How to Be a Better Grandparent
Tips on Building Great Relationships with your GrandkidsAs 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.
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.
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.
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.
Making the most of your grandparenting time
- Carve out one-on-one time. On occasion, spend time with individual grandchildren. It will give you an opportunity to bond, without competition, with one grandchild at a time.
- See the sights. Concerts and plays, movies, science centers and museums, parks or walks in the neighborhood provide opportunities to be together and to exchange ideas and opinions.
- Play games. Board and card games are a unique opportunity to watch kids in action and to see how they operate in the world. Games also allow you to help your grandchild learn to be a good sport and play fairly.
- Communicate family history. Tell stories about games or trips you shared when the grandchild's parents were young. This is a great way to weave a 'tapestry' of shared experiences for the whole family.
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.
When grandparents travel with grandchildren:
- Don’t take all the grandkids at once. Most grandparents do best handling one grandchild each. If you are part of a couple, that means taking two grandchildren. If you’re a single grandparent, maybe take each grandchild out separately or ask a friend to help you.
- Look for a destination with built-in babysitting. If you think you might need a break from looking after your grandkids, pick a hotel or resort with babysitting facilities or group activities for kids.
- Consult the specialists. If you’re unsure how best to plan a trip with your grandchildren, there are a number of specialist organizations that offer packages and tours designed for grandparents and grandchildren.
- Brainstorm day trip ideas. Even when traveling away from home, you’ll need to come up with ideas to keep kids occupied. Most children love visiting aquariums, science museums, water parks, theme parks, and special holiday events.
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.
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.
Raising your grandchildren, while challenging, can also be incredibly rewarding. Grandparents in this position experience much greater connection to their grandkid’s world, including school and leisure activities. They often find themselves rolling back the years, rejuvenated by the constant companionship of much younger people. They also derive immense satisfaction providing their grandchildren with a safe, nurturing, and structured home environment in which to grow and feel loved.
When grandparents raise grandchildren:
- Keep up your own health. Get regular checkups and follow your doctor's advice. Try to get an adequate amount of sleep and do not skip meals.
- Walk or exercise three times a week for 30 minutes or more to reduce stress and promote well-being.
- Insist on a regular quiet hour. Children can take naps or have a quiet time in their rooms. Teens can listen to their music through earphones. Learn to relax during this time.
- Take time for yourself. Look for events where grandchildren can enjoy time apart from you. There might be story hours at the library, or activities at the Boys and Girls Clubs.
- Do something you enjoy. Participate regularly in at least one hobby or activity.
- Talk out your problems with understanding friends or other grandparents. Or join a support group.
- Set limits with your grandchildren and stick to them.
- Let yourself off the hook. Your adult child's circumstances are not your fault.
- Focus on the positive and keep your sense of humor.
- Avoid isolation. Make an effort to maintain friendships, even if it is only by telephone for now.
- Since you probably have not had to "parent" for a while, you may find it useful to look into parenting classes to learn new methods for helping children develop self-esteem, confidence, and responsibility.
Source: Parenthood in America
Some circumstances make it necessary for grandparents to seek legal help. If there's been a divorce, death of one parent, estrangement, or the suspicion that your grandchildren are being neglected or abused you may want to consult a lawyer or advocacy group to ensure access to your grandchildren. Two issues arise with regard to grandparenting: custody and visitation. In either event, the goal is to maintain the children's connection to a family beyond the nuclear family. See Resources and References section below for help investigating your rights.
Have you married another grandparent? Have your kids become stepparents? Step-grandparenting has grown as a family phenomenon because of the growing number of blended families.
As with all aspects of blended families, step-grandparenting can present awkward moments and create complex relationships—especially if there are already other grandparents in the picture. Children might feel the need to be loyal to the original grandparents and conflicted about giving and receiving affection in the new relationship. With patience, understanding, and open communication, though, a step-grandparent can become an important part of a blended family, and a new friend for a child to love.
Help for step-grandparents:
- Learn all you can about blended families and understand stepfamily problems.
- Get to know each stepchild as an individual.
- Give everybody time to adjust to the new blended family.
- Be patient, supportive, loving, caring, and non-competitive.
- Reserve a special place for your step-grandchild's things at your home.
- Don’t expect to love your step-grandchildren instantly. Affection takes time.
- Even if you don’t like your step-grandchildren, at least treat them with respect.
- Family customs differ from family to family, so be flexible in your grandparent behavior.
- Talk over problems with a close friend, therapist, or support group.
More help for grandparents
- Grandparents Raising Grandchildren: The Rewards and Challenges of Parenting the Second Time Around
- Why Should Adults Make Time for Play? How Play Benefits Your Health, Work, and Family Relationships
- Staying Healthy as You Age: How to Feel Young and Live Life to the Fullest
- Exercise and Fitness as You Age: Exercise Plans to Get Fit and Stay Fit as You Age
Resources and references
General grandparenting information
A Grandparents' Guide for Family Nurturing and Safety (PDF) – Tips for strengthening your bond between grandchildren and grown children. Also provides tips on putting safety first during together time. Includes a safety checklist for each developmental stage. (Bureau of Consumer Protection)
Grandparenting – A collection of articles on a variety of grandparenting topics ranging from childcare to staying connected, to traveling with kids. (Wholefamily.com)
Long distance grandparenting
Long distance Grandparenting: The Foundation for Grandparenting – Provides an extensive birth to college blueprint for being a long distance grandparent. (ChildBirthSolutions.com)
Entertaining the Young Ones – A couple who entertains their 12 plus grandchildren every summer in a “summer camp” fashion inspires a list of tips for how to make any home (big or small) a fun and welcome place for grandchildren to visit. (New York Times)
Over the River and Through The Woods: Long distance grandparenting – Motivating article about making the most of grandparenting from far away. Provides tips for bonding activities and keeping communication open through difficult circumstances such as divorce. (Psychology Today)
Grandparent's Web – Provides ideas for activities for home and away, links to book and movie reviews, and a wide range of articles on grandparenting topics. Topics include Gardening with grandkids, Entertaining Grandkids, and Things for Kids to Do. (Cyberparents.com)
20 Activities for Grandparents – An easy-to-read list of creative and fun ideas. Includes projects, games, and crafts designed to show love and strengthen bonds. (Fambooks.com)
Yoga with the Grandkids – When you and your grandchild share a yoga mat, you can reap the rewards of exercises and have a lot of fun. Provides a step-by-step guide to 4 beginning poses. (AARP)
Grandparents traveling with grandkids
5 Vacation Mistakes Grandparents Make – Avoid these common pitfalls to have the best travel-experience possible with your grandkids. (AARP)
Being a full-time grandparent
Finding Help to Raise a Grandchild - Overview on how to address the most common issues of full-time grandparenting, such as legal status, housing, and financing, and where to find help. (AARP)
Connecting the Bridges: Grandparenting Grandchildren– Discusses the challenges and benefits of raising grandchildren. (Parenthood In America Conference)
Being a step-grandparent
Step-grandparenting– Discusses the challenges and joys of being a step-grandparent and provides tips for learning to grandparent in a blended family. (Grandtimes.com)
Step-grandparenting: Like Grandparenting Only Different – Addresses the elements of being a grandparent in a blended family and offers advice and support for step-grandparents. (Let Life In)
Step-Grandparents – Discusses one couple’s journey as step-grandparents. Lists tips for couples who find themselves in the role of step-grandparent. (Stepping Stones Counseling Center)
Grandparenting Rights Organization – Offers information to educate and support grandparents and grandchildren on their rights to maintain a relationship. (Grandparenting Rights Organization)
Grandparent Visitation Rights – Provides information on grandparents' visitation rights including links to a state law visitation chart and a legal services network for AARP members. (AARP)
Expert Advice – An archive of articles dedicated to the topic of grandparents’ rights. Includes a guide to legal resources for grandparents to get started, a discussion of grandparents’ rights in Canada, and a guide to taking over as primary caretaker. (Grandparents.com)
Grandparent and Caretaker Visitation Rights – Learn how child visitation laws affect grandparents’, stepparents’, and caretakers’ visitation rights. (NOLO)