While riding a bus recently, I overheard a conversation between two older women. They were discussing their grandchildren and complaining about being asked to “baby-sit.” “I just don’t want to be tied down that way,” said one. “I know what you mean,” replied the other, “and they don’t even want to pay you.”
In contrast to that conversation, I took my two grandchildren for an overnight stay in a motel last fall. The motel was located in an outlying suburb of our city, but we felt as if we were in another country. It was an adventure! The motel had an indoor swimming pool and we spent hours there. It was around the swimming pool that I noticed something. There were about five sets of children there with a grandparent accompanying each set! Their grandchildren didn’t burden these grandparents - they were having a great time.
In the past, grandparents were an integral part of the nuclear family and often lived with their children and grandchildren. Presently, however, families live miles apart, and grandparents often lead busy, independent lives. For many it would seem that grandchildren are not a high priority. On the other hand, I see grandparents and grandchildren everywhere: at the playground, at the beach, at children’s concerts, at art museums, at restaurants, taking craft classes, and even taking vacations together.
What Role Can Grandparents Play?
Most importantly, grandparents give unconditional love. Every child needs to hear that he is wonderful and that he will always be adored. Parents have to establish daily routines in order to keep the household running; grandparents can periodically liberate the children from their routines and instill a sense of excitement and adventure. Parents have to set limits, impose discipline, and exact consequences; grandparents should not undermine parents’ standards, but they can usually elicit acceptable behavior with a few hugs and kisses. Parents worry that their children won’t grow up to be responsible adults if things are not done correctly; grandparents see how their own children grew up and can relax, knowing that everything will turn out just as fine. Grandparents can pass on family legends, share photo albums, tell stories about what Mommy or Daddy did when they were little, and keep alive the memories of loved ones who have died. In addition, grandparents give parents a temporary break with their gifts of time, patience, and continuity.
The key to effective grandparenting lies, of course, with the children’s parents. If families are fighting old wars or holding grudges, there will be barriers to the grandparent-grandchild relationship. Sometimes these old battles dissolve when grandchildren come along, but often the grandchildren serve as weapons. The needs of the children should always come first, but grown-ups must also consider the needs and rights of each other. Without the approval of the parents, the grandparents cannot adequately form a relationship with their grandchildren, and without cooperation and consideration, everyone loses.
Since my own grandchildren were born, I’ve had them with me at least one afternoon a week and frequent weekend days. This is a joy and blessing unequaled by any other life experience. We’ve gone everywhere and done everything together. Words cannot describe the profound bond we have and hopefully, will maintain for life. If you are a grandparent, think about what you might be missing. Make that phone call, send that email, get on a plane, or simply walk down the street and give your grandkids a big hug!
Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers. For more information, visit her website at www.problemsolver.org. Reynolds is also the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach.