Your duties as a grandparent are divided among your grandchildren, your children, and yourself. The most vital concern for all of you is safety. Classes in infant and child CPR and emergency first aid are available through your local Red Cross chapter as well as many hospitals and YMCAs. Libraries and video stores often rent tapes on child safety free of charge, as a public service. Once you have a "refresher course" on child safety, you'll be free to focus on the fun part: the relationships.
For your grandchildren …
Help them establish a sense of self.
Have you ever been at a cocktail party where the person next to you said, "Hi, nice party. So, what do you do?" Then, based on your answer, you watched the wheels turn in her head until something clicked and she decided whether you were worth talking to, or excused herself to put more dip on her cracker. Now, pretend you are five years old. A girl with a shovel comes over to you at the park and says she'll play with you if you can build a sand castle. That's a lot of pressure, isn't it? You want to play, but you're not quite sure if you can build a sand castle. Are you capable? Will you ever be capable? Your identity and self-esteem are at stake. This pressure is enough to dissuade you from ever trying to build one.
Let the children know you value them for who they are, not what they are capable of doing. Be proud of your grandson's batting average or school grades. But love him no matter what.
Offer them unconditional love.
This should be listed as an FDA nutritional requirement for children. Telling them you'll love them more if they clean up their mess on your carpet is called Performance-based Affection. It is called The Reward System. It is also called Bribery. Do they have to bribe you for your love? Do you bribe them to love you with toys and treats? No, those things are extra. Your grandchildren love you for just being you.
When a child seems the least lovable, that's the time when he needs your love most. Give him a hug. Be loving, in good times and bad. You can be a rock of emotional support in the stormy sea of childhood.
Be their comfort zone.
Hooray! Being a grandma or grandpa means no more endless battles with kids! Now the little ones can run from mean old mummy to you. You can be the softy. Not exactly good cop/bad cop, but an all-around comfort zone - an escape from the day-to-day realities of discipline and growing up.
One grandmother says whenever she hears babies crying, she wants to pick them up right away and comfort them. "Even at the market, I'm tempted to pick up strangers' babies when they cry and the parents don't respond. I used to be tough. Now I'm a cream puff." Of course, one of the advantages to being a grandmother is that you don't have to listen to babies crying all the time.
As long as you are not interfering or undermining the parents' discipline, feel free to comfort your grandchildren.
Give them validation.
You can give the Grandparents' Stamp of Approval to everything good your grandchild does. Everyday battles over putting toys away can evolve into proud accomplishments when you validate the behaviour. Pleasing you is special. With you to brag to, those tough tasks will not seem so hard after all.
Exercise tolerance with them.
When you've seen it all before, it takes a lot to raise your eyebrows. Your grandson's imaginary dinosaur isn't so alarming when you think back to your daughter's invisible friend, which probably once concerned you the same way your grandson's behaviour concerns your daughter now. Offer this tolerance to your grandson, and your daughter will be able to relax as well. Many disturbing trends crop up throughout the different stages of growing up. Your grandchild will benefit from your relaxed attitude. After all, if you don't make a big deal out of your grandchild's eccentricity, it most likely won't last long enough to be harmful.
Heard the old adage that the strictest parents were the wildest ones in their youth? Here is your chance to savor your child's comeuppance. As a grandparent, you can just smile like the Cheshire cat, say nothing, and feel saintly. Tolerance is a learned behaviour - and a gift for others, as well.
Spend time together.
Oh, where do the hours go? Your children are rushing between work, family, and (if they're lucky) friends. The phone, the fax, the groceries, the jobs ... the only thing that doesn't stop is the clock. No wonder divorce is so prevalent - the couple rarely has time for intimacy. Most parents dream of leisurely picnics in the park with the kids. Didn't you? Now is your chance. Being a grandparent means you get to savor the time you have to hang out with your grandchildren. You can have real conversations about the cosmos and their place in it. The more you know them, the better you'll like them. Your grandchildren will appreciate your time and attention, and you all the more. Sounds clichéd, but then, where do clichés come from? The truth. Give the gift of time.
For your children …
Provide them with emotional support.
Good parenting is a difficult task. Just as children need parents for support, the parents also need someone to turn to. Who can we call when the baby cries all night? Who can we confer with when it is time to discuss the birds and the bees and birth control? On the other hand, who will rejoice with us when the baby sleeps through the night? Or when the teenager turns down a drink and tells you about it? Who will understand - and care? Encourage your children to turn to you, in good times and bad. They need you.
Give them advice … with care.
You have already experienced parenthood, so you are the best one to give advice. This does not mean your children must follow your advice. It does, however, empower them to cite your opinion to their children. Never contradict or insult the parents in front of your grandchildren. The conflict will only confuse and hurt the little ones, who automatically believe what you say. After all, if you taught mummy or Daddy everything they know, you must be a genius! Never abuse this authority.
Be their pressure valve.
When your children are on overload, you can be a lifesaver. When the laundry is piled high, bills are stacking up, and dinner is boiling over, you can pick up the fussy infant, offer a toy to the whiny toddler, and lovingly tease the sarcastic teenager. You can take them all outside for a bubble-blowing contest or a short hike. Their parents may need to deal with just one child for a few minutes. They may need to get dinner on the table. They may just need some time to relax. Never fear … Grandma or Grandpa is here to save the day!
If you are far away, you can be just as much help as a sounding board. If possible, get an answering machine with a speaker phone built in. This way, whenever your daughter or your son needs to let off some steam, they can vent to you while you continue doing what you want or need to get done. Either help them put things in perspective, or get them thinking about something completely different. You don't need to be a professional to help your children; being a caring grandparent is enough.
Help them catch up on the most precious commodity: sleep!
For parents of young children, spending the weekend with grandma and grandpa means sleeping late (eight o'clock, at least!). You don't always have to take the early shift, feeding and dressing the children, but when you do, the parents will be incredibly grateful for the rest of the day. Meanwhile, you'll start your day with the people who most adore you. Most children are a
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.