Building and Maintaining a Strong Relationship With Your Grandchild

The relationship between grandparent and grandchild is special and unique. For children, the attachment can be powerful and emotionally intense. For grandparents, the relationship allows you to relax and enjoy yourself as you provide love and nuturing to a child. Like many parents, you may have been so busy raising your child the first time around that you couldn't slow down and relish the experience. Now you have another chance to savor the rewards.

Grandparents have always had plenty of love and experience to share, yet over the years, the image of the stereotypical grandparent has changed. Rather than rocking in a chair on the porch, most grandparents are active - working, traveling, and pushing their dreams. Whether you live a continent away or within the same house, the following are some ideas for building and maintaining a strong relationship with your grandchild.

The Bond Between Grandparent And Grandchild

Psychologists have noted that the bond between grandparent and grandchild is a pure, emotionally uncomplicated form of love. Often this love is freer and more playful than the love parents feel for their children. Grandparents themselves say it best - they report that being a grandparent affords them the pride and pleasure of raising a child, without the burdens and worries.

For children, grandparents provide an emotional safety net. Children who grow up enjoying a strong relationship with their grandparents report feeling more emotionally secure than children who lack this bond. And these children demonstrate healthier attitudes towards older people, whom they've learned to love and respect firsthand. Teenagers and young adults often say that their one-on-one relationships with their grandparents helped shape them in significant ways.

Some child developement experts have suggested that unlike a parent, a grandparent can appreciate a child's good qualities without feeling responsible for his/her bad behavior or shortcomings. Through their love, grandparents can foster a sense of self-esteem in their grandchildren. In addition, grandparents offer the child an identity within the extended family and a place in history.

Shared Activites

When planning activities for your grandchild, it's best to keep it simple. You don't need to plan elaborate entertainment spectaculars; the time you spend with your grandchild is enough. Involve him/her in your own favorite activities; fishing, baking, stamp collecting, swimming, raking leaves, gardening, and reading are some perennial favorites. In particular, children enjoy learning from their grandparents. Teaching your grandchild to bake a pie or to grow tomatoes is rewarding for you both. Or try taking him/her to your workplace or where you volunteer to teach him/her about adult life and what you do.

You can even make a simple chore like a trip to the grocery store into an adventure. For instance, you might talk about where the products on the shelves are primarily eaten. Explain that tortillas are common in Mexico, spaghetti is a favorite in Italy, and Gouda cheese comes from Amsterdam. When you get home, you might locate these countries on a map together. In this way, an ordinary trip to the supermarket can be made appealing and even educational.

Young children (under age seven) in particular, enjoy repetition. If you always visit the zoo together, they will associate you with this entertaining outing. Here are some tips for making the most of your time with your grandchild:

  • Spend time one-on-one with each grandchild. Family gatherings can be hectic times. Try to make a date to spend time with each of your grandchildren individually.
  • Find a hobby to share. If you and your grandchild don't already share a common interest, choose one and make it your own. Collecting postcards or stamps, reading, and taking long walks are activities that most adults and children enjoy.
  • Travel together. Grandparents often have time to travel. If you have the resources, you might plan a trip with your grandchild.
  • Lend your grandchild an inexpensive camera. Encourage your grandchild to photograph your times together. You can both cherish the photos when you're apart.

Communicating With Your Grandchild

The time parents and children spend together is often hectic. As a grandparent, when you're with your grandchild you can usually slow down and focus on each other. Take this time to ask your grandchild questions about his/her life. Find out what s/he's learning at school, who his/her friends are, and what types of interest s/he is developing. Be sure to share information about your own life. Tell your grandchild about your job, volunteer work, travel, and friends; sometimes children are surprised to hear what active, busy people their grandparents are. Don't forget to talk about your past, too, telling stories about your childhood or the child's parent growing up. Above all, communicate your love for him/her.

Here are some ideas for communicating with your grandchild:

  • Accept your grandchild's feelings. Often, parents and grandparents try to smooth over painful emotions by saying, "That's nothing! You'll forget about it tomorrow." Take your grandchild's feelings seriously, even if you strongly suspect they'll be short-lived.
  • Try not to pressure your grandchild. Even saying "I wish that you could come stay with me" or "Why don't you write me more often?" might make your grandchild feel guilty or resentful that you want something that s/he has no control over giving.
  • Avoid being critical. Being a good listener is more valuable than lecturing a grandchild about how to behave, which is the parents' responsibility. Try not to compare children to their parents or to your other grandchildren.
  • Take you grandchild's concerns seriously. Listen carefully to what your grandchild is saying, and then respond to his/her questions or concerns.

Handing On Traditions

You don't have to be a famous inventor or the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court to have valuable lessons to pass on to your grandchildren. Tell stories about accomplishments of relatives, like the first family member to attend college or someone who lived through a particularly interesting chapter of history. Tales of achievement foster self-esteem by helping children to discover heroes within their own family.

For children, the past seems exotic. In fact, many children and teens find it unimaginable that people could exist without such everyday technology as televisions, micowaves, answering machines, and computers. Simply describing the house where you grew up and what things you had (and didn't have) may be interesting to your grandchild. Here are a few ways that you can pass on traditions to your grandchild:

  • Make a family tree together.
  • Share family stories, jokes, and recipes.
  • Create a family "museum," in which your child can look at old photos, jewelry, china, and other treasures.
  • Write a brief family history. You might invite your grandchild to illustrate it.
  • Tell stories about your child - your grandchild's mother or father - as a child.
  • Host a family "film" festival, in which you show home movies, videos, or slides from different branches of the family. Don't forget to popcorn!

Staying In Touch With Your Grandchild

Once upon a time, most family members lived in the same community, or at least in close proximity to one another. Today, families need to come up with new and imaginative ways to stay emotionally close, even when geographically far apart. It is important to start developing a relationship with far-flung grandchildren as soon as possible. Begin talking to your grandchild on the phone when s/he is only six months old, saying what you'd say if you were actually holding the infant. You might sing a lullaby, tell your grandchild who this is, or just say "I love you, dear."

Visits are a lifeline for long-distance grandparents. Like some grandparents, you may prefer having one child visit at a time. If you have several grandchildren visiting at once, you may feel divided and end up spending precious time refereeing among competing siblings. Remember to plan your grandchild's visits carefully, even though you should be flexible about modifying plans to suit everyone's moods. Discussing plans in advance is one way to create excitement about future visits.

Although these tips are designed for long-distance grandparents, they are excellent ways to strengthen your relationship with your grandchild, no matter where s/he lives:

  • Make a tape or video. Until children are nine or ten years old, they are not especially good at talking on the telephone. Send a tape or video of yourself delivering a message to your grandchild.
  • Write letters. Who says letter-writing is a dying art? It's still a vital connection for grandchildren and grandparents! Children rarely get mail and enjoy the thrill of seeing their own names on an envelope. Asking questions and enclosing a self addressed, stamped envelope are ways to encourage a written response.
  • Record yourself telling bedtime stories. You may want to ask your grandchild or his/her parent for some favorite stories, or you could just tape children's stories that you enjoy. This is one way of being present in your grandchild's life on a daily (or nightly) basis.
  • Give your grandchild a map. Be sure to mark both of your homes on the map. You might send your grandchild books and articles about your community to prepare him/her for future visits.
  • Send small gifts along with a message. Pipe cleaners, balloons, and flower seeds are educational and inexpensive gifts for children ages three to six. Most older children enjoy magic tricks, recipes, and colored pencils.
  • Write postcards. Send each child his/her own postcard with a simple, personal message. (pictures of animals, planes, and cartoons are generally big successes with children.)

To make your visits as memorable as possible, speak with your grandchild on the phone before you see each other face to face. Be sure to emphasize how happy you will be to see your grandchild once again.

Building and maintaining a relationship with your grandchild takes planning and foresight, but the rewards are so great that they are impossible to measure. Your closeness bridges the generation gap and enriches your grandchild's life, as well as your own.

Resources For Further Information

Isbister, Ruth.
Grandparents Don't Just Babysit.
Toronto, Ontario: Deneau Publishers, 1989

LeShan, Eda.
Grandparenting in a Changing World.
New York, NY: Newmarket Press, 1993.

Stoop, Jan and Betty Southard.
The Grandmother Book.
Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1993.

Wassermann, Selma.
The Long Distance Grandmother.
Point Roberts, WA: Hartley & Marks, 1988.

Kornhaber, Arthur with Sondra Forsyth.
Grandparent Power! New York, NY: Crown, 1994

For more information or a list of other Heritage Planning educational materials on helping your parents, contact:

Richard Smith or Roger Erickson
Professional Educators Benefits Company
Post Office Box 37102
Tallahassee, Florida 32315-7102

Telephone: Richard Smith: 850-385-2627, Roger Erickson: 850-385-5135
In Florida, outside Leon County call: 1-800-260-6573