10 Principles of Intentional Grandparenting

Eight years ago, we wrote a book on grandparenting for the boomer generation, those of us born between 1946 and 1964. The book is based on 10 principles for being an intentional (substitute conscious) grandparent. At the time we had 12 grandchildren between us, now we have 23, including three great grandchildren. We wrote the book because we realized how different our experience of grandparenting is from that of our parents. We also wrote it because we are best friends and love discussing our children and grandchildren, and now our great grandchildren.

Many of our monthly columns are based on these principles and we review them regularly. While we both agree that some of them are easier to follow than others, and that new issues have arisen now that our grandchildren are older, we both feel that the principles are still relevant and worth sharing again. The following is a summary of these principles.

The 10 principles

1. Determine the kind of grandparent you want to be. Be an intentional grandparent. Intentional grandparenting is planning ahead and taking deliberate action to be the kind of grandparent that works for you. Reflect on your own experiences as a grandchild; think about your stand on key issues such as babysitting, gift-giving and how often you want to see your grandchildren. Talk with your adult children about what role they want you to play. Clarify expectations on both sides. Write the eulogy you would like your grandchild to give when you die.

2. Respect and support the parents. Respect and support means being there emotionally and practically for your adult children and their partners, without giving unsolicited advice. Many grandparents find it difficult to zip their lips around modern practices in sleeping, feeding and disciplining children.

Developing a trusting relationship with the parents improves the probability that you will also have a loving relationship with your grandchildren. Parents sometimes feel vulnerable and lack confidence. Grandparents can support them by being encouraging and empathetic, by being open and communicative, and by respecting their parenting practices. Offering to babysit and setting up your home so that it is safe and comfortable for your young grandchildren are practical ways to show your support. Most parents welcome your involvement and support.

3. Be open to new possibilities. Pregnancy, childbirth and early childrearing practices have changed significantly since we raised our children. One of the biggest changes is the active involvement of the father. Grandparents need to be open and accepting of the new ways of doing things. Use the OLD method (Observe, Learn, Decide) when confronted with new practices that you find disconcerting: observe the parents and support them in their decisions whenever possible; learn about the new practice or theory; and once you are informed, decide how you will act.

4. Embrace diversity. There have been dramatic changes in marriage, family structures and parenthood over the last two generations. During times of family conflict, grandparents can provide a stable, caring, non-judgmental and loving presence for their grandchildren and adult children. They can help children cope with their feelings and make them feel secure and loved. They can help their adult children get through this hard time and work to maintain positive relationships with both parents. With patience, consistency and time, grandparents can build loving, meaningful relationships with step-grandchildren.

5. Be accepting, empathetic and positive. Grandparents can contribute to the long- term health and happiness of their grandchildren. When we accept them for who they are, and build on their existing strengths, we help them develop the skills that will make them more resilient. By listening to them and putting ourselves in their shoes, we model empathy; an essential building block for becoming caring, positive and encourage their grandchildren to see problems as temporary and solvable, promote an attitude of optimism. Optimistic children are less likely to be depressed. They also have improved school performance, physical health and the ability to handle disappointments and setbacks.

6. Be playful and spontaneous. Through play, children develop skills, imagination and confidence, and find ways to express their emotions. Playing with your grandchildren strengthens your relationship with them and makes your time together more fun and joyful. Grandparents can enjoy many types of play: creative or imaginary play, active physical play, or quiet play such as reading, games or puzzles. Playful grandparenting is not just about games, toys, and outings. It is also about being spontaneous and having a sense of playfulness inside.

7. Be consistent, reliable and fair. Children need a steady, predictable environment. Reliable grandparents only promise what they can deliver. They try to ensure consistency between the rules at home and at Grandma’s house. Grandchildren need to know that they can rely on their grandparents to be consistently positive, attentive, loving, gentle and fun. Being fair doesn’t mean that each grandchild is treated exactly the same, but rather that each child’s uniqueness is respected.

8. Stay in touch. Grandparents need to stay in touch and spend quality time with their grandchildren. One-on-one time is best. Long distance grandparents can be as effective as those who live across the street as long as they find creative ways to stay connected and build a relationship with their grandchildren. Grandparents should be involved in the first six years if possible. Bonding and attachment to nurturing adults (including grandparents) in infancy and early years affects a child’s happiness, health and behaviour well into adulthood. Grandparents connect the generations together by passing on family stories and traditions.

9. Be organized, but flexible. Modern grandparents, parents and children are all busy. With a little planning, our homes, our visits and our special times with our grandchildren can be more relaxing and rewarding for everyone. We can schedule regular times to see our grandchildren. We can acquire age-appropriate baby gear and toys for our homes without spending a fortune (second-hand stores and garage sales). We can organize ourselves so babysitting and visits from our grandchildren are safe and fun for everyone. And, we can think about how we will provide financially for our grandchildren given our unique circumstances.

10. Take care of you. Grandparenting isn’t for sissies. It takes time and energy. Effective grandparents are vital and balanced. They are clear about their priorities and spend time on what matters most. They look after their physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. They maintain a quality of life that allows them to live life to the fullest and to be the kind of grandparent they want to be. Grandparents benefit from the vitality of their grandchildren as much as the grandchildren benefit from a loving relationship with vital grandparents.

There is another principle that we have learned over the years: don’t take things too personally. While we may be busy trying to be the best grandparents ever, our adult children and their partners are busy managing careers, mortgages, children, marriages, friendships, hobbies, volunteer work and family issues. Rather than react to slights and disappointments, it is better to put things in context and move on. As my wise mother used to say, “Things usually work out in the wash.” And hopefully they will give us the same grace when we inadvertently disappoint them. It is a difficult but rewarding dance.

Mary Jane Sterne and Peggy Edwards are the authors of Intentional Grandparenting: A Boomer’s Guide, (McClelland and Stewart, 2005). The authors live in Ottawa and have 21 grandchildren and three great grandchildren between them.