What will your grandchildren remember when they grow up? What toys? What places? What events? What will they think of when they hear the word “grandmother” or “grandfather”? Who was there when their parents were not? Who shared their secrets and dreams? What did they learn from you? What image of old age will guide them in later years? What kind of grandparents will they be?
In the U.S. today, the vast majority of grandparents have intermittent relationships with their grandchildren. You’ve heard the debate over quality time versus quantity time in regard to career women? With grandparents there is nothing to argue about: a good relationship with grandchildren is determined by the time you spend together. Whether it’s weekly play dates or occasional visits backed up by telephone contact, the key word is “together.”
You can have the best of both worlds. You don’t have to stay in the background. In fact, parents need you now! In this stressful world, providing even such bare necessities as financial security and role modeling can be an overwhelming task for parents. Your greatest purpose is to offer wisdom and love.
A family has more in common than allergies and skin tone, more than attitudes and habits: it has a shared history, one affected as much by outside influences as by heredity. What places, people, and politics shaped you? Many cultures keep their history alive by telling stories around the campfire. Storytelling is not only a way to create legends and tall tales. It is also a way to bequeath your grandchildren a past that will send them confidently into the future.
Children love to hear stories about your childhood. Identifying with you as a child will help them feel especially close to you. Tell them everything you can remember about your family and relatives. Photographs help a child to visualize your life. They also help to jog your memory and fill in wonderful details. In this transient world, to give children a sense of belonging is very important. A working knowledge of where they came from will help to create a healthy understanding of who they are.
Think of your brain as an Encyclopedia of Special Knowledge. Share all the insightful anecdotes and fascinating facts in your head with your children and your grandchildren. Record your memories with a tape recorder, then pull out the “record” tab on the tape so it cannot be erased. Teach the children about their flesh and blood ancestors and about the places that influenced them — and about you. This personal history is worth more than gold. It is all yours to give them.
Amaze your grandchildren with the wonders of progress. Tell them how you cooked popcorn without a microwave and watched movies without a VCR and watched a black-and-white television. This will make them appreciate modern life. Then, help them imagine running free in a daffodil-covered field, walking down the street after dark, and leaving the house without locking the door. This will help them appreciate “olden” days.
Do you remember what you shared with your grandma or grandpa? Can you share it with your grandchild? The most important tradition to uphold is that of being a loving grandparent. Chances are, if your grandma was a good example of a grandma, it’s likely her grandma’s grandma was also a “good” grandma, and hers before that. Continue the tradition in your family, or start a new tradition with you.
Traditions can be quite simple and still have a strong emotional effect. Almost anything becomes special when it is a family tradition. Visiting Santa, getting a puppy for a birthday present, passing down an antique bracelet, getting a watch at graduation, even teaching a child to bowl can set off a pattern that is more beautiful to behold from a distance. Continue a family tradition, or create a new one.
Did you ever keep a diary? Do you have any letters from friends that are so special you plan to keep them forever? How many times have you moved and discovered an old box full of treasures from days gone by? Each of these is a personal connection to your past. The understanding you get reading about a difficult period of your life; the giggles that erupt at the sight of your first drawings; the warm glow in your heart as you read your friend’s caring message ... these are all invaluable parts of your life. How about making a personal connection with your grandchild? Put together a box of special things you’d like to pass along, things from your life that will create a powerful connection to you years from now. Each item will teach your grandchild about you and, in turn, about himself; they’ll become symbols of the past, but will also be part of the present for your grandchild.
Write a letter to your grandchildren. Even if you see them every week, you can pen an intimate note for each of them to peruse long after your visits are over. Explain what they mean to you, how you understand them now, and how you envision them to be in the future. Give them your innermost thoughts to savor, to cherish always. Such a letter will be more than a souvenir; it will be a part of their existence. Make that connection.
Open the attic to your grandchildren. That old chest full of treasure holds just as much magic for your grandchildren as it does for you. You can explain to the children how you found that lucky rabbit’s foot. Show them the locket your first boyfriend gave you; let them play dress-up with your old varsity jacket. If your grandchild seems particularly attached to your faded horseback riding ribbon, give it to him outright as a keepsake or put it aside for a special gift later.
Let the children into your life through sharing things that were a part of it. Be a part of their lives by collecting items that are meaningful to all of you and designating them as your time capsule. A squirt gun that won’t be missed, a baby tooth, a souvenir program, and a calendar page saved in a shoe box will bring laughs and happy memories a few years from now. Perhaps you’d like to use a coffee can as a time capsule and bury it in the yard. You could create a big event by agreeing on a special date to open the time capsule. Memorabilia is not junk: it’s history you can touch!
Most of our earliest memories are emotional ones, whether positive or negative. Memories of a grandparent will naturally be emotional, as well. Be conscious of creating happy memories for your grandchildren not only to remember you by, but also to use as fodder for their own grandparenting styles. Memories of you will make your grandchildren feel loved ... and they will naturally feel love for you.
You can give your grandchildren a sense of continuity by reminiscing about the past and dreaming about the future. Remind them that someday, if they are very lucky, they will be grandparents, too.
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.