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Being a Great Grandparent - Part 1

Updated on October 19, 2012

Four Tips on Relating to Your Grandchildren

There's something about grandchildren. To begin with, that term includes the word "grand," and they really are. Lots of jokes have been made about having grandchildren and being a "grandparent," including the usual one - that it's nice to have grandchildren because when they visit you, they always have to go home again.

But actually there are real perks to being a grandparent, and some solid bits of advice that go into being a really good grandparent. I studied with a pair of counselors for three years, who among other things, developed a whole course titled Grandparent Wisdom. I won't try to squeeze in here all that their approach teaches, but let's look at just a few hints on being better grandparents.

First, you don't have the same kind of role as a grandparent that you did as a parent. For one thing, you really don't see your grandchildren 24/7 like you did your own children. That's an advantage, because it means your time with them is golden. For instance, we have six grandchildren. Two of them live close to us half of each year, so we see them often. Another two are in different states further away, either a five-hour drive or a three-day trip (or long flight), and the last two live in Switzerland/Germany full-time. Even so, we make every minute with them count - whether that includes going for walks, speaking English with them (and learning a little German or Czech in the process), playing games or watching TV in their languages.

Here's how to capitalize on time with your grandchildren by doing a few basic things.

#1 - Listen to them. All children love to learn things and they ask lots of questions. So the first task of grand-parenting is to listen, really listen to them. It's amazing what they'll come up with, and not many adults spend a lot of time actually listening to children ("seen and not heard" - remember that?).

#2 - Share what you know. Whether you're 40 or 60 or 80, you have a wealth of life experience at your disposal. So, when the time is right and the opening is there, share a little of what life has taught you: not by monopolizing the conversation, but by selective bits of information that are on target, that relate to a child's question or concern. The other day, one of our grandsons (age 9) was here and I helped him with reading and homework. He happened to mention rock-climbing and asked if I'd ever done it. I said 'no,' but that I'd watched others do it. Then I asked him to come upstairs with me to my computer, and I showed him a picture of a high school building in Germany that has a three-and-a-half storey rock-climbing wall on the outside of the building. He said, "That's in Germany?" and I told him it was, and he asked, "Do you speak German?" and I said, "ein bishchen" (a little). He said, "Could you teach me to speak some German?" I told him his uncle in Germany would be the best teacher, but that I'd share what I know. Later, during supper, I taught him some basic words that sound a lot like their English equivalents - words like "salz" and "pfeffer" and "milch."

#3 - Be brief. Lectures aren't helpful. Quick comments, like darts tossed at a dartboard, are a lot more effective. Use words with the technique and skill behind a surgeon's scalpel, not a meat cleaver! Once, as a young student, my wife needed to collect and label leaves for a science project at school, but forgot all about it until was time for bed. When she remembered and told her dad, he didn't rant and rave, even though it was raining. They got their coats and a flashlight and went outdoors to collect samples. Later, after the leaves were identified and drying and she was ready for bed, her dad's only comment was: "Next time I think it might be wise to start a little earlier."

#4 - Be positive. Children get negative messages all the time ("Don't touch that . . . how many times have I told you? . . . if you do that one more time, I'll . . . ") How about finding that small spark of something good in a grandchild and encouraging that aspect (it's like blowing on an ember in the fireplace to start it blazing again. One favorite comment we use often with children is this one: "Is it fun being smart?" (That's a presupposition, by the way; read all about them in future articles by me on grandparenting). It worked wonders in the Smithsonian once, when a father was impatient and kept urging his son to move on, but the boy wanted to stop and read every single placard. All it took (when the dad was out of ear-shot) was to ask that boy: "Is it fun being smart?" When he looked up, smiled and nodded, our next comment was: "You'll be curious and a good learner the rest of your life." He literally beamed with pride and kept soaking up every bit of information he could.

There are countless ways to influence grandchildren (and all children) for the better. Work on these four now, and watch for more articles later on that will add to your skills at being the best grandparent you can be.

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