This story is about grandparenting. It’s a compilation of strategies and examples of activities my husband Tony and I have found helpful in building strong loving relationships with our grandchildren. The examples cover what I call face-to-face and long-distant grandparenting.
If you are a parent or grandparent, our ideas and practical examples may be of interest to you. They are intended to enthuse and stimulate others seeking to build close and lasting relationships with their children or grandchildren. If you know someone who may find this post helpful, share it with them. At the end of the post, I have added a list of suggestions for further reading and research on this topic.
Tony and I are blessed to have three grandchildren. During our 10 years as grandparents, we have grown into the role and learnt much, in step with our grandchildren’s growth and development. We are not experts on this topic. We are still learning how to be good grandparents: It is a process, and ongoing.
What I am advocating here is purposeful grandparenting. Its goal is for a grandparent or grandparents to establish and maintain a strong loving relationship with each grandchild.
Grandchildren are the pride and joy of old age, and children take great pride in their parents.” Proverbs 17:6 [ERV]
The grandparent is responsible for initiating the process. As a process it will take time, require patience, longsuffering and much prayer. It will not happen overnight. It will take years, a lifetime of commitment. Like a good parent, a good grandparent will never give up on his or her protégé. The end result – mutual love and respect – will be worth all the effort.
I believe a number of important principles underpin purposeful grandparenting.
If you are a grandparent:
#1. Talk with your son or daughter (and their spouse) about their and your expectations of grandparenting. Clarify and agree on responsibilities and boundaries for your respective roles of parent and grandparent. You are not the parents of your grandchildren; they are. Be open and honest about expectations, and revisit this conversation, formally or informally, from time to time.
#2. Treat each grandchild equally. Aim to spend the same amount of time with and show the same level of interest in each one. Do not show favouritism.
#3. Spend time with your grandchildren. Spending money on them and showering them with expensive or frequent gifts is no substitute for spending quality time. The little things you make or do with them are often more appreciated and more memorable.
#4. Be yourself. Share your passions, skills and interests with your grandchildren. Tell them your story and the stories of your family. In turn, discover what they like, are interested in and are good at, and make these your points of connection.
You may be wondering: How can I put purposeful grandparenting into practice? What sort of things should I do?
The remainder of this post is devoted to strategies and examples of activities that Tony and I have found helpful as we’ve pursued our goal of building strong loving relationships with our three grandchildren. These strategies and examples cover what I call face-to-face grandparenting and long-distant grandparenting.
Face-to-face grandparenting is spending time with one’s grandchildren in person.
Some people live close to their grandchildren. Face-to-face grandparenting for them may be regular and often. These grandparents may play an important role in supporting their son or daughter and family in practical ways, by babysitting, helping with kindy, school, sport or music drop-offs or pick-ups, or having the grandchildren for the odd sleepover.
Others live far away from their grandchildren and spending time with them is infrequent and in bursts. This is the situation for Tony and me. Our experience of face-to-face grandparenting occurs when our grandchildren come to stay with us or we stay with them. It’s intense, “live-in” grandparenting.
Long-distance grandparenting occurs when grandparents and grandchildren live far apart.
In this situation, grandparents and grandchildren do not have the opportunity to see each other regularly or often. When families are separated by distance, both parties (parents and grandparents) have a part to play in fostering the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren. It’s a team effort and we depend on each other to make it work.
As grandparents, in whatever situation we find ourselves, we ought to make the most of the time and opportunities available to us. That’s why having a number of clear strategies is helpful.
Five strategies for purposeful face-to-face grandparenting:
- Establish and maintain rituals.
- Make your grandchildren feel special.
- Use games and fun activities to stimulate and teach.
- Have them help with cooking and jobs around the home.
- Go on outings together.
Four strategies for purposeful long-distance grandparenting:
- Maintain regular contact.
- Be creative and look for opportunities to connect.
- Plan for the next visit or shared holiday.
- Have grandchildren visit without their parents.
Strategy 1. Establish and maintain rituals.
Rituals, in this context, are actions or activities repeated every time you meet, which your grandchildren will come to expect and look forward to. Rituals can be simple or little things we do, or more intentional, well-planned activities.
Here’s an example of a simple ritual.
Every time our grandchildren come to visit, Tony (Dida) hides. The children knock on the door, I open it, and give each child a hug and a kiss. They ask: “Where’s Dida?” Then they run excitedly from room to room searching for him. When they find him, there are whoops of joy and laughter and he hugs them tightly. It’s a big game, and they love it.
Here’s an example of a ritual that is well-planned and intentional.
Tony selects a movie, cartoon series or videos that he considers will interest and excite our grandchildren, and which we can watch together when they visit. This activity is intended as a means of connecting with them. The children always look forward to what Dida has in store for them. Here are a few of their favourites:
“Happy Feet”: Actually, Tony didn’t choose this movie; our daughter and son-in-law recommended it to us. Lucas was just 2 at the time. Tony and Lucas loved “Happy Feet”, and watched it together over and over again, so often that Tony could recite most of the dialogue by heart! My contribution to Lucas’ love of “Happy Feet” was baking and decorating a “Mumble” birthday cake for his 2nd birthday.
“Miniscule: The private life of insects”: Tony introduced this series of short (5-minute) cartoons to the children. The cartoons are captivating and educational, mixing 3D animated insect characters with real life locations. They have no dialogue, so the children always want Tony to be the narrator. The children watched these cartoons with us for years. I even had a T-shirt with a Ladybird image made for 6-year-old Lucas!
“The Sound of Music” and “My Fair Lady”: Tony introduced the children to these well-known classic films a couple of years ago. Our granddaughters, especially, really loved it them, and watched them over and over again. Tony made the girls a little song book each with the words of “Do-Re-Mi” (from the “The Sound of Music”), with space for them to add their own drawings or pictures. He posted the books to the girls (see Strategy 6).
Brown family home videos: The children love watching video recordings of themselves as babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers. We have watched these videos together year after year. They are a source of much fun and laughter!
Here’s another example of a ritual.
Feeding Kitty, our cat. Kitty lived with Tony and me for 11 years. Sadly, she died in December last year. Every time the grandchildren visited, they looked for Kitty and played with her (Kitty was not so keen, especially as she got older). For them, Kitty was part of the family. From an early age they helped Tony feed Kitty. Later, they fed Kitty themselves. Tony had a routine, which they learnt, and followed. When they visited this year, they really missed Kitty and the ritual of feeding the cat.
Strategy 2. Make your grandchildren feel special.
At every stage of life, a child needs to feel special, from birth through to adulthood.
As Christian grandparents, we believe it’s our responsibility and privilege to help our grandchildren understand and know that they are loved by their parents and grandparents, but more importantly, that they are loved by God, their Heavenly Father.
As a father has compassion on his children,
so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.
The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.
But from everlasting to everlasting
the Lord’s love is with those who fear him,
and his righteousness with their children’s children.
Here are some of the things Tony and I have done to make our grandchildren feel special.
Each child has an affectionate nickname.
Tony nicknamed Lucas “Mister Sum’kng”, Madison “Lily white legs” and Emily “Ollie Olive”.
Tony wrote them a song.
The children were pre-schoolers when he wrote it. The fun song, with actions, uses the tune and some of the words of the theme song from the TV series It ain’t half hot mum. We sing it to them, and they join in, at least once each time they visit. The song is called “Meet the gang”.
The Browns to entertain you.
There’s Lucas, and Madi, and Emily today
They’ll be raising the rafters with a Hey! Hey! Hey!
There’s songs, expressions and jokes old and new
When they’re about you won’t feel blue!
Meet the gang for the Browns are here
The Browns to entertain you.
B – R – O – W – N – S
Browns to entertain you!
Tony made each child a songbook.
Each book is unique and contains the words of songs about God, Jesus and the Bible, which we taught the children and have sung with them from infancy. Tony handwrote the words of the songs on one page, and the children have drawn or pasted a picture on the adjacent page.
I’ve made each child a photobook.
When Lucas was 6 years old, I made him a photobook of animals Tony and I saw and photographed when we visited the Innsbruck Alpine Zoo (Austria). At the time, Lucas was interested in crocodiles and other wild animals. This year, I made a photobook each for Madison and Emily, as a record of their 8th birthday celebrations and their high tea party. Each book is unique and personalised.
We spend time alone with each child.
For example, Tony often puts Lucas to bed when he comes to stay. They reads stories, tell jokes, sing songs and pray together. It’s a special time for the two of them, another example of a “ritual” we established.
We celebrate each grandchild’s birthday in a special way.
This is one of our family traditions and the subject of my story The Ubiquitous Carrot Cake (November 1, 2015).
We choose gifts that are personal and special to each child.
Emily loves “Nutella”, so one Christmas we gave her a large jar of “Nutella” along with a “Nutella” recipe book. She loved it. Madison has taken an interest in Tony’s collection of “critters”. She loved his camel, which he brought back from Dubai. So, when we were passing through Abu Dhabi this year, he bought a camel for her. They have nicknamed her camel “Sahara”. Madison is very happy with her special gift. I like sewing and dressmaking, and over the years I have made many special outfits for the children. When the girls were toddlers, I made each one a “Princess” dress. They loved them, and wore them for years. When Lucas was 8, I made him an outfit featuring soccer balls (soccer is his favourite sport).
Strategy 3. Use games and fun activities to stimulate and teach.
Playing games is a good way to help children learn about teamwork, winning and losing, rules and fair play.
We do lots of indoor activities with our grandchildren.
Old table games and puzzles are a hit. Recently I taught our grandchildren how to play “Pick up sticks” and they loved it! We do jigsaw puzzles together. We’ve played “Even Elephants Forget”, a battered well-used table game our children played in the 1980s: It’s their favourite at the moment.
We play card games, and there are many! For example, Tony and I have played UNO with our grandchildren: It’s a card game suitable for school-age children.
Tony is teaching Lucas how to play chess. To help Lucas learn the basics of the game, Tony developed a 25-item questionnaire entitled “How to set up a chessboard”. They play a game or two (or three) each time they meet.
We foster our grandchildren’s sense of humour by sharing jokes with them.
Tony has a great sense of humour and he uses this to bless our grandchildren. He always has a bountiful supply of jokes and funny sayings to share with them. They love him for it. One time, he prepared a Word document called “Did, Did, You’re Funny”, in which he compiled his favourite “Knock Knock” jokes, especially for our grandchildren.
We show our grandchildren how to make things.
I am not a source of humour (like Tony), but I like to make things. This is my forte. Here are a couple of examples. In December 2014 when our grandchildren stayed with us, I showed them how to make Christmas gift boxes, with lids, using Christmas paper. Each child happily made three boxes. They learnt something new and ended up with boxes to use for their Christmas gift-giving. Earlier this year, when preparing for the girls’ 8th birthday High Tea Party, Madison and Emily helped my daughter and me make paper cups and saucers. It was clear that they felt proud to be allowed to help us.
Tony uses music as a stimulus for play.
Tony and I love classical music, and we have a large collection of CDs and vinyl records. From these, Tony chooses well-known melodies as the basis for indoor games with the grandchildren.
- They go looking for the horses, then pretend to be horses to Rossini’s William Tell Overture.
- They dance around the room like fairies to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.
- They scamper around the room like bees to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee.
- In the Hall of the Mountain King, from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite 1, is a favourite. It begins softly and mysteriously, so the children sneak around the room; as the music gets faster and louder, they move faster and more erratically. Eventually they are running, going a bit crazy! It is all so much fun.
We do lots of outdoor activities together.
We play ball games (cricket, soccer), Frisbee golf, have fun in the swimming pool, go bike-riding, visit local playgrounds, go for a walk or a bush-bash. Some more examples are provided later (see Strategy 5).
Strategy 4. Have them help with cooking and jobs around the home.
We invite our grandchildren to help with cooking and meal preparation.
In this, I am continuing an important family tradition. In a previous story, Pasta Bake (February 18, 2016), I wrote about how I taught our children to cook. Now I am doing the same thing with our grandchildren. And even Tony is getting into the act. In Dida’s Caramel Slice, a story and recipe that accompanies this post, you can read about a cooking activity Tony planned and carried out with our grandchildren during one of their visits to our place.
We involve our grandchildren in preparing food for special events.
At Eastertime this year, my granddaughters helped me make an Easter Lamb cake. If you’ve read Easter in Germany: Bavaria (March 18, 2016) you’ll know about the Easter Lamb cake. We made the cake on Good Friday evening. It was a fun thing to do together. Unfortunately, our first attempt was not a success. I used too much baking powder and I was a bit too generous with the ingredients: The mixture overflowed the container as it cooked! So we ate the “trial” version and made a second one on Easter Saturday. Our second Easter Lamb cake was a success. We were very proud of our efforts. We shared it with the rest of the family on Easter Sunday, at dinnertime.
At Christmastime each year, we make a Gingerbread House. My daughter Ruth and I have the children help us make the Gingerbread House, although we have yet to learn the secret of keeping the house upright!
We encourage our grandchildren to help with the household chores or in the garden.
These include: setting or clearing the table, washing or wiping the dishes, making their bed, tidying their room, sweeping the floor. I like gardening, and plants, and I have lots of potplants inside my house. The indoor plants need to be watered regularly, so I invite the children to help me to water them. At first this may be a novelty; later, of course, it may be a job they want to avoid! When Tony and I work in the garden and the grandchildren are visiting, we invite them to join us. Lucas has helped Tony with the mowing from an early age!
Strategy 5. Go on outings together.
Outings can be a group activity, with or without the children’s parents, or a one-on-one (one grandparent, one child) event. An outing needs to be age-appropriate and one that interests and enthuses the child. You want it to be memorable (for all the good reasons).
We go to church together.
As Christians, this is the norm for our family. Our daughter and son-in-law take their children to church regularly; as an extended family we go to church together whenever we have the opportunity. By our example of regular attendance and active participation, we teach our children and grandchildren that we are part of a Christian community. Our grandchildren love visiting our church in Brisbane, as the people there, by their genuine interest in the children, always make them feel welcome and special.
We accompany our grandchildren to concerts and live productions.
Earlier this year, Tony and I accompanied our daughter and 7-year-old granddaughters to the stage production of “The Sound of Music”. (It was my birthday present from our daughter and son-in-law.) It was a fabulous evening, one that our granddaughters still talk about with delight. They had watched the movie many times and were familiar with the plot, characters and songs.
Contrast this with an outing I had with Ruth and my granddaughters 2½ years earlier, when the girls were 5. We took them to the ballet, to a live performance of Swan Lake. Although the children were excited about going and loved dressing up for the occasion, they soon tired of the performance, and kept asking us when we could go home! They were just too young to appreciate the performance, even though Ruth and I thought it was fantastic.
We visit museums or exhibitions together.
For example, 5 years ago Tony and I took our three grandchildren (aged 5 and 3 at the time) to The Workshops Rail Museum at Ipswich. The museum is child-friendly, and we were able to keep the children engaged and interested throughout the 4-hour long outing. The outing gave the children many new experiences and it was an opportunity for Tony and me to spend time with the children apart from their parents.
We visit a park for a picnic or barbecue.
One of our favourite parks in Brisbane is the Mount Coot-tha Forest Grey Gum picnic area. We have had many family barbecues there. I have written about this previously, in Barbecue Steak Marinade (February 27, 2016) and The Ubiquitous Carrot Cake (November 1, 2015). Eighteen months ago, Tony and I took our three grandchildren to the Grey Gum picnic area for a barbecue, without their parents. It was late afternoon. The children helped find sticks and kindling to make the fire. They helped Dida clean the barbecue plate. While waiting for the food to cook, the three of them had fun keeping the bush turkeys at bay, playing hide and seek, and exploring the bushland.
Earlier this year, we visited New Farm Park. Tony and Madison came by ferry (it was part of their one-on-one outing), Cameron rode his bike, and Ruth, Lucas, Emily and I came by car. We had lunch together, the children spent time in the playground then Tony organised games of Frisbee golf and cricket on the green.
We accompany our grandchildren to a zoo or botanic gardens.
Outings such as these help the children gain an appreciation of flora, fauna and the natural world generally. Australia Zoo, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, is a great place to take children. Our grandchildren have been there a couple of times, on one occasion accompanied by all four grandparents! We have taken our grandchildren to the Brisbane City Gardens and the Brisbane Botanic Gardens Mount Coot-tha. Most times, at least one parent came with us. Here we encountered native animals and birds (even snakes) by the lake, smelt the flowers and herbs, and visited the cactus garden and fernery.
We invite our grandchildren to choose where they’d like to go.
At Eastertime this year, when they came to stay, Tony and I offered to take each child on a one-on-one outing of their choice. We decided they were old enough for this to be appropriate. Lucas (9) and Madison (7), separately, chose a day out with Dida, taking a bus and ferry ride into the city and back. Emily (7) chose to visit Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary with Grandma (me). Each outing was a great success, and helped us to get to know each other better. We will certainly make this offer to our grandchildren when they visit us again.
Strategy 6. Maintain regular contact.
There are many communication channels available today through which we can have contact with distant family members: letters, cards and parcels (via “snail mail”), email, text messaging, phonecalls, Facebook, Skype, Viber, to name a few. Skype and Viber, like some similar options, are free. We are most fortunate to have all of these means of communication available to us. Let me comment on a few of these.
Regardless of how long it takes to arrive, a letter, card or parcel addressed to a child will be received and opened with delight. Don’t discount this method of keeping in touch with your grandchild. It was the means by which my “Nana in Melbourne” established and sustained her long-distance relationship with me as a child (read Nana in Melbourne: Joy and a Joy-Giver). Tony has sent letters and parcels full of surprises to our grandchildren on a number of occasions. These mailings included jokes, homemade booklets, newspaper cuttings, puzzles, songs, to name a few items.
Text messaging and Viber
Our daughter Ruth and I keep in constant contact via text messaging and Viber. We make contact this way several times a week. As a consequence, Tony and I are always up-to-date with the lives and activities of our grandchildren. We are aware of their successes and failures, their joys and fears, and are able to respond in appropriate ways when we speak with the children.
Phonecalls and Skype
The frequency and timing of phonecalls and Skype calls needs to be negotiated and agreed to by both parties. It is wise to decide how often these calls will be made (for example, twice a week, weekly, fortnightly) and the length and timing of the calls. The calls should not be a chore or compulsory (for either party) and we must be careful to keep them as something the grandchildren look forward to and enjoy.
Tony and I speak with our grandchildren once a week via Skype, on Friday evenings. This is an important and highly valued means by which we maintain contact with our grandchildren. For example, during our Skype calls we congratulate them and celebrate their successes; we commiserate with them in their disappointments and struggles. On one occasion when one of our granddaughters was struggling, Tony reminded her of a Biblical song he had taught her, which gave her hope and courage. He sang it to her and prayed with her during the Skype call.
Strategy 7. Be creative and look for opportunities to connect.
Tony is always full of ideas about how to connect with our grandchildren. Here are a couple of ideas he has put into practice.
A Footy Tipping Competition
Tony devised a Footy Tipping Competition involving our grandson Lucas, our son-in-law Cameron, Tony and me. During the rugby league football season, Tony organises the competition. He has been doing so since 2014. It means that we have weekly contact with Lucas, when he provides his tips. He loves the sport and keenly participates in the competition. I wrote about this topic recently in Cane toads, cockroaches and a cat (May 31, 2016).
Tony wrote a song for each of our granddaughters.
The aim of the songs is to emphasize that he loves them, and misses them, because they live far away. He wrote these songs using well-known tunes, adding his own words.
My contribution is this website.
Through my stories, I aim to pass on to my children and grandchildren my story (and Tony’s), our family history, things that are important to me, what I value and what I believe. It is my prayer that these stories will bless them and speak to their hearts long after I am gone. Our grandchildren are too young to appreciate these stories now, but in years to come I believe that they will. These stories form part of my legacy to our children and grandchildren.
Strategy 8. Plan for the next visit or shared holiday.
Because long-distance grandparenting usually goes hand-in-hand with face-to-face grandparenting “in bursts”, it means that there is plenty of time in between visits to plan for the next visit or shared holiday. We take this opportunity seriously, and we involve the grandchildren and their parents in the process. It’s something we can do together, from a distance. It’s all part of the fun, and adds to the excitement and anticipation of the time we will spend together when we meet.
Over the years, we have planned for many visits and shared holidays.
At present, Tony is planning a camping trip to the Blackdown Tableland National Park during the September school holidays. Tony and I and our daughter have been there many times, when Tony used to direct holiday camps for schoolchildren as part of the Scripture Union Queensland camping program. That was during the 1980s and 1990s. It will be our grandchildren’s first experience of camping (tenting) and their first visit to Blackdown Tableland. The family has bought a tent in readiness, and Tony has booked the site. Tony, especially, is really excited about this trip, and so are our grandchildren. It is a real talking point, and it will continue to be so as the September school holidays draw near.
Strategy 9. Have grandchildren visit without their parents.
This is perhaps the most challenging and difficult strategy to implement. It necessitates a high level of trust. First, it requires the willingness of your son or daughter and their spouse to entrust you with the care of their children for a time. Second, the children need to be happy to visit without their parents. Third, grandparents must be willing to take full responsibility for the care of their grandchildren for the duration of the visit.
As a child, I experienced long-distance grandparenting and at times I visited my grandparents without my parents. I had four grandparents, but none of them lived nearby. As revealed in Nana in Melbourne: Joy and a Joy-Giver, my paternal grandparents lived in Melbourne, so my brother and I had little or no opportunity for face-to-face contact with them. However, my maternal grandparents lived just 2 hours away by car or by train, and my brother and I spent many school holidays with them. On many occasions, our parents allowed us to visit our grandparents without them. We felt very privileged to do so. We loved spending time with our grandparents. They lived in the country and their lives were so different to ours. We learnt such a lot during those visits. Also, spending time with our grandparents apart from our parents made us feel special and helped to cement the relationship we had with them.
In mid-December 1987, Tony and I decided to send our two children to Brisbane to stay with their grandparents for a week, without us. At the time, we lived in Rockhampton; Tony’s parents lived in Brisbane. The children, aged 11 and 8, were on school holidays. Tony and I were busy preparing for a 10-day Beach Mission at Emu Park commencing on Boxing Day (26th December) and a car trip north to Cairns for 2 weeks in January. We couldn’t go. We suggested to the children that they go without us. They thought it was a great idea. They were thrilled but also a little scared about the prospect of travelling to and from Brisbane by aeroplane. It was to be their first aeroplane flight, and they were going alone! They were so excited about the opportunity to spend time with Baba (Grandma in Croatian), Dida and Uncle Dushen (who lived with his parents at the time).
Tony and I have never regretted that decision, however difficult it was for us at the time. We came to realise how important it was in God’s mysterious and perfect plan. Tony’s mum died suddenly in June 1988, just six months after the children’s visit. When she farewelled them at the Brisbane airport on 21st December 1987, this was to be the last time they saw each other.
As grandparents, Tony and I have yet to experience having our grandchildren come to stay, without their parents.
This is one grandparenting experience we look forward to.
FOR FURTHER READING
Creative Grandparenting: How to love and nurture a new generation. (2011). Judy Schreur, Jerry Schreur, Erin Schreur. Discovery House Publishers.
Being a Grandparent ain’t for Wimps. (2009). Karen O’Connor. Harvest House Publishers.
Extreme Grandparenting: The ride of your life. (2007). Tim Kimmel, Darcy Kimmel. Tyndale House Publishers.
How to be a better grandparent: Tips on Building Great Relationships with your Grandkids. http://www.helpguide.org/articles/grandparenting/how-to-be-a-better-grandparent.htm