On Grandparenting

On Grandparenting


Most likely, few of you readers of this column are grandparents. Most of you who have young children, however, probably have one or more parents of your own who play a role in your children’s lives. As a grandparent myself, I offer this column to encourage you to give some thought to the nature of the grandparenting relationship. Perhaps it will even encourage you to open up a conversation with your parents that will make the implicit explicit and will allow you to explore possibilities you have not previously considered.

There are many ways to be a grandparent. Some grandparents, retired from an active work life, turn to grandparenting as a major source of providing meaning to life in their later years. In empathy for the demanding schedules of their adult children’s lives, they may even volunteer to take responsibility for the care of their grandchildren for one, two or even five days a week and it is a win/win situation for all. Other grandparents find themselves ambivalent about this role. They want to be a help to their own children and to be a part of their grandchildren’s lives, but they want to have their own lives as well. Sometimes when they are taken for granted, they even feel a bit resentful.

At the other extreme is the “Auntie Mame” grandparent who lives her own life with relish and who serves as a model to the younger generations of how to live a meaningful life in adulthood and old age. I recall the fond memories of a friend of mine of huddling under the dining room table with his granduncle, T.S. Eliot, and being enchanted by his fantastic stories. Another man I know, shortly after retiring from the corporate world, began to pursue his lifelong dream of writing mystery stories. By using his ten-year-old granddaughter as a “consultant,” they soon became a team. They just published their first book of what is to become a series of the sleuthing of “The Kiera and Papa Detective Agency.”

When my youngest grandson was born four years ago, I gave serious thought to what I wanted my role to be and discussed it with my son and daughter-in-law. I realized I lean more toward the Auntie Mame end of the continuum, eager to share with him my excitement for outdoor adventures and appreciation of the natural world. I had my opportunity this summer when he stayed alone with me for a week. One day we outfitted my (very stable) canoe with a pirate flag and paddled together to an island in a small lake where we buried our treasure and had a pirate picnic. What fun for both of us!

Because children are naturally egocentric and parents are busy, it is easy for both the younger generations to take grandparents for granted and fail to take advantage of the unique gifts they can bring to the grandparenting relationship. One of the easiest and emptiest roles that a grandparent can fall into is being little more than the bearer of gifts. I remember how deflated and hurt I felt when my grandson ran up to me, obviously excited by my arrival, and his first words were “Where’s my present?” I’m still working on how to avoid that trap. I think the answer lies in bringing something that involves a special, unique interaction, not just a toy. When I visited my older grandchildren (10 and 13), I brought them each an inexpensive camera and planned a game where each day we would all take pictures on a particular theme and share them together at night. This proved sufficiently intriguing to my son and daughter-in-law that they joined in the game as well! A friend of mine recalls his grandmother always arriving for visits with rolls and rolls of scotch tape (a precious commodity when we were young). Together they would create all sorts of “beautiful stuff.”

If you are a grandparent, who do you want to be to your grandchildren? Do your children understand this? If you are a parent of young children, who do you think your parents want to be to your children? Do you respect this wish? Have you ever talked about this explicitly? Perhaps exploring this topic together could open up new possibilities that would enrich the lives of all three generations.

Carol Tolonen is a developmental psychologist and parenting coach. She is trained as a psychotherapist and as a spiritual counselor. She has 26 years experience teaching science and outdoor education to the children at Putnam Indian Field School.