Grandparents are more than just fun and games: your importance can’t be overstated. However, with the demise of the extended family, surrogates have taken over many traditional grandparenting activities. For example: fast-food often replaces home cooking; family therapists help with family problems; celebrities are heroes; television offers stereotypes of aging; and movies provide a sense of history. Unfortunately, these surrogates aren’t madly in love with the children as you are. Caring and active grandparents can do all of the above — and do them much better.
Typically, parents are the most powerful people in a child’s universe. One parent typically means playtime; the other parent means business. However, you are a far superior being: a parent’s boss. It helps for your grandchild to understand that grandma or grandpa was there first and that older people are individuals worthy of respect.
Respect works both ways: don’t forget to treat the children with respect. Acknowledge a child’s feelings whether or not those feelings are justified. A child cannot help what he feels and is therefore especially vulnerable. Once you let him know you understand he is angry or sad, you can address his behavior. In turn, he will learn to respect your feelings.
Children of all ages learn from you to respect the elderly, no matter how old you are. Don’t be insulted at being considered “old”: teach them that older people can be “with it” and wise at the same time. This is especially relevant for teenagers, whom adults rarely treat as important people. Be sure to let your teenaged grandchildren know you respect them. Relate to each as an individual. Soon you’ll have a real friendship.
Remember, your influence is overwhelming. You may think everything you say goes in one ear and out the other, but the strangest thing happens in the middle — your words are burned into memory! Consequently, be gentle. In regular discussions with the children, be careful that your influence is positive.
Following are some of the vital roles you can play in the lives of your grandchildren:
Who can protect those precious children from the cold, cruel world? You. Kids know they can count on Grandma or Grandpa. Protection can be as simple as insisting on a nap — you are actually protecting them from fatigue. Making your children feel safe can also be complicated, as when World War III erupts in their own home. Then, you can comfort them over the telephone, remove them temporarily from the situation, and give them emotional support.
When you are with your grandchildren, you protect them from strangers as well as hurt feelings. If they’re embarrassed to tell Daddy about the school-yard bully, you can take the matter into your own capable hands by talking it through with the child and discussing the situation with Daddy yourself.
You don’t need a degree in early childhood education to be a great teacher to your grandchild. Everything you do serves as an example of good conduct, starting with the basics. As a baby, your grandchild will copy the sound you make when you click your tongue. Try it! She’ll blow kisses after seeing you blow them to her. She’ll learn to talk by repeating your words.
Later on, things get a little more complicated. She will continue to learn by mimicking behavior — not just her parents’ actions, but yours as well. She will unconsciously begin to think along the same lines. Ethics and values, the most vital elements of a person’s behavior throughout their life, are learned early, and you are an excellent source for them. Be good!
You are also the best history teacher they’ll ever have. Children love stories. Tales of your experience in the real world teach them about that world in a direct, non-threatening manner. Your life is more glamorous than you might think, so describe it in terms of the big picture, adding details to make it personal and make history come alive for your grandchildren.
To a granddaughter, her grandmother is the prime example of what a mature woman should be. Although she gets the basics from her mother, that relationship is fraught with other concerns. At times she will be prone to rebel from being cast in her mother’s shadow. You are the archetype. Help her standards be high.
Have you ever heard the claim that the way a man treats his mother is a precursor of the way he’ll treat his wife? Let’s take this theory a little farther: if your grandson respects and values his grandmother, he is likely to do the same with other mature women. Your part is simply to be a good role model, so give him an example as reference. When you hear how he helped a woman pick up the groceries that fell out of her bag, give yourself a pat on the back.
Where did this term “caregiver” come from, anyway? Is it a politically correct combination of caretaker, nanny, helper, friend, housekeeper, babysitter, surrogate Mommy? Sum it up and it means Grandma! If you live close enough, you can be your family’s favorite caregiver.
Forget daycare, television, and babysitters: you are the real thing. If you are able to offer any time to your grandchildren, be assertive. Since your children consider babysitting a job (and justifiably so), they may not want to trouble you, even if you are willing to babysit.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.