As a baby boomer, I like to think of myself as being pretty hip. And even though my middle child, a Millennial and the mother of two, doesn’t always see me that way, she does admit that I am one cool grandma.
My grandsons, 5 and 2, think I’m a pretty neat grandma, too. How do I know? Last January, when I visited them in Arizona, I brought some artificial snow mix and combined the synthetic polymer powder with water right before their eyes to create buckets of the fluffy white stuff. As they frolicked in the faux snow on their backyard trampoline under the hot desert sun, the older one shouted, “This is soooo cool, Gramma! You bring the best stuff ever!”
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How to Up Your Cool-Grandparent Status
We boomers may be the first demographic ever to care about being considered cool by our grandchildren, as opposed to just being loving, fun and supportive. And one of the top ways to achieve that status isn’t by just giving them stuff, but by spending quality one-on-one time together cultivating a close, strong — and cool — relationship.
Granted, it’s a subjective term, but for kids under age 12, “cool” grandparents are those who consistently and continually entertain, educate, support and make themselves relevant to their grandchildren's lives in unique and interesting ways.
“In previous generations, some grandparents played important roles in their grandchildren’s lives, and some did not,” says Susan Adcox, grandparenting channel editor at About.com and a grandparent herself. “It was largely a function of geographical closeness and other circumstances."
Today, however, even long-distance grandparents (like me) can use technology to be integral parts of our grandchildren’s lives. But that still requires some work. "The bonds that we crave won’t just happen,” Adcox says.
Make It Happen: 7 Ways to Be a Cool Grandparent
Bouncing little Adam on your knee for two minutes before complaining about your arthritis or taking Madison to the zoo doesn’t cut it anymore. We don’t have to engage in the same old ways, and in being creative we'll enrich our relationships and jazz ourselves even more in the process.
1. Buy your grandchild’s domain name. As soon as possible, snatch up your grandchild’s domain name via GoDaddy or a similar site. For less than $15 a year, you can hold her place in cyberspace. Once she is ready to use the domain, together brainstorm ideas then build a website that’s a virtual scrapbook or, as blogger Kc Waddell calls it, “the world’s best Grandma’s brag book.” This can include chronicling in words and photos the milestones big and small — from birthdays and special occasions to first steps and first days of school.
Waddell started AmaraLand when her only grandchild, Amara, was 5 years old. Now 9, Amara takes a more active role in the site. “We love baking together, and she told me recently that she wants me to add a new section to her blog where we can post our recipes,” Waddell says. “This blog has given us a special bond.”
She reminds grandparents to get the parents’ permission first. “Be very clear about what you will and won’t publish,” Waddell says. “Decide on things, like whether you will include information on what city you live in or what school they go to.” When in doubt, she adds, leave it out.
2. Make their cause your cause — or help them find a cause. “Children are such idealists,” Adcox says. “They really believe that they can change the world.”
Make the most of that idealism by combining quality time with making a difference on a cause the child believes in or together find things that do interest them. Whether those interests relate to bullying, saving the whales or feeding the hungry, opportunities can be found through VolunteerMatch.org, Volunteer.gov and Serve.gov. Each site offers the ability to search according to interest, geographic area and age.
Even small kids can participate in big causes, like cheering on runners in charitable races or being the subjects who hide from guide dogs in training for K-9 units. Vet the tasks to ensure activities fit not only the child’s age, but their maturity and ability, as well. As a bonus, Adcox notes, “people who begin volunteer work early are more likely to make a lifelong commitment to service.”
(MORE: Can We Get Some Volunteers, Please?)
3. Get (more) tech-savvy. Most grandparents have enjoyed virtual visits with grandchildren via Skype or FaceTime. But there are many more sophisticated ways to interact digitally. If you have webcams, you can both sign up for Google+ and download the free hangout plugin. Then just “hang out” — with up to 10 grandkids at a time.
The real-time tete-a-tetes via webcam hangouts are similar to Skype sessions in that people visit privately, with only those invited to join being able to participate. More than just chitchat, though, additional applications allow participants to wear silly headwear (think tiaras, facial hair), read stories together, play online games and more.
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There are plenty of other interactive online and phone apps designed specifically for children to safely connect with relatives, including Blogglebeans, Grandoodlez and Be There Bedtime Stories. These membership-only sites provide opportunities to share activities, stories and artwork in animated environments.
Sara Hanlon, chief executive of Blogglebeans, says to look for products that have a parent-approval process to ensure kids connect only with grandparents or other pre-approved relatives, like aunts and uncles. Hanlon also says to use only sites designed specifically for children and that comply with the FTC’s Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).
One of the coolest things you can do with your grandchild is play online games together. “They love that you understand what they are doing and that you’re having fun doing it with them — or at least giving it the ‘old college try,’” says Kaye Swain of SandwichINK for the Sandwich Generation. If you have two computers, engage in side-by-side competition, suggests Swain, herself an online gaming aficionada. “You can even play some of the tournament games with long-distance grandkids while chatting with them on the phone,” she says.
Aside from its entertainment value, she adds, high-tech game play provides “grand opportunities for us to teach important lessons, like good sportsmanship, kindness and respect.”
Swain recommends beginning with Jumpstart’s Mathblaster or Webkinz, her personal favorite. (Mathblaster is intended for ages 3 to 12, and Webkinz, though for all ages, is appreciated most by kids 6 to 13, as the game-play characters are stuffed animals.) For adults struggling to learn a high-tech game, Swain suggests asking the grandchild to help them. “Kids often love to be the teacher,” she says.
4. Share each other’s music. Bond with your grandchild by turning each other on to your cherished playlists. Then take it to the next level by attending live concerts together. You might have to sit through a Justin Bieber experience, but it will be worth it when you see your little one tapping her toes and singing along with Alabama Shakes or one of your favorite artists.
(MORE: Grandparents' Gifts That Keep on Giving)
5. Bring school lessons to life. Even the best schools have their limitations. Discuss subjects that have captured your grandchild’s attention, then run with it. If he’s learning French, for example, take him out for French cuisine — or a visit to France. Do bees delight your granddaughter? Pay a visit to a local beekeeper.
Judy Von Feldt , a blogger and retired human resources executive, regularly treats her two grandchildren to these kinds of educational outings. She says her granddaughter “loves horses and racehorse trivia the way young boys like baseball cards and stats, so last year we went to Saratoga Springs racetrack, and this year we visited Belmont to see where Ruffian is buried.”
6. Take a class together. Along similar lines, sign up to learn about something cool together — something unrelated to their schoolwork or your professional pursuits. Consider things like photography, bird identification, guitar lessons or ceramics offered at local community education centers or local business establishments.
7. Foster an appreciation of foreign films. There’s a wealth of children’s foreign films with English subtitles. Delphis Films — a Montreal-based company specializing in quality family feature films and children's TV programming — has an impressive roster of family-friendly flicks that even the youngest of kids will enjoy. Themes run the gamut from music (Mozart in China) and magic (Ice Dragon) to sports (A No-Hit, No-Run Summer) and oddball comedies (My Grandpa the Bank Robber).
Freelance writer Lisa Carpenter runs the website Grandma’s Briefs.