Behaviour & Emotions

Grandparents are great

Grandparents are great

I was very lucky. As a child from a big family, my grandmother carved out time just for me. I was allowed to walk by myself to my grandparents’ house as it was just up the road and I was guaranteed a special breakfast. My grandmother gave me a boiled egg with a knitted hat on top to keep it warm. We spent time in the garden together and I got to bake ‘calcium cookies’ with her. I can still smell her special Oil of Ulan moisturiser, and the aroma from the deep fryer when she served homemade fish and chips which we ate out of a paper bag sitting on a tartan rug. 

I love hearing about the special relationship between children and their grandparents. There is nothing quite like it. Memories are made that literally last a lifetime. For those fortunate enough to have three (or even four!) generations actively involved in whānau life, having grandparents around who absolutely adore their grandchildren and want to spend time with them – and vice versa – is a precious gift indeed.

Research has shown that grandparents play a vital role in children’s well-being.

The benefits of the grandparent/grandchild relationship go beyond fun and games and fish and chip picnics. Research has shown that grandparents play a vital role in children’s well-being. Oxford University researcher Professor Ann Buchanan found that children who enjoyed a high level of grandparental involvement in their life had fewer emotional and behavioural problems. Interestingly, Professor Buchanan’s research also revealed that while grandmothers are predominantly involved in a nurturing capacity, grandfathers tend to take on more activity-based mentoring roles. While different, both types of involvement contribute to greater well-being in our children. 

Too much or not enough

That said, the grandparent relationship doesn’t always work the way we want it to. Some parents wish there was more happening between children and grandparents. One mum shared with me that she appreciates the abundance of toys and financial help, but would just love it if her own mum would pick up the phone and ask her son and daughter around for a sleepover.

Alternatively, some grandparents wish they weren’t taken for granted so much. Their own children have assumed they are always available for babysitting and transporting kids around. They love their grandchildren, but were hoping to have some time and energy for themselves as well.

Sometimes grandparents can lean towards being ‘too’ involved and even critical of parents' actions when it comes to raising kids. This can understandably cause uncomfortable tension.

Then there are grandparents desperate for any time at all with their grandchildren – longing for a role to play and to forge a connection.

And many parents today are now finding themselves in the sandwich generation. You may have aging parents who don’t have the energy or agility to keep up with your children and instead of them helping you out with your kids, you are helping them out because of health issues and so forth.

For some parents, the grandparent relationship is going to be easy, valued and very rewarding. For others it is going to be tricky and require sensitive handling and communication around expectations especially. Like all relationships, this one needs to be worked at and compromises made. It has so much potential that it is worth the effort to make it work – primarily for your children’s sake but not exclusively, as the benefits for everyone are enormous! 

Here are some tips to help enhance intergenerational family relationships. As with many issues in life, it can really help to see things from another's perspective.

A grandparent’s wish list

In an ideal world, my children would –

  • Appreciate that we can be busy and that we need some lead up time to making a commitment like babysitting or picking a child up.

  • Remember that we still think manners are important. We can adapt to lots of things but getting your children to say please and thank you means a lot. Hearing words of gratitude for a gift makes us feel appreciated for our efforts.

  • Leave some toys for us to buy. When your children seem to have every toy and gadget under the sun, it is hard for us to ‘treat’ them to something special.

  • We appreciate it when you check in with us over our rules. When your children know our rules and you support us, even if things may work differently in your home, it helps things work here.

  • We love to be invited to special events like birthdays, school prize giving, and swimming classes or sports events.

  • At our age, we may not have read all the parenting books, or even be on quite the same page as you, but we will care for and love our grandchildren. Please give us the opportunity to look after them.

A parent's wish list

In an ideal world, the grandparents would –

  • Spend time with each of our children doing something special. It would not need to be expensive or for hours on end.

  • Be happy to talk to our children on the phone or FaceTime and have some great questions to ask.

  • Remember their birthdays or significant events. Attending these events is a real bonus.

  • Be willing to teach our children new skills like sewing, baking, knitting, card games, chess or making crafts. You have more patience and time than we do!

  • Be great listeners. When we unload a parenting challenge, sometimes all we need is a listening ear, not lots of advice. Please check what we are looking for.

  • Let us carry the final authority. We understand that you may disagree with our parenting decisions but we need your support rather than have our decisions overridden.

I think it helps our kids feel included and supported and our grandkids feel safe that the ‘team’ is working together.

Grandparenting in a digital age

For a lot of reasons, lots of grandparents are dialing in from a distance to connect with their grandkids. Sometimes the standard question line of “How are you?” and “What did you do today?” doesn’t go that far, especially over the phone or a screen.

Try something fresh, like:

  • What was something that made you smile today?

  • How did someone help you today? How did you help someone else?

  • Tell me something that made you laugh today?

  • Tell me one thing you learned today?

  • What was your favourite part of lunch time?

  • What’s your favourite thing to do when you get home?

Some of today’s grandparents may also be struggling with children’s dependence on technology. I like to keep a list on the fridge of things my grandkids can do when they’re at my house. The fridge list really helps as a springboard for device-free entertainment ideas.

The other thing I do as a grandmother is overtly defer to my own children’s way of doing things with their kids and show a team attitude so my grandies know we support their parents' approach. It builds a good connection all around and I think it helps our kids feel included and supported and our grandkids feel safe that the ‘team’ is working together.

All relationships take effort, initiative and insight. If it is at all possible, forging a good connection between parents, grandparents and children is worth the investment. I highly recommend it!

Jenny Hale

Jenny Hale

Jenny Hale is our Senior Family Coach and we’ve been lucky enough to have her on our team for over 20 years. She’d love to raise free-range chickens, write children’s books and perhaps even take up horse-riding again.


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