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Being a knock-your-socks-off grandma or grandpa is fun, sure – but it also takes time and effort. Here's how to be the best grandparent you can be.
Ask rather than answer
As a grandparent, you have years of parenting experience. You may feel like an expert and see your child – the new parent – as needing your guidance. But in that direction lies disaster.
"Hard as it is, you have to realize it's their turn to make parenting decisions. Grandparents shouldn't get in the way," says Sharon O'Neill, a New York family therapist.
When you offer advice and opinions, no matter how well-meaning, you risk making already nervous new parents feel like you don't trust them or respect their judgment, says O'Neill. Instead, turn the equation around and let your curiosity lead the way.
Ask them about your grandchild's likes and dislikes, latest accomplishments, and funny tricks. Tread lightly when asking about feeding, health issues, or sleep habits – you don't want to be intrusive. Gentle, nonjudgmental inquiries show you care and allow you to support your child through any challenges.
Grandparenting can mean all the fun of kids without all the responsibility. So enjoy it! Get down on the floor and play with your new grandbaby. Act out silly scenes with finger puppets, invent stories, and make faces. Save up jokes to tell older kids and watch funny movies together.
Grandmother Sarah Williams made up a special language with her granddaughters when they were young, substituting words so no one else could understand what they were talking about. Now that the girls are older, they've started sharing funny video clips with her on Facebook.
"It's a hoot. My friends see these crazy things that Amelia and Lily post on my page and just laugh," says Williams.
Beware grandparent rivalry
Avoid the trap of keeping up with Grandpa Joe and Grandma Josie – this will only lead to hard feelings.
"It's inevitable that one set of grandparents is going to spend more time with the child than the others, but that doesn't mean anything in terms of the closeness of the relationships," says Amy Goyer, multigenerational family expert for the AARP and author of Things to Do Now That You're a Grandparent.
Keep your grandchild's needs at the top of your mind. There's no such thing as too much love, after all, and a close relationship with one set of grandparents doesn't detract from your importance – unless you let it.
Be mellow about mess
Let's face it, kids are messy. You may have forgotten just how messy! Your best bet is to plan ahead so you're not dismayed by a piece of toast landing jam-side-down on your white couch.
It's fine to designate some areas as off-limits and make others child-friendly. Since you don't want to have to follow your grandchildren around with a sponge, set up a kid eating area where crumbs can fall as they may. You can use a wipe-clean tablecloth and even protect rugs with a floor mat.
You'll want to keep young grandchildren safe by blocking off dangerous areas and moving valuables and potential poisons out of reach. Our video can show you how to childproof your home, or at least parts of it.
Do things, don't just give things
It's tempting to buy the latest toy or game and see your grandchild's face light up, and that's fine. But experiences you share are often far more meaningful – and will create memories that last a lifetime.
"My grandchildren eagerly open birthday and Christmas cards to see what experience we'll be sharing. Two of my grandsons love trains, so we took a three-hour Amtrak trip and had some fun adventures in the little town of Sedalia, Missouri, then rode home again," says Cathy Svacina, a grandmother of 12.
Document these experiences so they stay in your grandchildren's memories. "I took pictures and notes and made up a little picture book for them, and they have relived that trip over and over," says Svacina.
Even a day of babysitting is worth commemorating, she adds. "I'll take pictures and we come up with a fun story that we make into a book. And when we read the book together, we laugh and have so much fun all over again."
Don't be a burden
Be careful of the common pitfall of overenthusiastic grandparents: Making more work for the new parents rather than less.
Amy Goyer of the AARP says she hears from many disappointed grandparents who wonder why they don't receive more invitations to visit their adult children and grandchildren, seemingly unaware of how high their expectations are and how much effort and work they're making for others.
As your grandchildren get older, think of ways to spend quality time with them that are helpful to the parents, not intrusive or requiring a lot of organization and planning on their part.
"Come up with fun experiences where all they have to do is show up," says Goyer.
Avoid playing favorites
Fawning over the dimpled baby while ignoring – or worse, snapping at – the rambunctious 3-year-old sibling is a classic grandparent faux pas.
It's near impossible not to be struck by the adorableness of whichever grandchild happens to be in the cutest stage. But every child will go through difficult and angelic times, and your job is to love them either way.
"Kids are really smart. If you only seem to like them when they're on their best behavior or in an 'easy' phase, they'll know this and be wary. It's the grandparent version of the fair-weather friend," says Goyer.
The best way to combat favoritism is to make sure your visits include one-on-one time with each grandchild. Kids tend to be at their best when removed from sibling competition, and it's much easier to get to know a shy child if you're the only one to talk to.
To make the most of your time together, tailor your activities to your grandchild's interests. Bring a truck-crazed 4-year-old to a nearby construction site; take a princessy 6-year-old to tea.
Take the lead
It's your job to stay in touch with your grandchild or grandchildren. If you expect them to do it, you'll be disappointed and frustrated.
"It's age-appropriate for kids to be thoughtless about staying in touch. If you want the relationship, you have to be willing to do the work," says New York therapist Sharon O'Neill.
Remember birthdays, of course, but celebrate other special occasions as well. Send Valentine's and Halloween cards, or host a valentine-making or costume craft day if you live nearby. Document these and other experiences with photos and videos so your grandchild remembers them.
Follow your grandchild's milestones closely and ask to be included if possible. ("He just walked? Can I come over and see?" for example.) Acknowledge achievements, from learning to ride a tricycle to the fifth-grade science fair, and request demonstrations.
Ask if you can bring artwork home to put on the fridge. Attend sports games, plays, and dance performances. Cheer loudly, bring flowers, and take everyone out for ice cream afterward.
"As your grandchild grows up, she will remember you as the grandparent who was always there to cheer her on, and that's priceless," says O'Neill. Remember, this is your chance to do it all over with just the fun parts.
Be your grandchild's confidante
You're an important outlet for your grandchildren because you offer an alternative perspective from their parents. Listen and encourage them to open up to you as much as possible. Don't limit telephone calls to specific events like birthdays and holidays. Instead, call throughout the year and keep it light and fun.
The first day of school, a tryout, a big game, or a playdate with a new friend are all reason enough to get on the phone. Use video calling if you can – it can be more fun when you can see each other.
Keep track of your grandchild's interests, the names they give new dolls or stuffed animals, books they've been reading – anything you can ask about in the next conversation so they know you've been paying attention.
Store and share family memories
The stereotype of the boring grandpa who's constantly talking about the good old days has unfairly made many older folks afraid to talk about family history, and that's a loss for everyone.
Instead, be proud of your role as family historian – you're providing important continuity between the past, present, and the future. Pepper your stories with humor and adventure and keep them short and to the point and the grandchildren will be hooked.
Talk about your own life, but talk about your adult child's early years as well. As your grandchild gets older, he'll love hearing funny stories about his mother or father as a kid – including scrapes, exploits, and what life was like back then.
"Think about what you can contribute from your own culture, history, and personality – what can you pass along to the next generation?" says family therapist Christine Lawlor.
And once the grandkids are doing history projects for school, watch out – they'll want to hear all about your life "way back when" and what it was like to live through events they've only read about in books.