Need to know
For most of us who have children, it is highly likely that the day will come when a grandchild arrives. I well remember when my first newborn granddaughter was put into my arms and I felt my heart turn over. When it does happen, you might feel unready for grandparenthood; you might have been longing for the day to come; or you might have some inbetween or complicated feelings. However, it is almost guaranteed that you will feel an atavistic urge to connect deeply with this new person and with your new generational role.
Grandparents have an important role
Anthropologists and evolutionary theorists who have studied family relationships throughout history identify grandparents as playing an important part in helping parents ensure the physical survival of their children. While not a popular subject for research, studies of modern societies too show how the involvement of grandparents can help their grandchildren’s resilience and overall healthy development. Researchers at Melbourne University recently took a different approach and demonstrated the cognitive benefits to grandparents of minding a grandchild for one day per week. It seems that enhancing the grandchild-grandparent connection leads to gains on both sides.
Circumstances force some grandparents into being surrogate parents, and you who are such heroes will need more than this Guide to manage your dual roles. But even outside of such extremes, most of us grandparents have opportunities to forge a unique place in our grandchildren’s lives. This was easier to do when families were less likely to be scattered around the world, a situation that’s been exacerbated by COVID-19-related travel restrictions. If your grandchildren are far away, you will want to see them whenever possible, and I encourage you to follow this Guide as best you can, using both old-fashioned and modern means of communication.
Aim to be ‘good enough’
The British paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott conceived the concept of the ‘good enough mother’, and it can apply equally to grandparenting. Based on his descriptions, this mother was actually pretty damn good, especially in ways most important to her children’s psychological development but, crucially, she did not try to be perfect, and she did not agonise too much when she wasn’t. I always found comfort in telling myself that if the children were hugged, well-fed, relatively clean, and happily occupied, then a dusty shelf, toys on the floor or an unguarded word did not matter.
In the suggestions that follow, I draw on my own experiences as a grandmother, greatgrandmother and former school psychologist, as well as recent research. Remember, just as with your own children, your ways of connecting with grandchildren will alter as they grow and develop. What should remain constant is following the principles of being a ‘good enough’ grandparent.
What to do
This Guide aims to help grandparents establish and maintain a strong bond with their grandchildren. It is a very broad goal, and its achievement will require focusing on many different aspects of your relationships – usually several at the same time! Let us turn now to look at some of these aspects, or sub-goals, in turn. By naming, describing and exemplifying them, I hope to allow you to be clear about what you want to achieve, and to use what best fits your and your grandchildren’s lives.
Keep on good terms with your grandchildren’s parents
From the first contact with the new arrival in the family, it is vital to keep on the best possible terms with your grandchild’s parents (both your own child and their partner). The more the parents see you as being on their side, ready to help and unlikely to criticise, the better chance you have of keeping close to your grandchild. Praising this amazing baby/child/teenager will (mostly) be easy, but remember that praising her parents is equally important. Think back to yourself as a young mother or father: who made you feel confident, and what did they say? Specific praise is always the most effective, so something such as ‘Look at how she is sharing her berries, you’re doing a great job’ will work well.
There are three important things to acknowledge frequently in this context. Firstly, that each baby is unique – if you had more than one child yourself, you know that well. Secondly, that the world is now very different from your early parenting days. Thirdly, that parenting can be exhausting.
Your experience as a parent will, of course, mean that you have lots of excellent advice to give. Don’t. Unless directly asked for, advice is patronising and can be alienating. Instead, wait for a calm, propitious moment, and present your experience as a question or story, such as:
‘I wonder what would happen if you let him eat with his fingers for a bit longer?’
‘You had a tantrum phase when you were about two, I used to pop you down in a particular spot near the kitchen and say cheerfully: “Here’s your tantrum place. Off you go. Come and tell me when you’re finished.” It seemed a tantrum without an audience was not much fun.’
Also consider creating further distance by recalling stories from other families. The greater distance will reduce the likelihood of your observation being taken too personally or as criticism. Such as:
‘When Aunty Jennie was toilet-training her twins, she had a potty in every room.’
Providing help can also be a minefield. New parents are often vulnerable and can easily feel criticised if helping is not done with tact. So make offers of help with care and humility, such as:
‘Would you like me to fold this washing – I remember how it used to build up when you were little!’
‘Is there perhaps one thing you’d like me to do when I come?’
Finally, if you make a regrettable remark, apologise wholeheartedly.
Keep your extended family in touch with each other
Cousins, aunts and uncles are in a special place between the nuclear family and the rest of the world. In today’s small families, your grandchildren’s older cousins can be especially important as ‘just-ahead’ role-models, and their younger cousins can provide them with opportunities for practising caregiving. By making occasions for groups of your grandchildren to get together, you can enrich their shared memories of childhood.
Repeated family gatherings in one special place, with out-of-the-ordinary activities (fishing, fruit-picking, board games) make for especially vivid memories. My own family’s tradition of spartan holidays on a small island, barely off the coast of western Australia, has bequeathed me memories covering nearly 80 years, featuring my grandparents, parents, aunts, siblings and cousins, children and grandchildren.
Consider too, that a child who is different in interests and/or talents from his nuclear family could well make a helpful connection with an aunt, uncle or cousin. Two of my grandchildren who are cousins share a passion for rescued greyhounds that is inexplicable to their respective nuclear families.
Connect through books
Through the years, books can be one of the best continuing conduits to your grandchild. As well as singing lullabies and nursery rhymes, begin reading to him as soon as you can. Imprint into his memory the sound of a rhythmic voice and the rustle of a turning page. I thought reading with toddlers and young children would be the most satisfying, but then I remembered the ongoing pleasure of book discussions with my children as early readers, teenagers and adults. Read what your grandchildren are reading, ask what they think, talk briefly about what puzzled you, pleased you or annoyed you. Give them books that you or their parent enjoyed and enjoy the re-reading yourself.
If you are lucky enough to do school pickups, I’ve found that the journey is an ideal time for a book discussion. The rush and noise of the day is suspended temporarily, which offers the chance for reflection – and you never know where the conversation might lead. I once noticed that a teenage grandson was reading the novel The Goldfinch (2013) by Donna Tartt, which I had found hard-going. On a school run, I asked him his opinion of the book. He told me why he liked it, I told him that I’d struggled with the drug-taking it described, and we ended up talking about that issue at one remove.
Set your own rules
As children grow and their interaction with the world expands beyond their immediate family, they will be expected to adjust to different environments. Think of school, a concert, a job interview – all placing varied expectations on their behaviour. Your home might well be your grandchild’s first experience of this, providing them a valuable opportunity to practise meeting gradually different expectations. These lessons can last a lifetime. As a teenager, my eldest daughter often accompanied her recently widowed grandmother to cultural events. She says she is forever grateful that her grandmother taught her the basic etiquette around introductions: look the person in the eye and say ‘Hello [use the person’s name]. I’m pleased to meet you.’
So, don’t be afraid of setting some ‘old-fashioned’ house rules for your home, car or in your company. If you’re worried this might threaten the bond with your grandchildren, take courage from the Australian author Helen Garner. In her essay for the collection Grandmothers (2021), she describes locking her two young grandsons out on her back verandah (after dark!) as punishment for some forbidden behaviour at her dinner table. A little extreme perhaps, but do not worry, all ended well.
I share with Garner an expectation that ‘table manners’ should be respected when dining with my grandchildren, and I forbid electronic devices so that conversation can flow. Banning electronic devices in your car will similarly encourage those precious school pick-up conversations. Of course, set your own rules for making exceptions to device bans, according to the time or distance of the journey.
You might be tempted to bond with your grandchildren by adapting your own speech and behaviour to be more like theirs. However, I say use your own language and be yourself. Please don’t try to use current slang – by the time you have some idea of what it means, you will probably be out of date. But, more importantly, by being true to yourself, you can expand the vocabulary of your grandchildren and introduce them to new words and traditional sayings.
My maternal grandfather, an old-fashioned schoolmaster, quoted Shakespeare and sang Gilbert and Sullivan songs to children from a very young age. His grandchildren have all grown up with a love of one or both. Apparently, at the age of three, I could sing (with a flourishing bow) ‘I Am a Courtier Grave and Serious’ from their opera The Gondoliers (1889). To this day, any G&S song instantly brings my grandfather to my mind’s eye.
Being true to yourself does not mean being completely closed off from your grandchildren’s world. You need to keep up to date enough to retain some credibility. Unobtrusive listening when your grandchildren are talking to each other or with their friends can open little windows to their worlds.
Teach life skills
Think about what everyday, practical life skills your grandchildren will need when they are adults. Just about all children love cooking and gardening, so they are the best places to start. Of course, it takes longer and makes more mess to teach a child to make scones than to make them yourself, but such an undertaking will probably be easier for you than for a busy parent. Make your own list of basic life skills to pass on, but I recommend starting with sharp knives, drill and screwdriver, needle and scissors, and a hot stove. Work up to power tools in the kitchen, the garden and the shed. I always include the sewing machine.
Such activities won’t be easy to share in distant relationships, but creative grandparents will find ways. A grandmother I know shares a love of sewing with her granddaughter in another country. Together, they select a project – perhaps a small quilt – by exchanging patterns and pictures. Then they keep in touch as each completes their own version. In a recent letter to The Guardian, a grandfather described sending photos of denizens of a nearby pond to a faraway grandchild, and making a game of seeking identification.
Practise benign neglect
Benign neglect is one of my favourite terms. The point here is that children do not need to be continually organised, amused, educated or supplied with materials. I know that the time has long gone when a whole street’s children would be told to ‘Go outside and play. Come in when it gets dark.’ However, there are many places on the continuum between that extreme and the other extreme of over-organisation and constant supervision.
A child day-dreaming under a tree with a book nearby; two or three children developing a unique game with complicated rules using leaves, sticks and Grandpa’s ‘might come in handy’ tin or Granny’s button jar – these are beautiful things and so developmentally valuable. Importantly, parking a child in front of a TV or digital device does not count as ‘benign’ in my grandparenting lexicon.
Establish and maintain traditions
A family’s traditional activities, foods, celebrations and games enhance solidarity and feelings of belonging. Some Italian families love their gloriously messy ‘passata days’ where a year’s supply of tomato sauce is made. Their descriptions are tempting enough to borrow or to justify feigning some Italian heritage. In my family, production-line gatherings making fruit-mince pies and shortbread are essential lead-ups to Christmas. I have rolling pins in three different sizes. And our soundtrack is always Handel’s Messiah.
Decorating the Christmas tree is another favourite memory of my grandchildren. I did not notice for some years that they were keeping a written record, on the box, of which child last put the angel on top.
Traditions like these can be especially important when your cultural heritage is different from the surrounding one, helping your grandchildren to appreciate and connect with their roots. So, consider what traditions, activities, words or songs you can use to stimulate and enrich the lives of your grandchildren.
Family sayings are another way of bonding. A large family I know have the surname Dunn and are fond of saying warmly to each other ‘Well done, Dunn.’ Your family name may not so easily lend itself to a neat phrase, but you can look for opportunities to use modifications or symbols creatively.
Remember that, as a grandparent, you are the centrepiece of five generations, and the family stories you heard as a child will stretch even further back in time. This puts you in a unique place to tell stories about the past: stories about real people to whom you are all connected. My greatgrandmother was a member of the Temperance Union. My siblings and I loved to hear how she took our mother, as a young child, to sing to prisoners in Fremantle gaol in western Australia. My mother’s rendition of ‘Where is my wandering boy tonight?’ was said to bring hardened criminals to tears.
Give symbols of yourself
Whether your grandchildren are near or far, they will like to have something concrete to be reminded of you. I once heard an interview with an international musician who was asked if he had anything that he always put in his suitcase when going on tour. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘It’s one of those wooden spoons with a hole in the middle. It was my Granny’s.’ A grandfather I know gave a grandchild a chess set, after teaching him to play. They now play long-distance regularly.
If you have craft skills, don’t be afraid to use them for gifts. They might not be trendy, but something comforting, nostalgic, practical or triggering of family memories will find its own place. I will always get a warm glow from remembering a granddaughter, studying overseas, posting a photo labelled ‘A room is not a home without a quilt from Grandma.’ Many grandmothers I know have requests from grandchildren for their knitted beanies.
In these days of fleeting images, framed photos are often treasured more than you might think.
Key points – How to connect with your grandchildren
- Grandparents have an important role. Anthropological research shows that grandparents have played a vital role through history in supporting parents’ care for their children.
- Aim to be ‘good enough’. The paediatrician Donald Winnicott’s concept of the ‘good enough’ mother also applies to grandparenting – this means doing enough to support your grandchildren’s development without trying to be perfect.
- Keep on good terms with your grandchildren’s parents. Button your lip, count to 10 (at least), and think carefully before giving advice to your grandchildren’s parents.
- Keep your extended family in touch with each other. Your extended family of grandchildren, cousins, aunts and uncles will be a stronger entity when you establish and encourage traditions of activities, games and celebrations. Get them all together as regularly as you can.
- Connect through books. Reading to, and later with, your grandchildren provides rich opportunities for bonding.
- Set your own rules. Your home might be the first opportunity for your grandchildren to practise adapting to different social situations.
- Be yourself. Please don’t try to use current slang – by the time you have some idea of what it means, you will probably be out of date.
- Teach life skills. Grandparents often have more time and opportunity than parents to teach children basic skills of the kitchen, the garden, the shed and the table.
- Practise ‘benign neglect’. Children do not need to be continually organised, amused, educated or supplied with materials.
- Establish and maintain traditions. This can be especially important when your cultural heritage is different from the surrounding one, helping your grandchildren to appreciate and connect with their roots.
- Give symbols of yourself. Whether your grandchildren are near or far, they will like to have something concrete to be reminded of you.
So far, we have discussed important goals, and looked at examples of grandparent behaviour to see how these goals can be achieved in practice. Of course, in the real world, progress towards goals can meet challenges and road blocks. Let’s look at some of these.
When you are accused of being unfair
Just as with your own children, you might find that fairness is a fraught topic. The accusation could come from either generation and be about anything from slices of cake to the value of gifts or proposed inheritance. Pre-empting a problem is always better than having to deal with it.
There are three ways to ensure you’re being fair. Firstly, explore and value the individuality of each grandchild. Secondly, aim to be evenhanded with your time and resources. Thirdly, give a grandchild in need of extra input your best efforts. Then, most importantly, be open in doing this so that everyone knows where they stand. Secret deals encourage suspicion of unfairness.
Super-grandparents I know regularly take each grandchild in turn for a restaurant meal out. Good food is important to this family, and it’s an opportunity for the two generations to get to know each other better. Alternatives could be a fishing expedition, an overnight camping adventure or a musical experience.
Your grandchildren will greatly appreciate your presence in the audience or on the sidelines whenever they are performing. As you loyally turn up to anything from ballet to basketball, you might, as a bonus, expand your own appreciation of different activities. My husband and I always thought Bach’s unaccompanied Cello Suites were beyond us until our grandson played them.
If you are accused of unfairness, try not to be too defensive but encourage a full discussion. Give your explanation and reassurance, while listening to their hurt feelings and asking for their suggestions.
When your grandchild’s parents divorce
At any time of change, uncertainty and stress in your grandchildren’s lives, they will benefit from a calm, supportive and unchanging connection with you, their grandparent. When the stress is their parents’ divorce, this won’t be easy to maintain, as you are likely also distressed and might have strong opinions about the situation. You will probably need to talk to other adults about your feelings while giving your grandchildren both respite from the stress, and the opportunity to be heard.
In her book Annie Stories (1986), the clinical psychologist Doris Brett provides the best, easily accessible information I know about children and divorce. She describes the strong emotions they often feel, such as anger, guilt, sadness and fear, and suggests helpful responses. The approach that Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish outline in their series of bestselling books – such as How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk (3rd ed, 2012) – can also be very helpful.
With young grandchildren, I also recommend reading Kes Gray’s book Mum and Dad Glue (2009), illustrated by Lee Wildish. It takes a surprisingly successful, light-hearted approach to parents’ divorce, and provides much-needed reassurance. Reading this book – and there are many others like it – will validate a young child’s feelings, enable discussion, and tell them they are not alone.
In my work as a school psychologist, I often found that divorcing parents became so overwhelmed by marital problems (and/or new love) that they had little emotional energy available for their children. Recent research in Belgium has shown that a close relationship with a grandparent can buffer the impact that a parental divorce has on children as they grow up. As their world shakes around them, you can help by staying comfortingly the same.
When your behaviour is criticised
It might be a swear word, a cigarette when you’d supposedly given up, or a nasty comment, and you hear the young voice shout: ‘Grandma!’ Again, pre-emption is good thinking, so remember that anyone around children is always a model, and that ‘do as I say, not as I do’ never works. But, being human, making mistakes sometimes, owning up and apologising are also part of the modelling you do.
My favourite story about modelling is not about a grandparent, but it has influenced me in my grandparenting by reminding me of the lasting impressions our own behaviour can make. In primary school, my daughter had a best friend whose parents were known to be unhappy together. Decades later, at an unexpected meeting, my daughter’s friend said to her: ‘You know, your parents changed my life. I came into your house one day and they were having a little cuddle in the kitchen. I thought “things can be different” – it was a revelation.’ How poignant, and how instructive is that?
When you need to talk about death
As life takes its course and your grandchildren begin to see you as old, you will probably get the question ‘Are you going to die soon?’ They will also have other experiences leading to questions about death. Your answers will be influenced by your beliefs, and a discussion with the inbetween generation should ensure consistency. Many beautiful children’s books deal with death and dying, from pets to humans. I recommend reading with your grandchildren Bryan Mellonie’s book Beginnings and Endings with Lifetimes in Between (2nd ed, 2005), which is beautifully illustrated by Robert Ingpen. Equally beautiful is Britta Teckentrup’s picture book The Memory Tree by (2013), which tells the story of the peaceful death of a fox and how his friends remember him.
A terminally ill friend had an especially close relationship with a young grandson. She asked me for advice about how to talk to him and help him cope with his impending loss. I consulted some colleagues and friends. The best suggestion was to do things and look at things with him, and say something like: ‘You’ll be able to remember this when I’m not here anymore.’ This would firmly set some memories for the grandson, and give him a small feeling of control over the future.
It is comforting, for all of us, to know we will live on in the memories of others.
Links & books
This short video features the diverse perspectives of some of the 23 Australian grandmothers who contributed with genuine love and thought to the collection Grandmothers: Essays by 21st-Century Grandmothers (2020) edited by the literary critic Helen Elliott. The collection is prefaced with this beautiful Egyptian proverb: ‘The dearest child is the child of your child.’
In this episode of the Babytalk podcast from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the presenter Penny Johnston interviews the psychology researchers Cassandra Szoeke and Katherine Burn of the University of Melbourne on their findings, which show the cognitive benefits to grandmothers of caring for grandchildren one day per week – no more, no less for best results!
The book Garden Like a Nonno: The Italian Art of Growing Your Own Food (2021) by the Australian author Jaclyn Crupi is a rare tribute to grandfathers. It is a little gem of a book, even if the hero (a composite of the author’s two Italian grandfathers) is rough-cut.
The book The Child, the Family, and the Outside World (1964, reissued in 2021) by Donald Winnicott features his theories about mothering, which were revolutionary at the time, and still have much to say today. I am eternally grateful to him for the concept of the ‘good enough mother’.
The book Nanaville: Adventures in Grandparenting (2019) by the American novelist and journalist Anna Quindlen provides a frank, insightful and celebratory account of the author’s first experience of being a grandmother. She agrees with me that advice unasked for can be a minefield. There is much to enjoy and learn from her, although the grandfather doesn’t get much mention.
The book Books for Living: A Reader’s Guide to Life (2017) by the American author Will Schwalbe is a rich and heartfelt account of his lifelong love affair with books. Schwalbe mentions or discusses an astonishing 170-plus authors, with E B White’s Stuart Little (1945) his earliest and continuing influence. The introduction has a lovely little section on the grandparent-grandchild reading experience, and you will find many ideas for book discussions throughout this book.