How to be a Super-Grandparent
If “all the world’s a stage,” then many would agree that among the very best roles to play is that of grandma or grandpa. Grandparents get to show up - ideally quite regularly - to offer unconditional love, patient focus and firsthand life lessons (often when those things are most needed).
In a world where both parents may be working, having a trusted caregiver, role model and source of warm attention can prove incredibly valuable to families with kids of all ages.
Of course, many of us relish the opportunity to be grandparents. We quickly lean into the role, making it look easy to emulate, say, Peter Falk’s character in The Princess Bride, Grandpa Joe in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Esther Walton in The Waltons. Others may need some guidance to transition into their best grandparenting selves.
Regardless of whether you’re a natural, you and your grandchildren can potentially have a lot more fun and build stronger bonds together if you take some simple steps to “raise your grandparent game” and become more fully engaged in this truly special part of your life.
The Emotional Core
Start with the foundation—building a great emotional relationship with your grandchild. Consider three things you can (and probably always should) be doing for your grandchild:
- Listen actively, with full attention
- Love unconditionally
- Be completely supportive
People don’t always remember what someone said or did to them, but they do always remember how someone made them feel. If your grandkids feel completely comfortable, accepted and validated around you, they will also feel happy and safe - and will naturally orient from that perspective.
So strive to always unconditionally love, place full patient attention on and enthusiastically support them - especially when they are young and most need this kind of support. As a grandparent, you’ll often be in the best possible position to give your grandchild just what they need, just when they need it - in part because your relationship with your grandkids probably doesn’t come with the “baggage” that naturally occurs between parents and children. When you give your full attention, unconditional love and heartfelt support, the core of your relationship with your grandchild will most likely be strong, warm and lifelong.
Remember, though, that being completely supportive doesn’t mean allowing the grandkids to break agreements, do dangerous or harmful things, and so on. As always, common sense comes first.
Tap Into Your Own "Kid" Spirit
Let’s turn to the really good stuff - having fun together. Whenever you and your grandchildren are laughing or smiling, you know you’ve hit the jackpot! With fun regularly part of the picture, both you and your grandkids will look forward to spending time together. Particularly when they’re young, you can create some truly magical and memorable times, especially if you can tune in to how to have fun together.
One great way to do that is to take a walk down memory lane (real or imagined) and then go forward from there. Start by remembering how you felt when you were a kid, focusing on what you enjoyed most at your grandchild’s age. If you have particular memories of having fun with your own grandparent(s), start with those experiences. That said, you don’t have to come up with all the fun ideas and control every situation. Let the kids choose the adventure. If you can engage deeply with their activities, you’ll likely build strong bridges.
Conversely, if you have a hard time remembering how you had fun as a child - what you loved doing and really looked forward to, and how it felt to be doing it - you can still tap into what popular psychology dubs your “inner child.” Focus on what your best possible childhood might have felt like. Let your imagination soak in the fun, play and wonder of being a child. Then, from that place, plan your future time and activities with your grandchild.
Being Together (In Person or Online)
If you live near your grandchild and can regularly visit, make sure to do so as often as possible. Here are some activities that the grandparents we asked commonly enjoy with their grandkids:
- Go to the zoo or aquarium, and keep an eye out for big bird rescue operations that allow hands-on contact
- Visit museums, both child-focused ones and natural history and art museums
- Go on a walk or take a bike ride together
- Go to an amusement park
- Spend time on the seashore or at a lake
- Start a collection together: rocks, seashells, comics, bird feathers, etc.
- Take them to see the sunrise or sunset from a special location
- Sing songs together, including old-time classics as well as songs from cartoons or shows they’re familiar with
- Read together, or watch TV and other video media together
- Do a jigsaw puzzle together
- Create a small garden together
Don’t live nearby? That’s become increasingly common. Of course, there are still many things you can do together. The tech apps, services, and infrastructure that arose during the pandemic have spurred many options, and some of these don’t even require a computer:
- Plan creative phone calls. Schedule ongoing phone calls together. Young children can’t stay focused for long, so be prepared with things like age-appropriate jokes, riddles, nursery rhymes, stories (especially from your own life, when you were their age), limericks, fun facts and tongue twisters (e.g., “Mimicking him hiccupping, while welcoming him in.”) If your grandchild is into a particular fantasy world or type of toy, study up and find a way to engage around it.
- Become pen pals. Even in a digital world, it seems everyone likes getting postcards and letters in the mail. Jokes and riddles work well here too, and kids absolutely love getting stickers. Or just send a handwritten note or a sketch with some words of love and support. When they’re old enough, have them draw or write something to be mailed to you.
- Use video chat technology. Nearly all modern smartphones and computers can do some form of video chat through Zoom, Facebook, Google, etc. Video chat is everywhere, and pretty soon virtual reality chat will be here, offering a real sense of being in the same room as another person. (Pro tip: Kids and even teens love the apps that will change your face into a cat face or other animal while you’re chatting.)
- Play “hot-and-cold.” Mail a small gift or treasured keepsake from your life, and have a parent hide it somewhere in their house. Then play hot-and-cold with them until they find it, ideally using video chat (but a regular phone works just as well if you know the layout of the house).
Teaching Good Values and Financial Smarts
As a grandparent, you may be in an ideal position to impart positive values to your heirs in a number of areas. For example, if you’re retired or working only part time, consider using some of your free time to get involved with your grandkids in a volunteer or charitable situation. As you surely remember from your own parenting days, kids see and hear everything - and will mimic what you do. Some ideas:
- Bring them to the grocery store and have them choose items that you’ll then donate to a local food pantry.
- Walk dogs together or read to cats together at a nearby animal shelter.
- Participate together in neighborhood cleanups (often organized by land trust groups).
Managing money and finances is one area where lots of grandparents have learned some hard-won lessons worth passing on. The “best” ways to demonstrate and teach financial savvy will depend greatly on the age and maturity level of your grandkids, of course. But some examples that can start (and keep) the ball rolling include:
- When they are very young, get them a piggy bank to help teach them the value of saving. If you had one as a kid, you probably remember how much fun it was to put those first coins in and hear them clink, and then one day take out the stopper (or maybe actually have to crack it open!) and see how much money you saved.
- For elementary school-aged grandkids, you can get them a framed share of stock to help introduce them to the idea of investing and the power of compound growth.
- When they’re teenagers, if you’re in a position to do so, you can offer them some kind of regular part-time work and pay them appropriately.
If you make the most of being a grandparent, three clear winners will emerge: you, your grandchild (or grandchildren), and their parents. To help boost the probability of this triple-win, keep two key points in mind:
- Take care of yourself first. Being a super-grandparent doesn’t mean overextending yourself physically, emotionally or energetically, and probably won’t include working through the kind of physical or behavioral problems that only parents can really address. As every flight attendant says, “Put your own mask on first” so you’re in a position to help your loved ones. However you structure your relationship with your grandchild and their parents, make sure it works reasonably well for you, is within your limits and simply feels right.
Communicate and gain buy-in from the parents. Unless you serve as the grandchild’s primary guardian, consult with the parents about your super-grandparenting ideas. It’s up to them, not you, to make any and all important decisions on behalf of the child. Moreover, unless it’s a matter of life and death, try to resist judging or disagreeing with the parent - that is, stop yourself from telling your own child how to raise his or her child. In the case of grandparents advising their children, less is more… usually much more.
As a grandparent, you have an extraordinary opportunity to see the world through new eyes, impart values that will serve your grandkids throughout their entire lives, build family connections from the past to the present… and have a darn good time doing all of this along the way!