Tips on Building Great Relationships with your Grandkids
As grandparents we all want to make the most of the precious family time we get to spend with our grandchildren. You can create deep, loving relationships with your grandchildren by sharing the things you love and by learning about what excites them. Whether you’re a full-time grandparent, a step-grandparent, or a long distance grandparent living thousands of miles away, you can find new ways to strengthen family ties and provide your grandchildren with joyful memories and valuable life lessons.
What’s so grand about being a grandparent?
In no particular order, grandparenting is an opportunity to play, to love someone new, to appreciate the magic of a developing mind, and to be needed by someone again. Grandparents can:
Share the things they’re passionate about with a new audience.
See the world in a new way through younger eyes.
Experience games, music, nature, reading, and other interests in conjunction with a curious young mind.
Provide expanded support and encouragement to their grandchildren.
Use their breadth of experience to avoid the pitfalls they may have encountered as parents the first time around.
Watch children develop through all stages of growth.
Learn about their grandkids’ music and passions.
Provide input that parents cannot.
Usually, grandparents have the benefit of interacting on a level that is once removed from the day-to-day responsibilities of parents. This can make it easier to develop a close bond with grandchildren. From near or far, grandparenting can provide continuity in a child’s life. Grandparents are often the family historians, and can add a rich sense of family tradition to a child’s life. Additionally, contact with grandparents can teach children positive attitudes towards aging and help them develop skills to enhance their own lifelong learning.
Of course, not everything about being a grandparent is great all of the time. Becoming a grandparent at a young age can make some people feel prematurely old and, just as parents do, grandparents sometimes have to deal with colicky babies and moody teenagers. For most though, the benefits of being a grandparent far outweigh the drawbacks.
The role of a grandparent in a child’s life
There are as many different roles for grandparents as there are different family configurations and needs. Some grandparenting requires a full-time commitment. For others, grandparenting is a weekend together, an afternoon play date, a summer vacation, a chat on the phone, or an email exchange every now and then.
A good first step to a long and successful relationship with your grandchild is to establish some ground rules with your son or daughter:
- Be clear about what role you want to have in your grandchild’s life. How often you want to babysit, for example, or whether you’d like to be included in events such as school functions.
- Talk with parents about their rules. Consistency is important for kids, so know the behavior limits your grandchild has to follow at home and maintain the rules when he or she is with you.
- Enforce any agreed upon punishment for bad behavior, whether it’s a “time out” or loss of privileges, for example.
- Baby proof your home, to ensure safety for infants and toddlers. It may have been a number of years since you had young children in your home, so it’s important to check with your grandchild’s parents about ways to baby proof your home to ensure they’re comfortable leaving the child with you.
Common grandparenting pitfalls to avoid
Whatever your specific circumstances, by expressing love, showing concern for your grandchild’s safety and wellbeing, and being consistent in your behavior, you are already doing a good job of grandparenting.
To avoid potential conflict within your family, try to avoid these common grandparenting pitfalls:
- Trying to be the parent. As much as you might want to tell your children how to raise your grandkids, it’s not your role. Respect the parenting decisions your children make for your grandkids.
- Buying your grandkids’ affection. It’s tempting for grandparents to shower their grandkids with gifts, but check with the child’s parents before you buy more toys. Maybe substitute some of your gift giving with activities instead. Do something with your grandchild that you both love and will build memories.
- Overindulging the first few grandchildren and then not being able to repeat it as additional grandchildren come along. This can cause resentment from your own children who have kids later in life. Remember that whatever you do for your first grandchild (college fund, beach vacations, trips to the zoo) will set a precedent that you’ll need to repeat for every other grandchild.
- Ignoring boundaries. A grandparent who won’t enforce limits and gives in to their grandchild’s every whim can infuriate parents. By allowing your grandkids to misbehave, overindulge in candy and junk food, or ignore bedtimes, for example, you’re only encouraging unhealthy behavior and making their parents’ job even harder.
How to be a better grandparent tip 1: Spend quality time with your grandkids
The best grandparenting activities flow naturally from the interests of both the grandparents and the grandchildren. You can create a deep, loving relationship with your grandchildren by sharing the things you love with them, and by being available to learn about the ideas and activities that excite them.
Take it easy together
Make an effort to enjoy leisure time with your grandchildren. As a grandparent, you get to interact with your grandchildren without the same daily pressures of a parent—you don’t have to worry about driving carpool or juggling making dinner for the family with soccer practice and grocery shopping. Allow yourself to slow down and become really absorbed in an activity. Moving at a slower pace than usual can give children a sense that time can be ‘stretched’—that you don’t need to hurry through activities. And, as with adults, it gives them the psychic space to feel, reflect, and express emotions without feeling rushed.
Children love the outdoors, and trips to the park or the beach can be a great jumping-off point for some wonderful adventures and happy memories. Nature walks and day hikes can provide lots of interesting things to talk about, and water activities can be especially fun. Throwing stones into the water or watching the current play with sticks are simple activities that can be fascinating to children. You can start these activities when kids are toddlers, and expand the games as they get older.
Share your interests or your work
Engaging in hobbies and activities that you love or your grandchild loves can be a great way to spend time together and learn about each other. Sometimes, activities that you might not expect your grandchildren to be interested in, like knitting or gardening, might turn out to provide an important point of connection for you. Similarly, if you take an interest in something they are passionate about, like trading cards or the Harry Potter books, they get to share their special area of knowledge and may open up in new ways.
If you are still working, a visit to your place of work can add a dimension to your grandchild’s perception of you. If you are retired, pictures and stories about what your working days were like can do the same.
How to be a better grandparent tip 2: Grandparenting on the road
Taking a trip with your grandchildren or sharing your love of a favorite place will help you create special memories together. Special trips, whether it’s a day trip to a national park, a weekend in a nearby city, or a week-long resort vacation, will always be remembered by the child as a special journey with grandma or grandpa.
One of the great advantages of traveling with your grandchild is the opportunity for both of you to be away from home. Being on the road means being free of chores, errands, the computer—any familiar routine. It opens up all kinds of possibilities for the unexpected—even on the best-planned trip. All the chances to read train and bus schedules, ride a ferry, stay in a motel or B&B, eat out, or have lots of picnics, offer opportunities to discover new parts of the world, of yourself, and of your grandchildren.
Involve your grandchild in planning the trip, and of course, involve his or her parents to be sure that they’re comfortable with the plans. Then hit the road! After you’ve traveled, an album of your experiences together can be an ongoing delight for everyone in the family.
How to be a better grandparent tip 3: Long-distance grandparenting
A large percentage of grandparents live more than 200 miles from their grandchildren. Children’s lives can change very quickly so long-distance grandparents sometimes struggle trying to keep up with the day-to-day details of their grandkids’ lives. Often, it just requires special efforts to communicate with your grandchild and establish the foundation for a strong long-term relationship.
When your grandchild is a baby, toddler, or very young child, engage the parents to keep up to date on your grandchild’s progress, his or her current interests, and the type of reading or viewing material that might be appropriate. When the child is old enough to interact, whether on the phone, via email, or through regular mail, start engaging the child directly.
Grandparents in the digital age
For the computer-savvy, the Internet can add a whole new dimension to long-distance grandparenting. Email, instant messaging, and video conferencing can all help to shrink the miles and keep you in touch with your grandchildren. Use the available technology to engage your grandchild in creative activities rather than simply asking, “How’s school?” For example, you can play online games with your grandchild, start an online book club or fantasy sports league with them, or share videos of you or your grandkids enjoying a favorite hobby. Try exchanging jokes or favorite family recipes via email, or have them scan or fax report cards or pictures they’ve drawn.
Other ways to stay connected
As well as the Internet, there are plenty of other ways to help long-distance grandparenting:
- Discount long-distance phone plans or inexpensive phone cards (even international ones) make it possible to say in touch regardless of the distance. Try calling at a regular time when your grandchild is not rushed and has time to talk. When talking to your grandchildren, make notes about their interests, books they’ve been reading, their doll’s name—anything you can repeat in the next conversation so they know you’ve been listening.
- Snail mail. Even before a child can read, he or she will be able to recognize their name on an envelope, and will love the feeling of importance implied by receiving mail.
- Audio or video recordings. You can record yourself reading a few of your favorite children’s books and send the recording along with the books, or make a tape of songs you would sing if you were together.
- Family scrapbooks. Kids love to hear stories about their family. If you can’t be with them to recount family stories first hand, try writing them down. Add photos or create a scrapbook (online or off). Encourage your grandkids to add their own memories and photos.
All of these small things communicate your interest and love. Whenever possible, though, try to be present for the most important events in your grandchild’s life, such as graduations, recitals, holidays, or whatever events are important to your family.
How to be a better grandparent tip 4: Full-time grandparenting
Divorce, death of parents, or a parent’s work or school-related responsibilities are just a few of the reasons some grandparents assume full- or part-time responsibility for their grandchildren. Often known as “kinship care,” a growing number of grandparents are taking on the parenting role of their grandchildren, thus foregoing the traditional grandparent/grandchild relationship. Grandparents who assume the role of parents often find themselves giving up leisure time, the option of traveling, and many other aspects of their independence. Instead, they take on responsibility for the day-to-day maintenance of a home, schedules, meals, homework, and play dates. In cases where tragedy required a grandparent to step into the role of parent, there are also many additional stress factors—grieving on the part of the children and the grandparents, for example—that need to be addressed.