither running water nor electricity.

He learned the traditional ways of his elders, learned to be respectful of elders, and learned that there are no better parents for him than his grandparents, his "nali-lady" and "nali-man," the traditional Navajo names for paternal grandparents.

"My grandparents have raised me," said George. "They decided to take me under their wing."

Like George, many children today are finding themselves under the guidance of their grandparents Êa trend that could shape a healthy portion of the next generation, for better or worse.

In the United States, about 5.4 million children lived with their grandparents in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Of those children, about 2.9 million were in the legal care of their grandparents.

Prior to 2010, the number of grandparents caring for their grandchildren was not counted in the Census. However, in recent years, the economy has forced many families to consolidate, or to hand over the responsibility of having a family a trend that analysts began to take note of.

Communities also have taken notice.


Gordon Glass, a retired family therapist in Farmington, in the past year began a community group for grandparents who are raising their grandchildren. He started a group for parents facing the challenges of raising children, but realized a demand also existed for grandparents doing the same.

"The grandparents' life that we usually think of retirement, relaxation, no obligation turns into more obligation," Glass said.

For many of the grandparents in the group, the case often is that something "bad" has happened to the parent, whether that be death, addiction, incarceration or depression.

The grandparents take the helm and accept the child, or oftentimes children, into their home.

In New Mexico, many of the children are in the care of their grandparents because of drugs, alcohol or abuse. Of the nearly 57,000 children who live with their grandparents in New Mexico, more than 33,000 of them are in their grandparents' legal custody.

In San Juan County alone, more than 3,700 grandparents have custody of their grandchildren.

Chuck Wallace, 53, completely altered his life when his stepdaughter was unable to care for her two daughters and son. Wallace splits custody of his grandchildren with their grandmother, his former partner and biological grandmother of his grandchildren.

Wallace's stepdaughter, who passed away several years ago, handed over her children because of her longterm battle with drug addiction.

"She just couldn't take care of them," said Wallace, who raised his stepdaughter's now-grown daughters, and still is raising her 11-year-old son.

The change was more difficult than he initially anticipated, he said. At one point, brushing his granddaughter's hair in the morning became so trying that he stopped, requiring him to regularly take her to the a salon because her hair became so entangled.

"I didn't want to fight the battle every day," said Wallace.

He raised his voice and reached his limits, wondering if the task was worth it and whether he wanted to spend the remainder of his life raising children that weren't his responsibility.

Then, he found his peace.

"They left me a note on the fridge. It said, "When we don't pick up our toys and you raise your voice, it makes us sad.' That's when I broke down bawling. I just cried," Wallace said.

Realizing that they were all he had, and vice versa, has helped Wallace come to peace with his role in their lives.

"I was all in. No reservations," he said.

But raising grandchildren still is not an easy task. Sometimes, it's the children who need to make peace.

"No matter what, they still want their parents," Wallace said. 

One of the most difficult aspects of raising a grandchild is that it takes a while for them to see a grandparent as anything but a grandparent. Why grandparents won't help more with physical labor, or understand modern technology, or appreciate more contemporary language is sometimes difficult for children to initially understand.

"I think the hardest part is they want to tell the kids how to act," Glass said.

Children want their parents, but they also worry about the longevity of their guardians, which generally isn't as long as their younger counterparts.

"The children know it's unlikely that (their grandparents) are going to see this through," said Glass.

George, who is home-schooled now, already is setting out on his own, performing traditional singing and drumming for audiences around the region.

"Right now, they are pushing me away because they know they will not be around for long," George said of his grandparents. "It does worry me sometimes. My grandparents they're everything to me."

The older he gets, though, the more he appreciates what his grandparents, Sadie George and Paul George, have taught him not to fear death and not to fear going into the world alone.

"They have only made me stronger," George said.